Enrica CAPRA (GraffitiDoc), Serge LALOU (Les Films d'Ici)
The myth of sanatoriums has been immortalised by the famous novel by Thomas Mann, who turned them into a metaphor of Europe idly precipitating towards World War I: a world apart on Switzerland’s sunny mountain tops, in the elegant art deco buildings, where time seems not to exist; a world where extremely peculiar relationships develop, scanned by the alternation of sun baths on the terrace, short strolls and frequent meals in the sumptuous dining parlours; a world of jolly desperation, inhabited by young people, where one can die after having loved for a whole night, and where the echoes of the rest of the world are muffled, almost unreal… Even the illness cured there benefits of a very special statute: «the whole illness is nothing but love transformed», wrote Mann, adhering to a long tradition which sees in tuberculosis an affection «of the spirit», which underscores the desire and dignifies the sick person… Although reality fails cling to this literary image, there are, however, a number of elements which, for many sick people from the western upper classes, made this passage towards death or recovery a path much close to unreality, if not to a sort of dream altogether. Since consumption sore raged just about everywhere, not only in Europe, sanatoriums started opening from the last years of the XIX century in places where the air was pure and sun beamed, offering a picture of treatment - a cross of high society entertainment and rest, intellectual friendships and pleasures of the table, «avant-garde» therapies and discrete luxury. The sanatoriums in Davos were among the most popular ones; this is where Thomas Mann started writing his novel; this is where Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle retreat; this is where Paul Eluard and Gala first met... Nothing was less sure than recovery; but these institutions endeavoured to make the patients forget the therapy’s uncertain nature and its prolonged times through the enchanting quality of treatment and the sublime portrait suspended out of time. Nevertheless, during more than a half a century’s activity (which roughly corresponds to the first half of the last century, namely until the spreading of penicillin in the 50s), the «magic mountain» of people affected by consumption isn’t sheltered from the telluric movements shaking the scene of the Great History of those days. From the Belle Époque to the Great War’s precipice, from the cumbersome national socialist neighbours seizing power, to the difficult balance among the great potencies during World War II, all the international problems seen from the view point of a small country like Switzerland, in the middle of Europe and therefore obstinately defending its neutrality, find their reflection in the Alpine high valleys, whose image of these tensions is, however, far from foregone. As if history was but an extension of Thomas Mann’s pages, in it we find all the characters acting on the massive world scene (Luftwaffe officers among the highest-ranking officers in the American army; concentration camp survivors and chiefs of Gestapo…) reunited and mingling according to unlikely, or better, unreal, coexistence formulas. Sickness imposes its rules, no doubt; but for a part of these personages, the forces in action are not those implied in the normal weakness of a precarious health state. Deeply exploring this “backstage” of the European history does not to appear without interest, at a very time when the last sanatoriums are closed one by one, and the memories of these places drenched with myth are fading little by little.