Charles, Dead or Alive, Alain Tanner’s first feature film, which won the Grand Prix at the Locarno Festival in 1969, is the kind of manifesto that, with other films, put Switzerland on the world cinema map at the end of the 1960s.
That the critics baptized the wave which emerged at this time as the “new Swiss cinema” simply reflects the fact that the “old” Swiss cinema was unknown to the cinema-going public. Today, the appeal and energy of this first film remain undiminished, magnified by the exceptional stature and presence of François Simon and the sublimely uncluttered camera work of Renato Berta. Tanner drew his subject matter from what he saw of the events of May ’68 in Paris, which he covered for Swiss television. Unimpressed by the ideological pronouncements of the young demonstrators (Tanner was nearly 40 and mistrustful of the siren songs of militancy), he was more struck by the elderly people marching alongside them.
The film therefore paints the portrait of an old man who decides to abandon his comfortable bourgeois way of life and live with a bohemian couple. There he rediscovers his freedom to think and his joie de vivre. As Mireille Amiel points in Cinéma 70: “Charles, Dead or alive, which the author himself defines as a ‘small-scale historical fresco’ is a good example of the best of political cinema in our developed Western societies.” It is also worth adding another, definitive judgment, pronounced by Jean-Louis Bory in Le Nouvel Observator: “It is the most intelligent film inspired by the spirit of May ’68.”