Scene from the film “Gilberte de Courgenay” featuring Anne-Marie Blanc.
Scene from the film “Gilberte de Courgenay” featuring Anne-Marie Blanc. Swiss National Museum

The “Gilberte legend” lives on

Gilberte Montavon continued to be a unifying force in Switzerland during World War II. No longer in person now, but on the theatre stage, in bookshops and on the cinema screen.

Beat Kuhn

Beat Kuhn

Beat Kuhn is Regional Editor at the Bieler Tagblatt and pulls out the occasional exciting news story from the archives.

Website: Bieler Tagblatt
During World War II, the “Gilberte legend” was revived. This revival was initially driven by Basel writer Rudolph Bolo Mäglin, a left-liberal representative of the geistige Landesverteidigung, Switzerland’s policy of spiritual national defence. Mäglin later wrote that, when he was carrying out research in various parts of the country, many of the “old troopers” had beamed with remembered joy as they related anecdotes from their Jura border watch days. In addition, the numerous conversations he had had shown him “that ‘la petite Gilberte’ is remembered more vividly than ever”.
Gilberte Montavon in conversation with an officer, ca. 1915.
Gilberte Montavon in conversation with an officer, ca. 1915. Swiss National Museum
Mäglin started by weaving what he’d heard into a stage play entitled “Gilberte de Courgenay”. The work premiered on 24 August 1939 – a week before the outbreak of World War II – at Zurich’s Schauspielhaus. The eight performances all sold out within hours. The Schauspielhaus run was followed by 125 performances at Zurich’s large Kino Corso venue, 80 in Basel, 50 in St. Gallen and others throughout Switzerland. In all, the play ran for more than 450 performances. Hot on the heels of his hugely successful play Mäglin also used Gilberte’s story, embellished with a fictitious romance, for a novel with the same title. And after that, with the public lapping it up, there was no need to think twice about turning the story into a film. But producer Lazar Wechsler from the company Praesens-Film nonetheless made some bold choices. He hired Franz Schnyder from Burgdorf, who up to then had been known only as a theatre director, to direct the film.
And he gave the lead role to up-and-coming actress Anne-Marie Blanc, whose only film roles to date had been in “Wachtmeister Studer” by Friedrich Glauser and Gottfried Keller’s “Die missbrauchten Liebesbriefe”. Blanc was not originally envisaged for the title role – she was intended to play only the secondary role of Tilly and then had to learn Gilberte’s lines, as she once recounted. Ever since, whenever they think of Gilberte most people picture Anne-Marie Blanc, while hardly anyone knows what the real Gilberte looked like or what she was like as a person.
Gilberte Montavon, the original, in a 1915 photograph.
Gilberte Montavon, the original, in a 1915 photograph.
Gilberte de Courgenay in the film of the same name, played by Anne-Marie Blanc.
Gilberte de Courgenay in the film of the same name, played by Anne-Marie Blanc. Swiss National Museum
The plot of the film: in 1915 a company from German-speaking Switzerland is deployed to Courgenay. Soldiers and officers quickly fall for the charms of the pretty and helpful Gilberte. The order that they have to stay in Courgenay over the Christmas season has caused widespread resentment. Gunner Peter Hasler (Erwin Kohlund) is especially sad. He is in love with Tilly, the daughter of rich hotelier Friedrich Odermattt (Heinrich Gretler), and has written her letter after letter declaring his feelings for her. But he never gets any response because Odermatt, who refuses to allow this inappropriate relationship, is intercepting the letters. Gilberte tries to console Hasler and raise his spirits. A discreet relationship develops between the two. When Tilly gets wind of her father’s scheming she rushes to Courgenay, where she bursts into the middle of the company’s Christmas party at which Hasler is singing the song he has composed for Gilberte. Tilly senses that something is going on between Hasler and Gilberte, and is broken-hearted. But Gilberte unselfishly gives up Hasler. When the soldiers leave, she stands at the window with tears in her eyes.
A special song just for Gilberte. Excerpt from the 1941 film. SRF
In only one scene does the film confront the audience with the horror of war. A Red Cross train carrying wounded soldiers, on its way from Verdun to Constance, stops in Courgenay. As Gilberte and Hasler dole out soup on the train, they come to realise that this is the true face of war.

A kiss on the hand from the General

When the story was filmed during the winter of 1940-41, in Courgenay itself only the railway station and the Catholic church were used. The outside of the hotel can occasionally be seen on the periphery of the railway station scenes. But the interior scenes weren’t filmed in the actual restaurant. And the exterior military scenes were all filmed near Lignières above Lake Biel. Due to the censorship that was common in wartime, the premiere in Zurich in April 1941, which was attended by several Federal Councillors, was preceded by a viewing by senior army personnel. Anne-Marie Blanc once related how General Henri Guisan then accompanied her to the railway station and kissed her hand in farewell. “I didn’t wash that hand”, Blanc said, “for a week.” Although the film is certainly no masterpiece, it became one of the biggest successes in Swiss film history and a cornerstone of geistige Landesverteidigung. For Anne-Marie Blanc, it was her breakthrough role.
Postcard of General Guisan.
Postcard of General Guisan. Swiss National Museum
The film “S’Margritli und d’Soldate” was released the same year. It plays out like a copy of “Gilberte de Courgenay”. The story follows Marguerite, the daughter of the village innkeeper at Estavayer on Lake Neuchâtel, who is admired by the soldiers as a helpmeet and a comfort. But that film has been forgotten – except for the song “Margritli” with its heart-warming refrain “Margritli, i lieb di vo Härze mit Schmärze”. The Schmid siblings, who sang the song in the film, even went on to perform in Las Vegas as “Trio Shmeed” or the “Happy Yodlers”. Teddy Stauffer, who composed it, emigrated in 1944 to Acapulco, Mexico, which at the time was a fishing village of 8,000 people. He went on to manage a number of popular local hotels, attracting Hollywood celebrities to the town and making it world-famous.
Trio Shmeed blended modern rhythms with elements of yodelling. YouTube
After World War I, while in Ticino Gilberte Montavon met and fell in love with St Gallen merchant Ludwig Schneider – who had never been stationed in Courgenay. They married in 1923, and a daughter arrived soon after. The family lived in Zurich, and her husband later became manager of the Jelmoli department store. Even in civilian life, the real Gilberte was always friendly, approachable and ready to help. As a result, she had a large circle of friends. Gilberte Schneider-Montavon died of cancer on 2 May 1957 at the age of 61. She is buried in the Nordheim cemetery in Zurich. The grave markings were not removed after 20 years, as is usual; all is still in place, because Gilberte is one of the cemetery’s celebrity inhabitants.
This article appeared in the Bieler Tagblatt. It was published in that newspaper on 10 July 2020 under the title “How a waitress became a legend”. Read here how the “Gilberte legend” began during World War I.

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