New East Digital Archive

Mixing animation and archive, Chris the Swiss investigates the death of a journalist in the Yugoslav Wars | Film of the Week

Mixing animation and archive, Chris the Swiss investigates the death of a journalist in the Yugoslav Wars | Film of the Week

29 July 2021

It took producers from three different countries seven years to bring Chris the Swiss to life. Finally released in 2018, the part-animated, part-documentary film tells the story of Swiss journalist Christian Würtenberg, who died in Croatia in 1992. The film is told from the perspective of the journalist’s cousin, Anja Kofmel, who was only a child when the 27-year-old’s body was found strangled in a Balkan field, wearing the uniform of an international mercenary unit.

Würtemberg arrived in the Balkans in the midst of the Yugoslav Wars, and the film hints that he was both driven by a thirst for adventure and the desire to rebel against the stability of his middle class family back in the Alps. There, he joined the ranks of the First International Brigade, a paramilitary group led by a Bolivian militia leader known as Chico, who also worked as a reporter for the BBC’s Spanish service. A diary chronicles his experience, where he justifies joining the group as a way of writing a book on his experiences later. But as time passes, his diary entries become shorter and hazier, until — suddenly — the last few pages are ripped. The next time his family know about his whereabouts, he is found tortured and dead.

Chris the Swiss reconstructs Würtemberg’s story in disjointed fragments. Some use archive footage, with often shaky and banal live news footage. Others are beautifully animated in suspenseful, black-and-white scenes. It is here that Chris’ spirit truly comes alive, his ever-present striped scarf sketched out in bold, solid lines. These episodes are interspersed with Kofmel’s own journey in the early 2010s, as she embarks on the monumental task of uncovering the truth about her cousin’s death.

Told both from the perspective of a child dealing with the mysterious death of her larger-than-life cousin, and the viewpoint of an adult aware they are unravelling a painful past, Chris the Swiss is both terrifyingly dark and beautifully moving. Kofmel does not shy away from facing Würtemberg’s death, or the questions it provokes. Why would a young man be attracted to fight in a foreign war? Was he driven by the cause itself, or was he instead attracted by abstract ambitions and ideals?

Watch on MUBI.