When Petra Volpe set out to make a film about the remarkable and unfortunate fact that it wasn’t until 1971 that women in her native Switzerland successfully gained the right to vote, she knew it could only be a comedy.
“You laugh because it’s so horrible,” says Volpe, during a recent afternoon in Los Angeles. “And you can also see at the moment how important comedy is in America because you derive some kind of solace from it…I love movies that make me cry and laugh at the same time and I think humor is a very powerful tool to seduce people to come to the cinema and to open their hearts. When people can laugh, they can also deal with the more harsh aspects of a story.”
Volpe wildly succeeds with “The Divine Order,” a rousing reminder of how precious the right to vote actually is through the political awakening of a Swiss housewife named Nora (Marie Leuenberger) when she attempts to get a part-time job to supplement the household income. Stymied in her attempts by the legal requirement that her husband (Maximilian Simonischek), who has left his father in her care while he works at the local factory, must sign off on her employment, Nora becomes suddenly less inclined to be one of the many in her small village who give regularly to the Anti-Politicization of Women Committee, an effort to keep voting a male domain as activists in the major cities fight for women’s suffrage. Her very public refusal to cough up a donation earns some scorn in the community, but also more than a few admirers who join her — namely Vroni (Sibylle Brunner), one of the respected elders in the community, and Graziella (Marta Zoffoli), a newly arrived divorcee with a cafe to hold meetings in — as she becomes radicalized by the unstoppable social progress sweeping the nation.
“The Divine Order” has plenty of fun detailing the ways in which Nora and her sistren come to realize the power they have over the opposite sex, withholding the domestic duties they once thought nothing of performing and going into the city for sexual empowerment workshops. But the punchlines come with the extra sting that the struggle for equality was quite painful, with the women’s most outlandish efforts a reflection of how desperately important it was to achieve. Volpe’s own effort to bring this history alive on the screen is quite something in own right, painstakingly recreating the era technically and drawing upon personal histories found in archives to make all the characters feel so familiar. The result has already made some history of its own, breaking box office records in Switzerland, which in turn has submitted it to the Oscars as its contender for Best Foreign Film, and winning three prizes at the Tribeca Film Festival where it made its International premiere earlier this year. Just as the film starts its U.S. theatrical run, Volpe spoke about the crazy ride she’s had both in making and accompanying “The Divine Order” as it’s been released around the world, as well as why she was destined to tell this story and the pressure that came with recounting this crucial moment in Swiss history.
I saw this the final night of the Tribeca Film Festival, when they give encore screenings to all the festival winners, and since this won in so many categories, there were six different screenings of this. Did you actually introduce all of them? You came to mine, which was late in the evening.
I think on that day I introduced and did a Q & A for three or four shows, and at the last show, I didn’t do [a Q & A] because it was late and I knew people were going to go home, but it’s a luxury to do that. It’s fun, especially with this movie, [and] people are very emotional, but it’s really nice to have the opportunity to talk with people and get all that feedback because for years and years and years, you’re alone with your work. You write, you direct and then it’s those moments you can actually have an interaction with the audience [that] are very precious. They’re actually energizing. And it was exciting because it was our international premiere, so we had done many screenings [in Switzerland] and of course, it’s their history, and they reacted differently than the Americans, so I was very curious.
You said in your introduction that you had written a dissertation about women’s rights in college. Had this idea to make a movie about this start a long time ago?
It kind of started by me being born as a woman. [laughs] And having a mother and two grandmothers, observing them and seeing them also struggle with their roles as women in family and society. My mother was very young when she had me. This was 1970 and she had me as a little baby when this right to vote was voted on and my mother wasn’t political, but it was always an issue. She always told me, “Never get married too early and have children too young” because that’s a prison for women. So growing up, I noticed that there’s an inequality and an injustice, even though I had to dry the dishes and not my brother, which I found very unfair. [laughs] But because of my mother, she made me very alert to all kinds of gender injustices, even though she couldn’t really break free of it, and she sent me out there as a little avatar to be freer. And I took it on. Even when I was a teenager, [when] it was very unsexy to call yourself a feminist, I did it anyway. For me, it was a provocation because a lot of young women thought we’ve reached everything. We can do whatever we want and I didn’t quite see it this way, so I always considered myself a feminist in the most natural way of thinking that women and men should be equal.
And then I made three movies that all dealt with the theme of women freeing themselves, so it’s always been a subject for me. The actual idea [for “The Divine Order”] came along when I was discussing with my producer what is important at the moment. I’ve been working with him for ten years and we always brainstorm together about love and life and films we do next, and it came out of a discussion with him that nobody’s ever made a film about the women’s right to vote in Switzerland and how scandalous the fact is that they got it so late. We’re both like, “Oh my God, we have to make this movie.” And it’s the right time to do this movie, even though we couldn’t anticipate how extremely timely the film would be now, with the president in America, the shift to the right in Europe, and what that means for women’s rights, for equality, for justice in general, for all kinds of people.
Even though this was going to be a period piece, were there contemporary influences?
Yeah, I don’t think it’s enough to just show history. That’s an important part and we put a lot of work into being accurate because I really wanted to recreate the atmosphere of the times and show how extremely oppressive society was for women and how completely self-evident that oppression was – that they were treated like maids or as objects, and it was not a big deal. It was just how it was. But film always needs a universal topic, something that’s timeless and for me it was very much the journey of the main character who finds that the private is political. We all can go on that journey to realize that what we do in private has much more to do with politics than we think and we can become heroes in our every day lives.
It’s also a film about civil courage and [how] we will need it over and over again as societies are changing and there are injustices. We always need the citizen, the single individual who rises up and says no more. Then there’s also the topic of democracy [where] people take it for granted that we can vote and I think that’s very wrong. I’ve noticed that there is a kind of laziness in our western democracies. People have fought for [the vote] very hard and in other countries, they’re still dying to get that right. A democracy is only alive if the citizens vote. If they don’t vote, there is no democracy, so that was how I was thinking about making it relevant for today.
Since this is such a big subject, how did you figure out your way in through Nora?
The idea to make a film about the women’s right to vote in Switzerland is very conceptual. You don’t have a perspective, characters or a story, and there’s many, many, many possibilities — you can do a biopic, you can tell it from the husbands’ perspective, you can tell it from the women’s perspective. The first thing I did, and it’s the first thing I do usually when I start to work on a movie is I really opened myself up [to] do a lot of research and I went to this beautiful archive near Bern that was founded by Marthe Gosteli, who dedicated her whole life to the fight for equality for women in Switzerland. She was a very strong, wonderful, powerful woman who recently died, almost turning 100, and she founded the only women’s archive in Switzerland because she said all these stories are getting lost. Nobody’s collecting them, like letters from women, poems, literature — the 100-year-old fight for the vote.
[The archive is] in an old house and [Marthe] was there and I did a long interview with her and then roamed around her archive and I found this slip. The women who opposed the right to vote, that you can also see in the movie, always collected money for their club [because] they needed financial support, so they sent out these green money slips that you can give money to the bank for them and I found a note [inside] one of them from a woman who sent it back, [saying], “I’m a young housewife and mother and I’ve never been political in my life, but women wanting to prevent other women from voting makes me so angry that I want to fight now.” I was so touched by this because it was almost like hearing a voice from the past and I felt like I want to carry this voice of this very normal, regular Swiss woman to the screen. I make her a heroine of this story, so I took it from there. That’s how Nora [became] the first character, and I decided not to tell the story from the perspective of a young woman’s libber who is already in the middle of fighting, but really from somebody who has to find her path and who is a person like my mother.
After having Nora at the center, did the idea immediately come to build a multigenerational ensemble to reflect different perspectives?
That grew with Nora because then I started to research a lot about marital law in Switzerland. All the women you see in the film now are representative of the way women are oppressed and disadvantaged by the law. I grew up with a lot of women [of] a lot of ages in a little village in Switzerland, so it came very naturally for me to create this little cosmos of women around Nora – her sister-in-law and Vroni, who is the queen because she used to have the bar — these women were very important in Switzerland. In these villages, they were not the owners of the pubs, but they were the wives of the owners and they knew everything that was going on and everyone went to them when they had problems. They had a position and they fascinated me, so all these characters [were] a mixture of my own experience and the research I did.
Was it challenging to recreate this era?
[With “Divine Order”] we started three years earlier, because we knew we weren’t going to have a lot of money for this film, so we had to be very creative. We didn’t want to have a stylized ‘70s, but really find the essence and atmosphere of these times, so a lot of people opened up their photo albums and we could look at their [outfits] and I looked at a ton of footage, like how did people move? How did they talk? How did they pose in pictures? What does that mean for the pace of the movie? We’re all nerds, so that was totally fun to do that. And writing the screenplay was quite tough because now when you look at the film, it’s a very straightforward structure. It’s a story of one woman, but to get there, every screenwriter knows the simplest films are the most [difficult] to get and because also in the beginning, the topic was so important for me, I was scared to fail. I thought I’m making THE movie about the women’s right to vote in Switzerland and I met all these fantastic women. I really want to pay tribute to their passion and their work, but that’s a bit intimidating, so sometimes I really needed to let that go and just go back to my characters and the story and keep it simple.
Once the screenplay was where I wanted it, it was fun. To walk into a historical set or to have a costume designer fill up a whole room with historical costumes, it makes a filmmaker’s heart beat high. I had such a great team. I work with usually the same people who are like a family and most of them are women also – my set designer, my costume designer, my makeup artist, my [cinematographer] — [because] to tell stories of women was important because there’s not enough stories of women out there, but once I established myself, I had the opportunity to hire the people I want to hire and I also really want to also support women in the business, so I really try to give them job opportunities and make a statement with that. I made also a film about three [male] gangsters, and of course, the women play a different role [in that], but I think it’s also up to women to create different men onscreen — we have to create different ideas of masculinity and look at men differently and create different images of them and point at different aspects of being men. And I think women can do that really well.
Another thing that looks easy, but likely couldn’t have been is giving this such a natural, energetic flow – the scenes fluidly connect to one another, with the camerawork and editing in great harmony. Was it challenging?
We look at every scene and ask ourselves what do we need to tell in this scene? What’s emotionally important? Even the blocking, [which] we do last minute, but we try to find the essence of a scene and then find a visual equivalent for everything you want to say. Then of course, then it’s also really just a matter of covering things. We really had very little time and what I found really hard was the time pressure. It’s a historical movie and we didn’t have a lot of shooting days and we shot in Cinemascope, so every fucking detail has to be right. You can’t trick around because we didn’t have any money for CGI, so everybody has to be so diligent because very easily, there is something that [could be] out of time that’s on screen. And there were all these big scenes with a lot of women and they all had such different temperaments and they needed very different things from me and just to get a scene right, them talking together, the pace of it. Those days are always challenging and you can only master them with a really great team. I have a kickass [cinematographer] Judith [Kaufmann], and she’s so experienced. She’s done huge scenes – she’s been in Afghanistan, she’s shot big movies — so I also really always learn a lot from her. Then it’s a comedy also, so you have to have rhythm and I had one of the best editors in Europe, Hansjörg Weissbrich, who looks at all the footage every day, and we go back and forth, so if we think there’s something missing, [we ask] should we reshoot something? It really comes together — the camerawork, directing, and editing.
Did you have ideas about the music in mind from the start?
Yes, I started to work with a music supervisor quite early on because I had to find music that’s iconic and representative of the times, but we couldn’t have Jimi Hendrix — and I wanted Jimi Hendrix, but my producer said, “Forget about it! It’s so expensive.” [laughs] So we had to get creative and my music supervisor [Primin Marti] sent me tons and tons of music of little labels [with] unknown things but still had the right tone, so that process happened during the shooting because some pieces we needed for the shooting. Then the score, I really wanted to work with a woman because music composition is such a male domain and I knew that I wanted to work with Annette Focks, a really great German composer [because] I know that she can make a really big, emotional score to really give space and gravity to what’s happening without overwhelming it. The only thing I knew about the score was that I always associated Nora with harps, like something airy and poetic and emotional and powerful, but also very tender, so for me that was her instrument.
What have the last few months been like for you since bringing the film out into the world?
Since we premiered in January, it’s been such an amazing journey with the movie because it’s such a box office hit in Switzerland — it’s within the 10 most successful films in Switzerland ever — so I went to a lot of screenings and I did a lot of Q & As. In the summer, open air cinemas showed the film and that was beautiful, [with] 2000 people in a huge arena, outside under the open sky watching this movie and then being able to encourage people to fight for equality and to go vote. Then of course, the premiere in Tribeca was a big moment because we didn’t know, does the film work outside of Switzerland? Does it have the kind of universal dimension that also excites other people? And that was great because it seemed to work and we sold the movie to many countries. I don’t think it happens so often, especially for Swiss films, that you have an opportunity to reach an international audience and then came that Switzerland is sending this movie to the Oscars, so I must say that’s very cool. But I’m such a Charlie Brown, I always think, “Can this be so good?” [laughs] When is something awful going to happen?” Because that’s my nature.
Is it interesting to be representing Switzerland in terms of Oscar consideration since this isn’t exactly their proudest moment?
I think it’s a great revenge. [laughs] You know, it’s like, “Alright, you gave us the right to vote so late, now we’re going to the Oscars with this topic.” But Switzerland is very proud of the movie because it’s about democracy and they do have a sense of humor. I think they’re happy somebody did something on the topic and now we have a possibility to run for the Oscar, so I think it’s hilarious.
“The Divine Order” opens on October 27th in New York at Film Forum and in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal on November 17th. A full list of theaters and dates is here.