A Forgotten Man


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Michael Neuenschwander as Heinrich Zwygart in A Forgotten Man
"Nègre's finely wrought film suggests that it is not that power corrupts, but rather that corrupt people can more easily bear the experience of power."

A lot of people had difficulty readjusting to their old lives after the end of the Second World War. For many it was a case of PTSD caused by living in situations where they had to be hyper-alert all the time to survive. Others struggled to reconcile the horrors they had witnessed with the world as they had once understood it. For a few – especially those higher up in the ranks, who may have been lucky enough to be spared the horror of the trenches – there was something else. The weight of having had to make brutal decisions might be too much to bear.

A Forgotten Man begins with a man whose name is remembered well in Switzerland: Maurice Bavaud (Victor Poltier), a theology student who was considered by many to be a national hero after his attempt to assassinate Hitler. In the opening scene we see him dragged along a corridor by Nazi guards. It’s difficult to tell if he’s trying to resist or if he’s simply too weak to bear his own weight. We won’t see him alive again but the impression of him will return repeatedly to haunt Swiss ambassador Heinrich Zwygart (Michael Neuenschwander), who is recalled home to his affectionate and highly respected family upon the announcement that Hitler is finally dead.

Copy picture

He arrives in the middle of a social gathering. His eldest daughter has short hair, signalling the onset of a very different age. His wife maintains an older kind of glamour, putting on lipstick before going to bed in a shimmering nightgown. He tells her that there has never been anyone else but her, and yet he’s distant, retreating to his study to work on a speech. Over the next few days, this wholesome environment will begin to fracture. He has to cope with an older generation who retain sympathy for the Nazis; with state officials prepared to do anything to maintain the country’s neutrality and noble reputation; and with his daughter’s boyfriend, a young man who runs a student newspaper and keeps asking him uncomfortable questions about Bavaud. Worst of all, as he prepares to ascend to a promised place on the Federal Council, he has to wrestle with his own conscience.

It’s the little things that count in a story like this. The position of Zwygart’s hands as his face behaves the way it’s supposed to. A pair of rather handsome mice eating the dinner that he cannot stomach. We never see much of what happens to Bavaud, but it’s all the more horrible in the imagination. It’s a single barbaric act in a film full of well-mannered exchanges and meetings in airy offices. Zwygart’s inability to blot it out gradually infects everything, as writer/director Laurent Nègre explores the tension between being perceived as a hero and behaving like one.

As human beings organise themselves in larger and larger groups, the responsibilities borne by those making top level decisions threaten to take them further and further away from conventional morality. Focused on the seeming impossibility of representing a state and remaining a human being, Nègre's finely wrought film suggests that it is not that power corrupts, but rather that corrupt people can more easily bear the experience of power. The elegance of Diego Dussuel’s photography makes literal the sheen of civility masking horrors underneath. Neuenschwander compels as a man first hailed as a hero, then condemned as a villain, whose deepest fear is that neither really matters.

A Forgotten Man is a film which will stay in your thoughts.

Reviewed on: 08 Nov 2023
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May 1945: after the surrender of Nazi Germany, Heinrich Zwygart, Swiss ambassador in Berlin, is ordered back home. Soon he gets caught up in past decisions. He got through the war. Will he survive the peace?

Director: Laurent Nègre

Writer: Laurent Nègre

Starring: Michael Neuenschwander, Manuela Biedermann, Yann Philipona

Year: 2022

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: Switzerland, UK


French 2023

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