Myths and Fairytales
The boy with the bell won’t give up
It’s one of the best-known Swiss children’s books. And Xavier Koller, one of the country’s best-known directors, is about to turn it into a wonderful film: 70 years after it was first published, "A Bell for Ursli" will now be shown in cinemas.
The snow crunches softly beneath Uorsin’s feet. His breath forms little clouds in the cold night air as he slowly takes one step after another, panting loudly as he goes. The trees cast long shadows in the moonlight, now and again an animal is heard. But Uorsin is determined not to be frightened. After all, he has a goal: he wants to fetch the big cowbell from his parents’ mountain hat. Uorsin is not going to be made fun of at the Chalandamarz procession simply because he has the smallest bell. "That’s not going to happen," he thinks as he marches bravely on.
"The story has a primeval aspect"
Every child experiences a story like this: "You’re the smallest or fattest, picked on as an outsider," says Peter Reichenbach. And that’s exactly what made him want to produce the film version of this famous tale: "Nobody wants to be laughed at. You want to prove the others wrong. It’s very human – adults feel it too. There’s something primeval about it that has always fascinated me."
Which makes it all the more amazing that the book is only now being turned into a film. The only previous version is a promotional short of roughly 20 minutes made in the 1960s for the Swiss tourist authority. But filming a book for the silver screen is more complicated than you would think. Peter Reichenbach: "First, you have to acquire the rights, which don’t always come cheap. Then you have to turn a small tale into a feature-length story – all in all, it can take a good seven or eight years."
As was the case with "A Bell for Ursli", which had to be padded out – just one of the reasons why writers can take two to three years to come up with a good script. As soon as the first draft of the script is ready, the production company begins its search for suitable candidates to direct the film. On "A Bell for Ursli", this was different. Peter Reichenbach has known Xavier Koller for 25 years and knew exactly that "of all the Swiss directors, he was the right one. He has a good feel for the period in which the book and film are set." Xavier Koller responded immediately to Peter Reichenbach’s approach: "For him, bringing this particular tale to life was a dream come true." The only thing now missing was the actors. Because children play the main roles in "A Bell for Ursli", Peter Reichenbach’s production company C-Films held a huge casting call. The favourite for the lead role was 11-year-old Jonas Hartmann from Churwalden. "Jonas is smart, he enjoys acting and has charisma. Stage or screen presence is not something that can be learned," says Reichenbach. Children still have a playful imagination: "Unlike adults, they don’t think about how they will come across. Often, all you have to do is ask them how they would react in a certain situation and they go ahead and create a character."
It was also important to find out whether the kids were up to the often gruelling days on set and whether the director and actors could get along. So "A Bell for Ursli" started off with a few days of test shooting in the mountains. For Peter Reichenbach, it’s crucial to get the parents involved: "We get them on board and also get in touch with the schools to organise extra tuition." But the kids easily make up in life experience what they miss out in schooling: "A film shoot like this is unique: the children learn to work as a team and to rely on one another."
Filming finally took place in the small village of Sur En overlooking Ardez – in Swiss German of course. As the story is set in the Lower Engadin, the local dialect has been allowed to shine through. The actors throw in a few snippets of Romansh now and again, simple, everyday phrases: "The language here has a beautiful sound," says the producer. "But the film has to be understood throughout the whole country."
The crew spent eight weeks in the Lower Engadin last autumn and winter, turning back the clock in Sur En to transform the rural community into an early twentieth-century hamlet. The story of "A Bell for Ursli" is set sometime between 1900 and 1945, at a time when people lived close to nature and still used horse-drawn sleighs. To make the village look even more authentic, the film team added a few more building façades to the backdrop. Fortunately for the film crew, only one family now lives in Sur En all year round, so the shooting schedule didn’t disturb too many people. Peter Reichenbach enthuses about filming: "The local inhabitants and all the institutions gave us wonderful support." An important factor, given that the location wasn’t exactly central. The production company relied mainly on the Rhaetian Railway to carry crew and material to the scene and back: RhB even transported the waste produced on set back to 'civilisation'.
And because the Rhaetian Railway was already such a firm fixture in the Engadin landscape 100 years ago, it was even given a small role in the new film: with a final hiss from the steam engine, we see the train disappear behind the mountains, carrying Uorsin’s poor mum off to town. She is forced to leave in search of work, as there is not enough to go round in the village. A sad Uorsin is left behind. But he knows one thing for sure: he mustn’t give up. Because it will all turn out right in the end.