Left: Alain Tanner, Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, 1976, color film in 35 mm, 110 minutes. Production still. Right: Alain Tanner, The Middle of the World, 1974, color film in 35 mm, 120 minutes. Production still.

IN ITS APRIL CALENDAR NOTES, Anthology Film Archives describes Alain Tanner as “the man who put Swiss cinema on the international film cultural map.” While that may not seem like much of a distinction given the low profile of Swiss filmmaking, Tanner deserves attention for more than being the most recognizable director to hail from the land of cuckoo clocks and expensive watches. He’s also one of the great unsung radicals to emerge during that intense, now heavily romanticized period of cinematic politicization the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Indeed, the film with which Tanner is usually associated, Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976), was appropriately the earliest in the Walter Reade Theater’s “1968: An International Perspective” series three years ago to look back on the era with little rose-tinted nostalgia. More critical than didactic, in the film Tanner studies the ripple effects of Geneva’s May 1968 political tumult with a sympathy and severity that make it as forward-looking as it is reflective.

As with Jonah, most of Tanner’s heroes and antiheroes are social outcasts: The graying protagonist of his feature debut, Charles, Dead or Alive (1969), abandons the leadership role in his family’s longtime watch factory dynasty to join the growing dropout generation; the teenage antiheroines of Messidor (1979) jettison family, work, and school for a vagabond and criminal existence in the hauntingly desolate Swiss countryside; Bruno Ganz’s AWOL oil-tank worker comes ashore in Lisbon only to lose himself to a lack of structure and volition (In the White City [1983]). Tanner’s languorous style—slow tracking shots, patient long takes—matches the mood and pace of his drifting characters, often to the point of discomfort. But Tanner’s is a cinema of the ill-at-ease, the ill-fitting: A journalist and a fiction writer both fail at creating a narrative out of a young woman’s transgressions in The Salamander (1971), while a local politician and his Italian mistress discover the limits of passion in The Middle of the World (1974). The dreamy and mellow Requiem (1998), the latest film in Anthology’s retrospective, seems to suggest that Tanner has accepted balance, though not by compromise or complacency. If one theme could be said to run through all Tanner’s films, it’s that freedom doesn’t equal irresponsibility; freedom must be earned.

Michael Rowin

“The Films of Alain Tanner” runs April 15–22 at Anthology Films Archives in New York. For more details, click here.