Recalling Hotel Yesteryear

Cannes’s erstwhile hostelry had soul aplenty


It was a place of legends, some say of miracles. Certainly, a haunted hotel of memories for all who recall with an aching heart and maybe a tear on the cheek what the old Festival International du Film was really like.

I’m talking about the old Hotel Suisse.

Look in an ancient Fodor’s Guide Book for a pleasant place to stay at Cannes, and you will find three hostels listed together: “Splendid, Savoy, Suisse – all first class.” For journalists, cineastes, festivaliers, the addicted and the accredited, the Suisse was the only place in town worth hanging your hat. First class? It was anything but.

Built around the turn of the century, the old Suisse was run by an elderly Mistral couple who saw no reason to make any improvements at all. The plumbing made frightful noises, the beds sagged and creaked, the wallpaper had telephone numbers scribbled all over it, and you could hear the old guy yelling ne quittez pas at the switchboard down the hall better than the scratchy cacophony emanating from the receiver.

But the Suisse had a garden and a spreading chestnut tree that is still standing just inside the gate. Some film directors, like Wim Wenders, still go back to that garden out of noltagia to conduct their Cannes interviews with the outside world.

The hotel, the garden, and the tree were located across the street from the back of the Carlton Hotel. And it was a two minute walk from there to the old Palais des Festivals.

Both the Palais and the Suisse are gone now, torn down in the name of bunkers and other god-awful monuments to progress.

My first visit to the Hotel Suisse was in May of 1968, that fateful year of the student revolt that saw the streets in the Latin Quarter in Paris ripped up and the International Festival du Film torn asunder when the projectionists joined the striking students. I was staying at that time in a dump near the railway station, but each day I would drift over to the Suisse to catch the scuttlebutt about Godard and Truffaut raising hell against Cannes director Robert Favre Le Bret for being so callous in the face of a revolution.

I also wanted to meet Ruta Sadoul, the wife of Georges Sadoul, who had died the year before. Sadoul, together with Henri Langlois and the leftist crowd, had pioneered a seminal book on film history, so plans were underway to name a film prize after him to recognize the work of talented young directors. The prize was later renamed Prix Georges et Ruta Sadoul.

I also met Marcel Martin at the Suisse. He headed FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Journalists) and zealously monitored their good deeds when it came time to voting. Louis Marcorelles, who championed the cause of the Semaine Internationale de la Critique (SIC), the sidebar at Cannes that awarded debut directors, stayed at Suisse too – as did Ulrich and Erica Gregor, who later founded the International Forum of New Cinema at the Berlinale, and a score of other notables who collectively could boast of a hundred readable film journals, books, and lexicons.

Here’s where I first learned the benefits of an idle conversation about mainstream movies and the art of the cinema – as though there was scarcely any difference to note between them. You didn’t stand a chance in an exchange with a couple grouchy journalists of the old school: Gene Moskowitz (Mosk) and Hank Werba (Werb) from Variety.

At that time Gene, as a voting member of the SIC jury, had seen literally hundreds of films from some exotic filmlands I had never heard of. And when he waxed eloquently about the joys of attending the Pula film festival in Yugoslavia on the Adriatic coast – “the hottest sun in the Mediterranean!” – I asked if I could tag along. It was the beginning of a 15-year relationship with Variety as the correspondent from Berlin for nearly every movie produced in Socialist Europe.

Gene and Hank, the mugg in Rome, were institutions. They loved cinema. They loved directors even more. Once, when Luis Bunuel was lolling around Cannes, Gene introduced him to Serge Silberman; they formed a creative relationship that produced some of the late masterpieces in the great director’s career. For Gene, Bunuel could do no wrong, and he was delighted to ride The Milky Way with him.

Perhaps by coincidence, or perhaps because the Hotel Suisse really was a haunted hotel, Gene was to spend some of his last days there. Dying of leukemia, he just wouldn’t stay at home when the Cannes festival rolled around. But when he checked into his room, he found he could hardly move to get out of bed.

“Don’t worry, we’ll look after him,” rejoined the personnel when we deliberated on what to do.

The upshot of that short statement was evident within minutes. Almost without asking, the old owners and veteran hotel personnel took shifts looking after a friend as though he was more important than all the bigwigs in town.

Together with another muggs, I took turns picking up Gene’s messages at the press office – until one day, he fell out of bed and had to be rushed to a hospital for another blood transfusion. A few months later, though, he was back at work at Venice – this time in a wheelchair pushed around by Hank.

My favorite anecdote about the Hotel Suisse has to be with “Leo the Liein’” (Leo Kirch) as a Variety mugg loosely used the term. One late afternoon, the entire staff was told to assemble under the tree in front of the hotel. Syd Silverman, the new Variety publisher and editor, who had inherited the late Abel Green’s plush apartment suite in the Hotel Carlton overlooking the Croisette, stopped by to say that we had all been invited to dinner at Mère Besson, the “in” restaurant of the Cannes festival.

Naively, I asked why. One of the oldtimers at the Suisse let me in on the secret. Variety was being sued by the mogul for a story that apparently stretched the truth a bit too far in the direction of libel. “Leo” backed down, however, when one of Frank Sinatra’s lawyers stepped in on the side of the Variety reporter. Loup au fenouil never tasted better. And we were the talk of the Suisse for the rest of the festival.