The Divine Order — Switzerland’s Submission for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film

Petra Volpe was interviewed on the occasion of the screening of The Divine Order at the German-language Film Festival Film|Neu — a project of Goethe-Institut Washington, the Austrian Cultural Forum and the Embassy of Switzerland highlighting new German-language cinema and the artists behind it.

Petra Volpe © Zeitgeist Films

What is the main message you wanted to convey through The Divine Order?

The Divine Order is a drama about equality, civil courage and democracy — all three topics more current and eerily timely than ever. Women had to fight so hard to get the right to vote — not only in Switzerland — and it’s important that people remember how precious that right is. Our democracies are only alive when we use our rights as citizens. The movie is a pledge to be courageous as an individual and to raise your voice against injustice and oppression.

The Divine Order is an homage to courageous women then. What were your reasons for directing the film?

The Divine Order focuses on a dark chapter in Switzerland’s history that is not very well known — which is sadly so typical for women’s history.

We need more movies that put women’s stories at their center. I did not learn in school about the Swiss women’s movement which fought for over 100 years to get the right to vote. I wanted to bring that story to the big screen to remind people in Switzerland of that time and of what it meant for women to live in a society that did not give them basic democratic rights and treated them like second-class citizens.

Were there any challenges in directing The Divine Order?

Our budget was not very high for a historical movie; so it needed plenty of creativity from my creative team director of photography, Judith Kaufmann, set designer, Su Erdt, costume designer, Linda Harper, and make-up artist, Jean Cotter, to recreate an authentic look of the early ’70s in Switzerland. We felt it was important to be as precise as possible and not to stylize the look. We started to do research three years prior to the shooting, collected hundreds of images, as well from private photo albums of people who lived in the area where we shot. I additionally watched different archival footage to study how people talked and moved at that time so that I could work with my actors on their gestures.

Petra Volpe at work © Zodiac Pictures

The Divine Order was screened very successfully in Switzerland — with over 320,000 tickets sold nationally. Why was the movie a success in Switzerland?

Because it’s a movie about our history; and I think many women were so grateful to finally see their story on screen.

The Divine Order intensified the political discussion about gender equality in Switzerland. Not only women, also men responded really well to the movie, because it does not make them the villains — it shows how men are oppressed by patriarchal ideas of masculinity.

Furthermore, I think the fact that The Divine Order is fun and humorous helped to seduce people to go see a political, feminist movie about gender equality.

The Divine Order has won various awards, including the Swiss Film Awards for Best Script, Best Actress and Best Actress in a Supporting Role . . . and it won three prizes at the Tribeca Film Festival. Now, it’s Switzerland’s submission for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. What could make The Divine Order a success in the USA?

We have already won three Audience Awards at festivals in the U.S. and I think that says a lot. The Divine Order hits very close to home for many Americans. In the current political climate, women have to fear losing some of their very hard-earned rights and there is a yearning for stories that remind us that we don’t have to remain silent. We can stand up, we can find allies and we can fight.

The movie is about an introduction to women’s suffrage, which is part of the worldwide gender equality debate. Have you ever been criticized for directing The Divine Order?

Never. To the contrary, people have expressed gratitude and were inspired and encouraged by The Divine Order — that is the greatest compliment we have received about our work.

Nora (Marie Leuenberger) speaking in front of the village’s population © Zeitgeist Films

Talking about gender equality: the film business is considered to be male- dominated. Have you ever experienced gender inequality in your job?

The data shows quite clearly that there is a crass inequality in the film business (actually in almost every business) — not only in Hollywood — it’s everywhere. There is a deep gender bias against women. In Switzerland, it turned out that 80% of the film funds went to men. Luckily, that has been addressed quickly and now change is starting to happen. We still live in a deeply sexist society and every woman as well as every man is affected by it. It’s not a battle between the sexes — it’s a cultural battle. Each society should make gender equality the highest priority because data shows very clearly that the more equal a society is, the better it is for everybody.

Let’s take a look into the future and suppose that The Divine Order has been nominated for and has won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. What doors would the Oscar open for you? What projects would you want to work on and whom would you want to work with?

The movie has already opened so many doors for me. I’m now working with one of the most prestigious agencies in Hollywood, WME, and I have two passionate agents who set up various meetings for me with producers in L.A. All of that is extremely exciting and I´m curious to see where it leads, but I´ll also continue working on my many projects in Switzerland and Germany. Whether in America or Europe, I will simply continue to do what I love most and that is trying to tell a good, relevant and entertaining story that touches people’s hearts and minds.

A scene from The Divine Order © Zeitgeist Films

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