On the trail of Nietzsche in Sils Maria - review by Iain Bamforth

Iain Bamforth

Six Thousand Feet Beyond Humankind

On the trail of Nietzsche in Sils Maria


When Friedrich Nietzsche had his vision of eternal recurrence on the banks of Lake Silvaplana during his first visit to the Engadin in 1881, the Waldhaus hotel had yet to be built. It was erected between 1905 and 1908 by the architect Karl Koller for a local hotelier (and is still in the possession of the same family) on a forested hill above the neighbouring Lake Sils, one of a cluster of supremely elegant, very imposing, rather four-square grand hotels that preside over the valley running from St Moritz to Maloja. These hotels resemble ocean liners unaccountably stranded in an austerely granitic landscape. Work on the equally imposing Maloja Palace at the other end of Lake Sils was under way in the year following the philosopher’s initial visit, so Nietzsche must have witnessed its completion in 1884.

If the Waldhaus owed its construction to the increasing numbers of travellers to the Graubünden region, including wealthy British tourists in search of the ‘Bernina view’ (accessible thanks to the railway route from London to Chur) and convalescents and winter sports enthusiasts from all over Europe, it certainly owes much of its subsequent fame to Nietzsche – at least by posthumous association. Its guest book is a roll call of distinguished European artists, musicians and writers, especially from the German-speaking world. The hotel – with its stucco lustro ceilings, Persian carpets and spacious drawing room with resident string quartet – has starred in several films, including Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), in which Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, a middle-aged actress who is having to adapt to a showbiz world increasingly in thrall to the teen demographic; Kristen Stewart plays her younger personal assistant, Valentine. Their rather stilted dialogue is interrupted with brooding black-and-white extracts from Arnold Fanck’s 1924 documentary Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja, which shows, from high above, clouds sidling up the valley. These are the moults of the famous ‘Maloja Snake’ – the symbolism of shedding skin being fitting for a film about ageing and acting. 

In the last, productive decade of his wandering around Europe, Nietzsche had to count his cents and could never entertain the idea of staying in any of the Engadin’s grand hotels – although he often took his midday meal at the more modest Edelweiss or Alpenrose hotels in Sils. His

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