«Sometimes it seems like all that’s showing in cinemas are sequels, prequels and remakes»
Marianne Hegi runs the canton of Uri’s first and only cinema. Her grandfather, Willy Leuzinger, was one of the first to recognise the potential of projection film in 1906. This is a family saga entwined with Swiss cinema.
«I thought you were afraid to come in», Marianne Hegi says, quietly but authoritatively, as photographer Tom and I walk through the glass door of her cinema.
We’d arrived five minutes early and had been standing in front of the 1960s building, which looks like two buildings merging into one. The flat roof joining them usually allows for an unspoiled view of the mountains. Today, though, the panorama is obscured by clouds. It causes the red lettering emblazoned on two sides of the beige facade to stand out all the more: «Cinema» runs from top to bottom in sans serif, with «Leuzinger» going from left to right in cursive. Underneath, a canopy held up by two pillars shelters people and film posters alike from bad weather. Now showing: «Top Gun», «Jurassic World» and «Lightyear».
The 77-year-old cinema owner leads us from the box office to the kiosk, offering us coffee on the short way. While my espresso trickles out of the capsule machine into the cup, Ms Hegi is already spreading black and white A3 prints out on the granite countertop. The photographs trace the history of the family business.
No entry fee, just a drinks surcharge
The first photo is of the place where it all began – «Zum Hecht», a restaurant in Rapperswil. In 1906, Willy Leuzinger set up the first Pathé projector there, a mere eleven years after the Lumière brothers had invented the «cinématographe» for showing projection films. On Saturdays and Sundays, Leuzinger projected these films onto a white sheet in front of a few curious people. On these evenings, a beer cost 20 rappen instead of 15. At that point, no one had any notion of charging an entrance fee – cinema technology was an experimental, almost heretical thing. Even in the big, bad city of Zurich, the first municipal cinema licence wasn’t issued to Jean Speck until 1907.
That’s all changed today. Cinema has lost its glamour, with the Covid-19 pandemic playing a part in the decline. Streaming is more convenient. «Those of us who’re running cinemas are struggling to get people back in front of the big screen.» After Cinema Leuzinger was renovated in 2008, the number of seats was reduced from 438 to 294 because complaints were pouring in. The old cinema seats were said to be too uncomfortable, with too little legroom. «We’ve had enough seats for a while, though», says Ms Hegi, no hint of annoyance in her voice.
She flips to the second picture, which shows a large, opulently decorated tent in the midst of a crowd of people. «That was the travelling cinema». Between 1916 and 1943, the family travelled around eastern Switzerland, going from one local festival to the next. Following the example of his friends and regular customers, the Knie family (behind the Swiss circus dynasty of the same name), Willy Leuzinger named it «Kino National». In doing so, the grandfather forged a number of relationships that made it possible for him to open new cinemas, and in turn, lay the foundation for Cinema Leuzinger in Uri. It wasn’t until some thirty years after his death that his daughters, shown in the third photo, opened the cinema.
At school, she wasn’t winning any popularity contests
«They’d got involved in the family business early in their childhood. My mother, for example, often accompanied the films in the ‹Hecht› on the piano, as sound didn’t appear in film until ‹The Jazz Singer› in 1927». A generation on, Ms Hegi regularly helped out at the box office as a teenager. «My classmates were always asking me if I could sneak them into the cinema.» Back then, admission to the movies was actually only permitted for over-18s unless they were running special screenings for children. «I had to turn my whole school away. You obviously don’t win any popularity contests doing that», she says, letting out a loud laugh. It’s a visible contrast to the quiet person taking us around the cinema, choosing her words carefully, not a hair out of place.
But Ms Hegi knows what she wants. In 1980, she took over the family business, then in its third generation – and this after initially pursuing a completely different career path. «I went to business school, then I worked in an antique bookstore in Zurich and then I worked at a lawyer’s office for ten years. When my aunt and father died within six months of each other, a successor needed to be found.» With that kind of family history, Ms Hegi didn’t feel the cinema could be handed over to someone else, and so she stepped up to take the role.
As well as the cinema in Altdorf, she ran two other Leuzinger cinemas in Rapperswil until 2010, her mother alongside her at the helm for the first twenty years. It was then that movies went digital for good. «The distributors immediately stopped making 35 mm copies because, of course, they were far more expensive.» However, she couldn’t afford to accommodate the conversion in all three cinemas. «So, I decided to invest in the cinema that belonged to me. The one I’d just renovated. To this day, I rent out the other two.»
Memorabilia from the golden age of cinema
Despite this, the projection booth, which can be reached via a staircase hidden behind a door plastered with film posters, still houses a 35 mm projector. «I bought it during the renovation in 2008. In hindsight, I could’ve saved myself the money.»
At least for us, the journey back in time has made her investment worthwhile. A sideboard with tall, narrow compartments was once used to store rolls of film ready for use. On the wall behind it, there’s a sort of doorbell panel, which, instead of having the neighbours’ surnames on it, has words such as «louder», «quieter» and «frame line». Down in the auditorium, there’s another one of these panels, which was used to indicate whether something was wrong with the film. A device, which was used whenever one of the 600-metre rolls of film tore, remains in the corner. Put the films in, make sure they’re slightly overlapping, put some Sellotape on it, and you’re done. «At 24 frames per second, no one ever saw it», says Ms Hegi.
Digital film simplified a lot of things, but it also had a big disadvantage: «Films were so flat all of a sudden.» But even before the conversion, she wasn’t able to enjoy the screenings at her own cinema. «A typical film had a length of 2,800 to 3,300 metres, 600 metres of which could fit onto the reels. That meant two projectors had to be running. As soon a green dot appeared on the screen, the projectionist had to be ready to switch to the next reel.» If somebody wasn’t on the ball, they missed the transition and for a brief moment, the screen went white. «It’s happened to me before, so I was always nervous in the auditorium.»
Ms Hegi has decided that she prefers not to go to screenings at her own movie theatre. As a child, the decision was made for her. Despite having to work at the box office until 8:30 p.m., she was only allowed to watch children’s films. «All the staff at Leuzinger cinemas were under strict instructions to throw us kids out immediately if we ever tried to sneak into a screening.» If her classmates had known this, they wouldn’t have jealously shouted «cinema princess» after her quite as often. «It sometimes seemed really unfair to me that there were no perks to being the daughter of cinema owners. Although, I handled things exactly the same way with my children,» she says, laughing unashamedly as she shimmies her fiery-red blazer into place.
Ms Hegi has her grandfather’s pioneering spirit
Like her striking red clothing, every project Ms Hegi has pursued has attracted attention. When she founded an open-air cinema in 1990, she was the first person to ever be allowed to stage a performance on Rapperswil’s main square. It mostly showed studio films – Ms Hegi’s favourite genre. «The distributors told me that I couldn’t screen such demanding films at an open air, but I disagreed.» She was right after all. «A year later, the same distributors told me they’d never seen viewer numbers like it for studio films.»
And the concept is still successful today. From October through May, there’s a studio film on the programme every Wednesday, creating space for films with artistic merit or complex subject on the big screen alongside the light blockbuster fare. In fact, grandfather Willy Leuzinger had the same philosophy. He even made his own films about local events such as athletics competitions, local festivals, carnivals and funerals, which are now considered cultural artefacts documenting public life.
Willy Leuzinger had this in common with most Swiss film directors. They too are partial to making non-fiction movies. And they’re fond of holding the premieres in Altdorf. After all, they do particularly well in the canton of Uri. «When I reopened the cinema after the renovation in 2008, the first film that played was «Bergauf, Bergab» (Uphill, Downhill) by Hans Haldimann, which documented the lives of a family of mountain farmers.» People came in droves, with Ms Hegi even getting phone calls from mountain farmers in the Alps. «They wanted to know if they’d still be able to see the film in October once they were down in the valley again.» In the end, the film was shown right into the new year for a whole 30 weeks. «After two years of renovating, I couldn’t have dreamed of better advertising.»
Blockbuster cinema is lacking original ideas
Along with Swiss films, however, big blockbusters from the Marvel universe or, to take a more recent example, the sequel to «Top Gun», are doing very well. Neither are Ms Hegi’s cup of tea. «My favourite actor, you ask? I’ve no idea, but it’s definitely not Tom Cruise!» These titles, she says, are prime examples of the way cinema has gone downhill. «Sometimes it seems like all that’s showing in cinemas are sequels, prequels and remakes. If something has done well, the big studios want to milk it for all it’s worth.» A little sheepishly, she adds that sometimes she’s almost a little bit pleased when these second-rate ideas fail at the box office.
Partly because it brings Disney, Warner Bros and their ilk back down to earth occasionally: «Disney especially thinks I as a cinema owner should be salivating over every film. But then they have conditions that are almost impossible for me to meet with only one auditorium.» Distributors even briefly wanted to get a cut of the takings at the kiosk as well as the ticket sales. «Luckily, cinema owners rose up and prevented that.»
Shallow movies, popcorn and cleaning
The resistance movement failed when it came to popcorn. The classic movie snack has been on sale at Cinema Leuzinger since 2015. «I allowed the staff to decide whether we should include popcorn in our selection, since they’re ultimately the ones who have to clean it up. I’m not sure whether they’d still make the same decision today.» After all, it creates a huge amount of extra work. After Marvel movies in particular, it looks «like a popcorn bomb has hit», says the cinema operator. «Since the movies aren’t very demanding, the audience has enough time to talk and tuck into their popcorn.» At least part of the bucket, anyway. The other bit ends up in the aisles, which the thirteen employees – all working marginal hours – need to vacuum every day.
The family saga is likely to end with the third generation
Ms Hegi, on the other hand, takes care of accounting and putting together the programme. «With studio films, I often go with my gut. Sometimes I don’t even have to watch the trailer. I just know from reading the description whether or not the film is a fit for us.» After 42 years, she’s experienced enough – and still passionate enough – to do this. Almost with a little excitement in her voice, she reveals that «Wir Bergler in den Bergen sind eigentlich nicht schuld, dass wir da sind» (We who dwell in the mountains cannot be blamed for being there) by Fredi M. Murer and «Der Landschaftsgärtner» (The Landscape Gardener) by Kurt Gloor will be featured in the studio programme in November. Both films, which she adores, were given to her exclusively by Murer’s daughter and Kurt Gloor’s widow. The deciding factor? The good reputation she enjoys among Swiss directors.
It’s a passion for the culture of film that neither her husband nor her children share. «I probably won’t have a successor,» she says matter-of-factly, rolling up the A3 prints on the counter which depict part of her family history. It’s a good thing Ms Hegi isn’t a fan of sequels anyway.
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