Review

Walter Wyss, Being on the Outside and never Flying Home

The first time I heard about Walter Otto Wyss was when Rik had found out who had made these amazing images. He had found them online, and every five minutes or so I was called to his office, and shown another photo. There was something strange about these photo’s. They were obviously made by a skilled photographer. On some of the photo’s someone (mostly a good looking woman) was posing, but there seem to be a lack of connection between the photographer, and the person before the camera.

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The photographer was able to capture the magic moments other people don’t see. Who was the man who photographed George Barris, Marcia Campbell, dancing women, breathtaking street scenes, and those amazing cars? After quite some researching we learned more about Walter Otto Wyss. We got in touch with Tobias Wyss who kindly send us a copy of the DVD Flying Home. Flying Home is a documentary about Walter Otto Wyss, lovingly made by his nephew, documentary maker Tobias Wyss. Walter was Tobias’ much admired uncle in Far Away America, even though they only met at the end of Walters life.

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Walter Otto Wyss: cars and photography
Walter Wyss was born in Switzerland, as the youngest son of an upper middle class family. He was good looking, smart, and well off. Destined for a smooth future. His father owned a white electric car, a rarity in those days. At an early age Walter started building cars in his fathers garage. First the W1 and then the W2, both pretty eye catching cars. But then there was an accident in which a man was killed. Walter spent six weeks in jail. The whole horrible story, especially the doing jail time, was covered with a veil of silence. Nobody knew about it, or maybe they did, since an aunt states to Tobias: “We don’t talk about it in this family”.

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In 1939, Walter Wyss went to the United States, and worked at Ford Motor Company. How he got there, and what he did is not mentioned in the documentary. But little Tobias in Switzerland was very proud of his uncle. The Wyss family had a black and white photograph with Walter Wyss standing prominently next to Henry Ford. Of course Tobias was proud of his uncle.

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A car that was way ahead of its time
After the war Walter went to Wichita. There he found a job at Beechcraft Aircraft where he got the opportunity to develop a brand new concept car (A quick Google search learns that Walter might have been lured away from Ford). From 1946 Walter worked on the Beechcraft Plainsman car. Not a real looker, to say the least. But very innovative and economical. In a time where nobody cared about gas milage of oil shortage, Walter Wyss built a hybrid car.

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A former colleague remembers: “Gas was 15 cents a gallon. Nobody knew the gas milage on their car.” Walter devoted all his knowledge and time to the car. He even brought a bed to his office, so he wouldn’t waste precious time traveling. A few hundred thousand dollars later, Beechcraft shut down the project. The Cold War started, and Beechcraft stopped spending money on the automotive industry. Walter sold his war bonds, and started a life in which he pursued all the things he liked: photography, languages, and traveling.  For years he travelled  through Europe, Asia, and the United States.

An unfathomable man
Who was my uncle? That is Tobias Wyss’ question. Who was this man who wrote his mother over 500 letters: “Dear mammy, do you know how shy I am? Too shy to approach someone.” Who is the man who left behind over 25.0000 photographs, suitcases full of camera’s and quite some money? Who took photos of many gorgeous women in the 1950’s, but never got married? Who travelled the world, and made photographs that transcends the common tourist snap shots by far.

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Tobias unravels his uncles life, based on the letters and photographs, and the few encounters uncle and nephew had in Hawaii. He follows the letters. He visits the Ford factory but that turns out to be a bit of a shock. In a Ford magazine, Walter is disappeared from the picture, apparently due to being an unknown person. The Ford people didn’t want to take the risk of portraying an unknown man next to their precious mr. Ford, and airbrushed him out of the image. Walter is still in the original photo, but gone in the print in the magazine.

Tobias meets the beautiful Martinique who was in a relationship with Walter (in the documentary the eighty-years old woman is dancing with Tobias, showing the most tight upper arm muscles, I’ve ever seen at the woman her age). Martinique was a dancer, and seven months pregnant, when they first meet in the 1950’s. Walter writes his mother: ‘this dark skinned woman gives me something I cannot find with other women’.  Martinique recalls it was the first time she had to made a pass at a man, but the relation ends. Leaving Walter with a huge stack of photographs of a dancing Martinique.

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Not a hermit at all
Walter moved to Japan. Which is, come to think of it, not quite a common decision, particularly in those days. He lives a very simple life. “He slept curled up in a tiny room, filled with only text books”, a Japanese women remembers. Walter spends his days in a radio studio, where he learns Japanese by listening to tapes of books from, among others, Nobel prize winner Kawabata. Walter writes his mother: “Instead of living my own life, I have immersed myself in the life of the people in the stories. It’s not what I wanted, but it happened, and I don’t have the strength to change it.” One would expect that Walter was very lonely. But the many letters of disappointed, rejected or longing Japanese women, contradict that assumption. Walter was a very busy man in Japan. However, there was no lasting relationship.

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Meeting uncle Walter
Walter went to Hawaii, Honolulu. There Tobias meets his uncle for the first time. Walters mother had died in the beginning of the eighties, and he refuses to undersign some papers. Tobias jumps to the change to meet his uncle, and heads for Honolulu. In the (very eighties style) office of Walters broker they meet. Thankfully, Tobias filmed their first meeting. To the viewer this is quite a shock (at least it was to me) the good looking, well proportioned Walter has become a small, very old man with a permanently hooked body. His broker whispers that Walter is VERY well-off, and Walter walks around in the office as if it was his own living room. Proudly showing the cheap photo copies his nephew brought him of Walter in his young, good looking, Hollywood days.

One of the last things we see is Tobias visiting his uncle for the last time. Walter is very fragile, lying in his hospitable bed. Not longer able to communicate. The way Tobias is touching his uncles hand, as if he’s trying to let him know that he is not alone, is very moving. It is a stark, and honest image of the essence of loneliness.
 

Is this a good documentary?
If you focus on the relationship of the Wyss family, the loneliness of the odd-one out, a man not being able to communicate, then it is a touching story, made with skill and integrity. Come to think of it, just image how hard it would be to show – even the the tiniest bit of the dark underbelly of your own family – to the world. And I for one, was happy to get to  at least some insight of the amazing Walter Otto Wyss Walter and his family, through the eyes of his nephew. I fully enjoyed Flying Home.

We want more
But now I want to learn more about Walter Wyss the photographer, and Walter the innovator…way more. Those enigmatic images that Walter took, deserve a wide audience. What makes them so special is the fact that every image is a mere expression of wonder. Made by a man who never fitted in, who never belonged to a place, or a person. He captured complete decades from his own unique perspective. Viewers who watch the documentary get to see some photographs, and learn something about the cars. But, due to the focus of the documentary, miss out on quite some beauty and innovative power.

There is a well made little 16 page booklet that comes with the DVD, but all the text are in German. And there are some interviews with Tobias Wyss on the DVD (the extras). But those are in Schweizerdeutsch (Swiss German). Thanks to my Swiss grandmother, I could follow a bit, but how many viewers had a Swiss grandmother? It is almost as if the movie was never intended to be seen be a larger international audience. And that would be a real shame.

Yes, we want more.

CCC-Walter-Wyss-DVD-17-WDuring the introduction of the Flying Home movie a small exhibition with some of Walter’s photos and camera collection was shown to the audience at a movie festival. (photos by Tobias Wyss)

 

Flying Home – Theatrical Trailer, English from Mira Film on Vimeo.

 

 
  • Playtime 80 min
  • Language German, English, Japanese, Italian.
  • Subtitles English (only for the movie)
  • Region Free DVD
  • Available from Mira Film
  • Website find more info about the movie at the Flying Home Website
 

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About the Author

Esther de Charon de Saint Germain
Esther is our design, art, fashion and other none-car-related-topics contributor. She is an art historian with a degree in Asian Contemporary Art , a communication professional with extensive experience in design, contemporary art, communications and events and a personal coach. She is infected with the custom car and hot rod virus (an unavoidable result of being married to Rik Hoving) but (due to being a coach and all) especially likes the stories about the people who built them.