The title of writer/director Laurent Nègre’s A Forgotten Man has two separate references. For the first forgotten man is Heinrich Zwygart (Michael Neuenschwander), Switzlerland’s ambassador in Berlin from 1938 till the fall of Hitler’s Third Reich, and now returned home as an embarrassing reminder, to both his family and his country, of the uncomfortable complicity, even collaboration, in Nazi atrocity that came with Swiss neutrality. Though once of high rank, respectable and honoured, his formerly enviable posting has turned out to be on the wrong side of history and he has now become a persona non grata whom the State would happily see relegated to oblivion, even if he has not yet realised this himself. The second is Zwygart’s fellow countryman Maurice Bavaud (Victor Poltier) – handsome and heroic where Zwygart was ugly in his cravenness. Bavaud’s lonely arrest, imprisonment and death under the Nazis, though largely forgotten, keep coming back to haunt the conscience of Zwygart, who had failed to intervene when he might have.
“The only thing to fear from the past is that it may destroy the future,” Zwygart says in voiceover at the beginning of Nègre’s feature, whose monochrome format marks it as a relic confined to history (if also disinterred). Back in Bern, Zwygart tries to manage his rapidly diminishing relevance, while listening obsessively to a recording he himself made in Germany of a 1938 concert conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, a figure similarly compromised by his Nazi associations.
Far from being a triumphant return to the status quo, let alone to political advancement, Zwygart’s homecoming will see the dissolution of his household, his career, even his sanity. For this is a tragedy, staging a domestic catastrophe that resonates more broadly with a historical shift in power. Here Zwygart loses everything, while the country that he was representing gets off free and largely unexamined, despite a merely superficial changing of the guard and the continuation of business as usual.
Zwygart makes for an ambiguous protagonist. Hardly innocent but certainly scapegoated, he is professionally bound as a diplomat to keep his opinions to himself, and proves so successful in doing so that when he finally, far too belatedly states his own view, it comes as something of a surprise. Zwygart’s reticence and inaction – and also his arrogance – greatly compromise his moral character, but his own cynicism is matched by that of the geopolitical ground shifting beneath his feet. History would simply rather forget any truth that he is ultimately willing to divulge. It is a bleak reminder that though the ethics of different state players in the Second World War may have seemed black and white, their greyer areas persist into our own times. War, after all, is business, and every business needs partners and mediators willing to set aside their personal scruples and to sell their souls. If, in the end, Zwygart is a forgotten man, that is only because he is so easily erased and replaced by another man ready to play much the same game.
strap: Laurent Nègre’s postwar tragedy shows a former Swiss ambassador to Nazi Berlin slipping out of an otherwise unchanging history
© Anton Bitel