Inspired by true events, The Divine Order tells the story of a housewife’s servitude and her quest for emancipation in a remote part of Switzerland. She rallies other women to fight for the right to vote, shifting the scales of power politically and domestically, while awakening to her own sexual potential.
When you first see Nora (Marie Leuenberger) fulfilling her domestic duties for her ungrateful boys and her stepfather, you might think that her reality is hopelessly stuck in patriarchy. But this fragile balance is about to shift when she is realizes that she is not legally allowed to work without the permission of her husband (Max Simonischek) who suggests that they should have another child instead to keep her “entertained”. Refusing to settle for victimhood, Nora sneaks away from home, taking the first steps towards a journey of rebellion and awareness where she will meet kindred spirits (wonderful Sibylle Brunner and Marta Zoffoli), and root for her niece who is sent to prison for dating an older man with long hair. The key to her success is the solidarity of a growing number of women allies who support her while she faces the opponents – men – who ironically are the only ones allowed to tilt the law in favor of women’s right to vote. The battle intensifies as she is ridiculed by conservative females, and learns the power of persistence and civic courage while fighting against the proclaimed “divine order” where men and women’s lives are determined by their gender. The political gets very personal when Nora participates in a Yoni (female genitalia) educational group session, and the discovery of her intimate anatomy motivates her to inform her husband that she never had an orgasm. Beautifully filmed by Judith Kaufman, this delightful movie is not only entertaining but also inspirational with a very timely message about sexism and women’s rights, and it is Switzerland’s official submission to the 90th Academy awards.
CYNTHIA BIRET: Is this film based on someone’s life? Did Nora actually exist?
PETRA VOLPE: The whole story is completely fictional, and it’s based on my research about how difficult it was at the time for women to get the right to vote. The housewife did not actually exist in reality, but she existed in another multi-dimensional form.
BIRET: She embodies the stories of women living in a village frozen in patriarchy.
VOLPE: It’s a chapter of our history that’s very shameful and very much being swept under the carpet, and I wanted to bring the story to the big screen as a tribute to all the women who fought so hard for over a hundred years to get the right to vote. This is the right time to tell this story, because people are familiar with this fight but they don’t learn about it in school.
BIRET: It is astonishing that Swiss women got the right to vote as late as the 1990s.
VOLPE: On the Federal level, women got the right to vote in 1971, and this happened after men were the only ones allowed to vote for this right. They also voted for this in every state, on the municipal level. However one canton, the canton of Appenzell, did not give women the right to vote until 1990. And they had to be forced by the Federal court. One woman sued the State and said it’s against human rights, and the Federal court agreed with her, and they forced men to give women the right to vote.
BIRET: Was there any political reason for this canton to resist change, and is this woman still alive today?
VOLPE: I am not sure that she is still alive, because I never met her. The canton is very conservative and the church is very strong there. They have this tradition where men gather in the village square once a year and vote on things, and they wanted to maintain their tradition without the women. They had all kinds of absurd arguments against the women voting.
BIRET: Arguments such as “the Divine Order”?
VOLPE: That was a very strong argument, especially in the countryside where the churches were very strong and told women that if they wanted to do politics it was against the divine order, so women weren’t just up against men, they were up against God, and this is very intimidating. The movement against the right to vote was very much using the argument that God had created a world in balance, and women had this role and men had that role, and if people started to make things up, it would mean apocalypse. And all this was happening in 1971.
BIRET: Simone de Beauvoir once wrote: “One can hardly tell women that washing saucepans is their divine mission, [so] they are told that bringing up children is their divine mission, but the way things are in the world, bringing up children has a great deal in common with washing up saucepans”
VOLPE: I was not familiar with that quote but of course I read Simone de Beauvoir.
BIRET: Did you draw inspiration from other feminist writers as well?
VOLPE: I love Betty Friedan [author of The Feminine Mystique]. And this novel by Marilyn French, The Women’s Room, was a very important book for me. Friedan wrote theoretically about it, and French wrote about it the form of a novel. Her book tells the story of a woman liberating herself. It’s very powerful.
BIRET: In The Women’s Room, French tells the story of Mira who overcomes the restraint of her role as a wife and mother stuck in a traditional marriage, resulting in her feminist awakening in the 50’s, which also leads to a new life without her family. One of the most touching aspect of your film is the relationship between Nora and her husband. Nora loves her husband, he loves her, but while he exerts his legal right to forbid her to find a job, it becomes clear that he is reacting because of his conformity to society’s expectations of men.
VOLPE: Yes, he is a child of his times, you know, he is a son of his times, and it was very important for me to show how men are also oppressed by patriarchy. They are also in a prison of who they have to be in society as men, and there was a lot of social pressure on men at this time, and there still is.
BIRET: And the legal system enabled men to keep their wives away from the workplace.
VOLPE: That’s marital law, that’s something that’s one of the first thing that women started to change, after they got the right to vote, but it didn’t change until 1988. So a woman couldn’t open up her own bank account. She couldn’t work without the permission of her husband. She couldn’t sign a lease. She couldn’t buy big things. She was basically treated like a child.
BIRET: Nora was a servant not only for her husband, but also her children and her father in law. The scene where the children refuse to help her clean up is a priceless mix of humor and harsh reality.
VOLPE: I don’t think humor and existential conflict are a contradiction. I think on the contrary, they go together really well. It’s a really good way to open people’s hearts because it’s not only a battle of men against women; it’s also a cultural battle. It’s a battle of people who want equality, and ultimately being more liberal and being more progressive against people who want to keep the “traditions” alive.
BIRET: These traditions are kept in place by religious and political motives, and in turn influence individuals in their personal lives.
VOLPE: Well, I deeply believe that the personal is political. I still believe that it’s very, very true. And I think that the fight for equality and politics starts in your bedroom and continues in the kitchen, and in the living room, and in your communities. It cannot be separated; it is all intertwined.
BIRET: While Nora runs away from home to participate in a march for women’s rights, she ends up attending a group “Yoni session” where she discovers that there are nine different types of yonis, each one labeled with an animal’s name: The tiger, the wolf, the rabbit and so on. This scene’s light heartedness enhances the women’s solidarity through their self-discovery. By the way, how did you come up with the number nine?
VOLPE: It was a funny things about the animals, you know, I just invented that, and only talked about nine examples. They are of course as many different “yonis” as they are snowflakes. Everybody’s different!
This scene is a very sensual part of the movie. It’s pleasurable and it’s fun. It’s a moment of solidarity and it’s a very empowering moment for these women to connect to their bodies and to get to know about their pleasure, about the center of their pleasure. So it was very important to bring together these women, because their sexuality was also very oppressed, nobody spoke about it, it was like hush-hush. To come to this city and to connect with other women and to be curious about their bodies, to be encouraged to look at their most intimate part in a mirror; all of the sudden this became a very important moment for Nora when she realized that she’s never had an orgasm.
BIRET: It’s a huge milestone.
VOLPE: Yes, it can be a huge milestone even to women today. To this day there is some kind of war against the body of women. Society keeps telling us we’re wrong, that we have to change. Every magazine you open up tells you that you are not perfect the way you are. I think that in order to fight for equality and to be strong as a woman, you need to be confident in your body, to love your body; and you also have to be in touch with your pleasure. Women started talking about orgasms and about sexuality only in the late sixties. And there is an orgasm gap up to this day. I read statistics, you know, and women don’t come as much as men. Why?
BIRET: You definitely made a point with the scene of Nora’s orgasm.
VOLPE: My father actually did not like this scene, but for me it’s an important scene. If I make a film about a woman who liberates herself it also has to be her sexual liberation because I think it goes together, it cannot be separated.
BIRET: Did this film resonate with you personally? Talk to me about your life, your mother, grandmothers, and their personal experience with this issue.
VOLPE: I think I’m not different than any other woman, you know. My mother was a housewife when I was little. My grandmother was an Italian farmer; she was in a very unhappy marriage that she didn’t choose. She did not have a lot of liberties; she could not be free at all. My mother would always tell me: Never get married and have children too early, it’s a prison. Growing up, I wanted to become a photographer and people were like: “You can’t because you’re too weak as a girl, etc.” You just start to notice that there is an inequality and an injustice, and that society is deeply instilled with sexism at all levels, including workplaces.
BIRET: Sexism is still very much alive today, and has been brought to light with the current allegations coming out of Hollywood.
VOLPE: The film has become so timely. We made a historical movie, but all the issues we address, equality, democracy and civil courage are very timely. In the current political atmosphere, everything happening here in Hollywood is just a mirror of reality, because it’s happening everywhere, to all women, in all workplaces; this kind of harassment and sexism, that’s so super timely.
BIRET: What kind of reaction and feedback did you get from the villagers in Switzerland?
VOLPE: I filmed in the very heartland of conservative Switzerland, and I thought it was really interesting to take the story there. Some of the men admitted that they were against women voting until the very end, and that things went downhill in the country ever since women got the right to vote! The women really wanted to be part of the movie because it was not only their story, but also their little revenge you know, and they were paying tribute to their mothers and grandmothers, so they brought a lot of existential passion to the movie, and it encouraged our team very much.
BIRET: What type of emotional impact did this story have on Marie Leuenberger, your lead actress?
VOLPE: It was a life changing experience for her. I think in the beginning she was just a young woman who thought, you know, “I’m equal”. But the movie really changed her perspective. Little by little she started to notice how much sexism she encounters in her business, and how much trespassing she endures as an actress from male directors.
BIRET: Did you do some type of outreach with this film?
VOLPE: I did a lot of screenings in Switzerland for teenagers. A month ago in Lausanne we had 700 adolescents. They were astonished about our history, and there was a lot of giggling for the pussy thing. During the discussion the boys would usually ask me what does orgasm and women’s right to vote have to do with each other, and I would reply that sexuality and politics are very much linked, and tell them that maybe they did not understand because they were just 16 or 17 years old, but that they would have to be very mindful when you grow up to be sexual beings, and know how you treat their women, and I told them: Make sure she comes! (laughs) I also told them: “You have to vote. Democracy is only alive if you go to the ballot, you cannot be lazy about this because democracy is not a gift, you have to be a citizen who goes to vote, and make your girls come”. Those are the two messages.
BIRET: What is your impression of living in the US as a woman?
VOLPE: There are a lot of categorizations due to people’s appearances. This is an over-sexualized society.
BIRET: Are you familiar with the Hollywood code?
VOLPE: Yes, it’s devastating, because there were a lot of women in the beginning of Hollywood, they made hundreds and hundreds of movies, and the Hollywood code destroyed that, it also affected the variety of women you could show on the screen. Women were all pushed out when the big money came in. If you look at statistics of how many movies are being done by women, it’s so crass now; it’s something like four percent of directors are women. Sexism is so obvious.
BIRET: What is your next project?
VOLPE: One of my biggest projects I’m working on takes place actually in an American Men’s prison. And it’s almost only men in the movie. I started researching this three years ago. I’m writing it with a German co-writer, and in January we will take the screenplay back to the prison, to read it in front of the inmates to get their feedbacks.
BIRET: Why did you choose a story about a prison?
VOLPE: I think the prison system in America is a very horrific aspect of this society, and if affects me a lot. Since I live here now, it’s like I want to tell a humane story of an inhumane place to raise awareness. I like to look at the dark corners of society; it just raises a lot of interesting ethical questions. It’s not about excusing people who committed crimes, there needs to be punishment, but it’s about thinking that there are also so many other ways you could handle a crime in society. And the other thing I’m working on is a mini series in Switzerland in 1945, the post war years, actually the post war months, where the whole of Europe was burnt to the ground and became a hub for the Nazis, allies, and Jews. Switzerland had a very important role in helping a lot of Nazis escape to Latin America by helping them save their money, for instance; so it also looks at a much darker side and not so nice chapter of my country’s history.
BIRET: A last word about The Divine Order?
VOLPE: I just really hope that my film inspires people to keep fighting, to be courageous, because it shows how one courageous voice can spark a political process and I think that now, we need people to be courageous, we need people to stand up for freedom and justice, and the things they believe in. I hope that everybody will inspire to be a Nora, you know.