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Alain Tanner, Leading Director in Swiss Latest Wave, Dies at 92


Alain Tanner, a pioneering director within the Swiss Latest Wave movement that took off within the Seventies, known for his cerebral, left-leaning movies that challenged bourgeois complacency, died on Thursday in Geneva. He was 92.

His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by the Association Alain Tanner, a Geneva-based group that preserves and promotes his work.

Growing up in Switzerland, surrounded by France, Germany, and Italy with their wealthy cinema traditions, Mr. Tanner went on to be a founding father of the so-called Group of 5, norm-shattering Swiss directors who helped drive a latest type of national cinema. His best-known movies tended toward a stark neorealism, laced with incisive dialogue and an arid wit, and sometimes centered on characters struggling against conformity.

Looking back on his profession in his later years, Mr. Tanner said he was proud to have been a part of a generation that strove to shake the social order.

“In the course of the second half of the last century,” he said, “I lived through what was probably probably the most engaging for cinema, with the questioning of the old styles, the break with old structures and the arrival of modernity.”

A pointy-eyed observer of discontent, each emotional and social, he never achieved the name recognition of the French Latest Wave masters like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who died on Tuesday at 91. He acknowledged each as influences.

Regardless, critics considered him a crucial voice. In a 1990 review of Mr. Tanner’s film “A Flame in My Heart,” Vincent Canby described him in The Latest York Times as a “first-class director” and “one of the vital securely cerebral of European filmmakers.”

“The Salamander” (1971), which Mr. Tanner shot in 16-millimeter, established his fame worldwide and had a yearlong run on the Cinéma Saint-André des Arts in Paris. “Jonah Who Will Be 25 within the Yr 2000” (1976) was an art-house hit in Europe and the US.

Mr. Tanner, a native of French-speaking Geneva, made his early movies in French, but his first English-language film, “Light Years Away,” which starred Trevor Howard as a junkyard-dwelling spiritual guide to a rebellious young drifter, won the jury’s special grand prize on the Cannes Film Festival in 1981.

By that time Mr. Tanner’s fame in film circles was already cemented based on his groundbreaking movies that grappled with the spirit of revolution and private reinvention of the Sixties.

His first feature film, “Charles, Dead or Alive” (1969), conceived within the wake of the 1968 student protests that swept Europe, involved a prosperous middle-aged Swiss watchmaker who abandons a thriving family business, adopts an assumed name and embarks on an ill-fated journey of self-discovery as he settles right into a life on the fringes of society with a young couple.

Mr. Tanner’s best known movies of the Seventies, written with the English novelist, critic and Marxist theorist John Berger, concern the legacies of the tumultuous ’60s.

“The Middle of the World” (1974), explores a love affair between an Italian waitress at a railroad cafe and a married engineer who’s running for the Swiss Parliament, but additionally the category tensions between them.

“Jonah Who Will Be 25 within the Yr 2000” (1976), focuses on a gaggle of disillusioned friends in Geneva — including an activist-turned-proofreader, an itinerant history professor and a trade unionist — who’re vulnerable to extemporizing on topics as diverse as capitalism, revolution, train travel and sex.

“Each of the characters is, in his or her own way, as surrounded as Switzerland, hemmed in,” Mr. Canby wrote in The Times in 1976. But, he added, “they’ve not been anesthetized by mediocrity into dreamless boredom.”

Alain Tanner was born on Dec. 6, 1929, in Geneva. His father was a publicist, author and poet; his mother was a painter.

Growing up in Romandy, the French-speaking region in western Switzerland, Mr. Tanner felt alienated from the country’s German-speaking majority. “Switzerland exists way more for the German Swiss than for us,” he was quoted as saying in a 1976 interview with the film critic James Monaco. “They’ve an actual identity, while we don’t.”

A lover of films since childhood, he experienced an epiphany as a young person when he discovered Italian neorealist directors like Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. On the University of Geneva, Mr. Tanner studied economics, but his real passion was for film. He began a campus film club with Claude Goretta, who would help found the Group of 5. Looking for adventure beyond his native country, he joined the merchant navy after graduation.

Within the mid-Nineteen Fifties, Mr. Tanner and Mr. Goretta settled in London, where they found work curating archives and subtitling movies for the British Film Institute. They befriended the young directors Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz, who were involved with a budding school of documentary filmmaking called Free Cinema. In 1957, Mr. Tanner and Mr. Goretta joined the movement with “Nice Time,” a 17-minute documentary rumination about Piccadilly Circus at night. It won the prize for experimental film on the Venice Film Festival.

Returning to Switzerland a couple of years later, Mr. Tanner directed for television before forming the Group of 5 in 1968; besides Mr. Goretta, the others were Michel Soutter, Jean-Louis Roy and Jean-Jacques Lagrange. His first feature, “Charles Dead or Alive,” won the highest prize on the Locarno Film Festival.

Mr. Tanner is survived by his wife, Janine; two daughters, Nathalie and Cécile; and three grandchildren.

By the tip of his profession he had made 21 feature movies, including the erotic psychological dramas “A Flame in My Heart” (1987) and “The Diary of Lady M” (1993), together with quite a few documentaries for Swiss television.

A director once invigorated by the spirit of revolution had way back mellowed in his political passions.

“I feel that neither capitalism nor Communism does anybody any good,” Mr. Tanner said in a 1976 Times interview. “I’m not a lot politically minded; I feel more concerning the individual and peoples’ lives.”

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