Struggling to retain power, the Swiss president (Bruno Ganz) nervously awaits the visit of Spanish royalty. The president faces numerous threats to his presidency, including a low approval rating and a family secret, but he's not known as The Cat for nothing.

Swiss melodrama marks a downfall for Bruno Ganz.

FESTIVAL OF GERMAN FILMS: This German/Swiss movie is a botched attempt at mixing a political melodrama about a president under siege with a mawkish story of that man dealing with his young son’s imminent death.

Playing the pivotal figure, the Swiss President, in that scenario is a daunting challenge for any actor, even one as talented as Bruno Ganz. The movie directed with unsteady hand by Wolfgang Panzer is based on The Big Cat, the semi-autobiographical 1998 novel by Thomas Hürlimann, whose father Hans was the Swiss President in 1979.

Not being a student of Swiss politics, I can’t tell which parts of the movie may be grounded in reality beyond the fact that Thomas’ younger brother was suffering from bone cancer when the Spanish King and Queen visited the country in 1979. But, on the whole, the narrative seems fanciful. And although the novel is described as satirical, the film’s sporadic efforts at being light-hearted are overwhelmed by the pathos enveloping the dying days of the cancer-stricken boy.

As for the political intrigue, when you know the office of the President is largely ceremonial and he or she has no powers above the other members of the Swiss Federal Council, the Machiavellian maneuvers portrayed here seem much ado about very little.

Ganz is President Kater, nicknamed the 'Great Cat,’ whose popularity is plummeting and whose cabinet is in crisis for reasons that are never explained; so when the Prez vows he won’t reverse any decisions, what is the context? What does he believe in and stand for? Who knows?

Kater intends to exploit a visit by the King and Queen of Spain to try to boost his flagging image and chances of being re-elected to the council. The preparations for the visit, and the ensuing pomp and ceremony, are laid out in tedious detail, spiced only mildly by two developments: A startling outburst by his deeply unhappy wife Marie (Marie Bäumer); and the plot to discredit the President by his arch-rival, the security chief Dr. Stotzer (Ulrich Tukur), who’s in cahoots with the head of protocol Dr. Baessler (Christiane Paul) and the meddling Catholic Nuncio ambassador.

While Kater and Marie try to maintain a united front in public, in private they keep a vigil at the bedside of eight-year-old Louis (Moritz Möhwald), who’s in a clinic, head shaven. They haven’t told him he’s dying, so, as Marie explains, he can spend his 'last few weeks without fear," and the illness is kept secret.

Yet the couple’s behaviour is bizarre. On the way home after greeting the Royals, they suddenly become amorous in the back seat of the Presidential limo while the embarrassed driver watches, then head to an upmarket brothel to bonk. In post-coital recline, Marie notices her husband seems familiar with their surroundings and asks if he has slept with the madam. In turn he asks, 'Are you really interested?" Her reply: 'No, not really." So why should we, the audience, give a toss about their marital woes?

Ganz is a terrific actor who’s adept at playing commanding, compelling figures – Hitler in Downfall, the wily head of the German police force in The Baader Meinhof Complex, an angel-on-Earth in Wings of Desire. But here he’s lumbered with the difficult task of playing a statesman who feels helpless on two levels – being able to save his son and, evidently, to continue to serve his country. True, he brings out the man’s humanity and inner turmoil but not much else about the character’s actions and behaviour rings true.

The film was a hit in Switzerland and shared the top prize with Sherry Horman’s Desert Flower at the 2010 Bavarian Film Awards, so maybe it plays better from a European sensibility.


1 hour 29 min