***Update*** The 16th Annual Tribeca Film Festival Nora Ephron Prize winner. The Nora Ephron Prize: Petra Volpe, writer/director of The Divine Order (Switzerland). Jurors Dianna Agron, Joy Bryant, Diane Lane, Zoe Lister-Jones and Christina Ricci awarded the film for its “intrepid and compassionate storytelling, beautiful cinematography (by a woman), complex characterization of the female experience, seamless navigation of both drama and comedy and true embodiment of the personal being political.” Winner receives $25,000, sponsored by CHANEL and the art award “Fashion Voodoo 3” by Aurel Schmidt.
Tribeca Film Festival Interview: Petra Volpe’s takes a lighthearted approach to Switzerland’s long struggle for suffrage in crowd-pleasing The Divine Order
Every country has their own history of suffrage and every town their own story. Switzerland’s comparatively recent passage of the right to vote (1971) is the setting for Petra Volpe’s dramedy The Divine Order, the story of the suffrage movement in a small, traditional village.
The story focuses on Nora (Marie Leuenberger), a seemingly content housewife who’s awakened to the cause and brings her newfound sense of activism home. The film’s serious themes of women being denied rights and the imbedded beliefs in the status quo are undercut by Volpe’s humor and affection for her characters, making it one of this year’s feel-good films.
Starring Leuenberger, Max Simonischek, Rachel Braunschweig, Sibylle Brunner, Marta Zoffoli, and Bettina Stucky, Volpe premiered the film earlier this year in Switzerland to raves and box-office success. Currently making its international debut at the Tribeca International Film Festival in competition for International Narrative, the film The Divine Order (also titled Die göttliche Ordnung) is a contender for the Nora Ephron Award.
Petra Volpe reflected on documenting this part of Switzerland’s dark past with warmth, compassion, and humor.
Lesley Coffin: I know that you did considerable research at a women’s history archive in Switzerland, but you also did some interviews with feminist who campaigned for the right to vote and fought to overturn the marriage laws. How did those women inform the characters and determine the way you would tell the story?
Petra Volpe: The women I actually talked with were involved very early on in the suffrage movement in Switzerland. And a lot of those women treated the movement almost like a profession. They were so involved and had professions as journalist or artist that allowed them the freedom to campaign. They essentially dedicated their lives to the feminist cause. And they were also more intellectual and educated, so they gave me a lot of the background and explained the atmosphere at the time, and the resistance they met. But they were also younger when they got involved in the cause, so I felt they would be the wrong individuals to focus on.
I wanted to have a woman at the center who would go through a real journey and discover how much the private is political. I wanted to focus on a working-class woman and not have an intellectual. The women I met were so intellectual they had a meta-way of reflecting on that time period. They gave me insight, but the actual character of Nora and women in the town were inspired by reading letters and talking to women like my mother. I found in the women’s archive a note on one of the propaganda leaflets by a woman who wrote she wouldn’t be giving money to the anti-suffrage movement. She wrote that she couldn’t understand why women are fighting against other women’s right to vote and it made her angry. She’d never been a political person but felt she needed to become one. And that touched me. That’s who the Nora character is based.
Lesley Coffin: There is an issue in the film of women believing one thing but saying something different in the village, because they don’t want to be seen as troublemakers or rebels. And the question that note brings up is how vocal and active the writer really was. Do you know if that note was meant to be seen by the public?
Petra Volpe: That note was a private note that ended up the archive. She had been sent a propaganda flyer and sent it back with that note that she wouldn’t be giving them any money. So we know at least that she spoke her mind to the opposition, but I don’t know if she did anything else.
Lesley Coffin: Did your real-life or family inspire any of the characters?
Petra Volpe: The Italian woman who owns the pub in the film is inspired by my own family. My father came to Switzerland in ‘69, and Italians were met with a lot of racism. I also read a whole book about these pubs run by women in Switzerland. They weren’t the owners, legally, but they were queens of these pubs and everyone knew they were in charge. They knew all the secrets of the village and were very beloved, but had no rights. They were strong women, but had to be economically dependent on their husbands who were the official owners. And if those men were bad with money, these women could be destitute.
I also read a lot about the lives of women in these villages and farming communities. To be a farmer’s wife was very hard because you were so dependent on your husband for everything. And the story of the daughter being put in prison by her own father because she misbehaved happened very often. There was no judge, the village council could decide that a girl was a little too wild. That was huge scandal that’s just recently been uncovered and these women are coming forward now with their stories. It’s a very dark chapter in our history of these women being put in prison for seeing too many boys and having their lives ruined because they’ve been labeled as criminals. They couldn’t get jobs or had their babies taken away from them. It’s a very dark history.
Lesley Coffin: Was that something you were even aware of growing up or was that a huge revelation to you as well?
Petra Volpe: These were injustices I became aware of much later. They were not discussed in the home. Growing up in Switzerland, it’s a very conservative attitude that I felt constantly as a child. And my grandfather was the village baker, and I recall being told not to say things because it could be bad for his business. We had to be extremely friendly and be a “good girl” so we didn’t harm his business. There was a sense of social control over everybody, although I exaggerated that a bit for this film.
But there was a general atmosphere of that, and I would say it still persists. I remember my first women’s march was in 1990, when women went on strike because even with the new laws, nothing seemed to be happening. And marriage laws had just changed in 1988. My historian on the film was a young wife and mother at the time and remembered she couldn’t even open a bank account by herself in 1985, the bank insisted it had to be in her husband’s name.
Lesley Coffin: Despite the dark elements in history you reflect on, you seemed to want to inject a lot of humor in the film throughout. Why was it important to take a light-hearted approach to this material?
Petra Volpe: Humor is a vital coping mechanism in my life. There’s solace in humor. But I also think filmmaking is a form of seduction, and when you use humor it can open people’s hearts. When you give people permission to laugh at something which is dark, you can really open their hearts and minds. And once they are allowed to feel like they can laugh, they are more willing to give into a story and feel the painful moments. And then when you think about how horrible it is that women in Switzerland didn’t have the right to vote until 1971, you have to laugh at the absurdity of it. And I think people appreciate that approach to the material. And I also have a very tender relationship with my characters, male and female.
Writing Nora’s husband Hans, for example, it was important to say that men are equally repressed by this system. When we talk about gender equality, the conversation is not men vs women, it’s about the system of oppression based on a patriarchal capitalistic ideology that hurts everyone. The lives these men could have were also limited by these strict ideas. They were told what it meant to be a man, and they were being crushed by it, as we see in the film in the scene with Hans and his brother. It was important to also look at the lives of these men, and write Hans with a sense of humor and tenderness. He was a son of the times, he’s not a bad person. He just doesn’t know how to catch up with the times at the same pace as his wife, who’s raced ahead of him.
Lesley Coffin: Is that desire to see men and women as both being oppressed by the system part of the reason you had Nora’s main opposition be another women who heads up the village’s anti-suffrage movement?
Petra Volpe: Yes. Of course male antagonism is all around, but I was more interested in the sincere beliefs of these women who don’t believe in the right to vote. Who were these women? They really intrigued me and were a mystery. I read a lot about these women, a whole dissertation in fact. Most of these women were well-educated, had studied at schools, and were economically well-off. They usually were married to wealthy men or men with businesses, and didn’t want to share the cake. They didn’t want their cooks and servants to vote. But many of them also felt that they were defending the nature of femininity.
To fight for the right to engage in politics would be to diminish the role women have in society. They argued that women’s role was to be nurturing and protect the family because God meant for women to be different from men. So asking women to take part in politics is devaluing their position. They would say things to feminists like, “You are telling women to be more like men and not appreciating who you really are.” The title, The Divine Order, is a quote from their referendum. So, I felt it would be more interesting and intriguing to develop that character, because I think it’s an interesting aspect of feminist history we still see today. There are still women who don’t believe in feminism, which I personally find hard to understand.
Lesley Coffin: I wanted to ask about some of the decisions made about the film’s production design. You had to make choices considering the period detail, but also show an evolution of the characters and the village. What kind of conversations did you have about the design and music to reflect all those elements cinematically?
Petra Volpe: We did so much research over the three years that I worked with my costume designer, set designer, and makeup artist. And we went into villages and looked at women’s personal photo albums to study the style. And we had to avoid making things cooler or flashier than they would have been in a village like the one Nora and Hans live in. We really made a choice to recreate the atmosphere, especially in the furniture and houses which reflect that oppressiveness I spoke of. The ceilings are always very low in their houses, so you feel it pushing down on them. With Nora, we wanted to show her liberation but in a way which was still subtle and realistic. We could have been flashier, but she wouldn’t have done that and it wouldn’t have been realistic for a woman that age within that world. When we show the women break-free and go on strike, they don’t do anything we would consider extreme. They hang out, drink, talk and play games, but are away from their families. Within this world, that is an act of rebellion.
© Lesley Coffin (4/24/17) FF2 Media
Photos: Starring Marie Leuenberger, Max Simonischek, Rachel Braunschweig, Sibylle Brunner, Marta Zoffoli, and Bettina Stucky.
Photo Credits: Zodiac Pictures