A Kid's Struggle for Love and Affection

in 62nd Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Beat Glur

Switzerland is well known for its superb alpine panorama, its sunny ski slopes, and its luxury mountain hotels. But there is the other side of the mountain: Those who make the system function by working at the ski lifts, serving in the restaurants, cleaning the toilets. They are mostly seasonal workers from abroad, or locals from down in the valley.

12-year-old Simon lives down in the valley, together with his grown up sister Louise. They share a small apartment in an ugly tower block alongside the main road. We learn that their parents had died in a car crash. The story follows the siblings through a tourist winter season, from Christmas to Easter. While Louise changes her jobs as often as her lovers, her kid brother runs a business of his own and provides, so it seems, alone for the income of the unusual couple.

Every morning Simon takes the cable car up to the mountains, but not to ski down the slopes – he can’t even ski as we learn – but to steal skis, ski boots, sunglasses, helmets, gloves and other equipment from the tourists. He sells the stolen goods to the kids in the valley, and sometimes to the foreigners working in the restaurant.

Simon is good and effective at his job. He steals bags and rucksacks, but he only takes what he really needs, and leaves the rest behind. He hides the stolen goods in different places, the skis he sometimes digs into the snow. At the end of the day he takes down to the valley as much as he can carry. Back home he gets things organized, repairs boots, waxes skis, and does the shopping and the washing.

We understand that stealing is the only job Simon can do since he is too young to work legally. And he has his pride in doing what he does. Also, because through his thieving, Simon gets the money for food and rent, while his sister Louise is unable to hold onto a steady job and doesn’t seem to bring any money home. And we soon sympathize with Simon who sums up his attitude towards stealing: “They are so rich they don’t care, and they’ll just buy new stuff.”

But although Simon is the provider he is still a kid, and it is soon clear that he yearns for love and affection. In a key scene of the film Simon asks his sister to sneak into her bed, but she only agrees after he pays her 200 Swiss Francs, probably like some of the men she sees may pay to be in bed with the pretty Louise. About halfway through the film the plot takes an unexpected turn and drives the story into a quite different direction which makes Simon’s struggle even more understandable and also more touching.

Ursula Meier’s Sister (L’enfant d’en haut) is not a social drama; it is not a morality tale about the lower class robbing those higher up, socially and literally. There is no social worker, there is no police; it is just the story of a boy in the need to go up, in every sense of the term, seeking physical, social and financial elevation. While the life down in the valley is fog and desolation, life up on top is light and money. Simon feels important up there, pretending to be the son of rich parents. While he desperately wants to succeed, his sister Louise never even tries; she seems to have given up and lives her sad day-to-day reality.

While Meier’s first film Home, screened in the Critic’s Week at Cannes in 2008, was a contemporary fable about a family, set in a lonely house alongside a new but never opened highway, Sister is anchored in a real setting, shot on location down in the Swiss valley Wallis and up in the posh ski resort of Verbier.

French actress Léa Seydoux as Louise is not mature enough to take things into her own hands. But the star of Sister is the 13-year-old Kacey Mottet Klein, who also appeared as the youngest kid in Home, and for whom Meier now specifically wrote her new project. He carries the film with determination and confusion, and he gets, despite being a thief, total sympathy from the viewer.

Sister is undoubtedly one of the best Swiss feature films in a long time. It was the first Swiss film to be invited to the main competition section at the Berlin International Film Festival in ten years, and it is the first Swiss film in over 30 years to win a Silver Bear in Berlin.