Maria Schrader has set herself a very ambitious agenda in Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe, one that would give pause to even a veteran writer/director.
Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe (German: Vor der Morgenröte) written and directed by Maria Schrader. Presented by the Boston Jewish Film Festival at the West Newton Cinema, Newton, MA, on December 13.
By Helen Epstein
In his autobiography The Turning Point, author Klaus Mann writes about the way his mentor Stefan Zweig, and other establishment figures of the 1920s, reacted to the German Reichstag elections of September, 1930. In that election, the Nazis won six and a half million votes, an increase from 12 seats in the legislature to 107.
“It was a terrific blow,” Mann notes. “Everybody, including the Nazis themselves, seemed bewildered by the magnitude of this triumph … In literary circles, defeatism and uncertainty prevailed. More and more of my friends began to wonder if the spirit of youth and revolution was not perhaps, after all, with the other side … Even so mature a thinker as Stefan Zweig, whose true devotion to peace and freedom is beyond any doubt, seemed impressed and confused. Whose fault is it, he asked after the September elections, if millions manifest their disappointment with democracy? His answer was: our fault, evidently enough; the fault of the democrats.”
“Whereupon he explained the Hitler victory as ‘a perhaps unwise but fundamentally sound and approvable revolt of youth against the slowness and irresolution of high politics.’”
Mann published his autobiography in 1942, after a decade of political violence in Germany and a massive emigration of non-Jewish artists and intellectuals as well as Jews out of Central Europe. That year, Zweig and his second wife, Lotte Altmann – as well as many other Central European Jews – joined a roster of prominent Central Europeans who were murdered or who killed themselves in despair as Hitler seemed to be winning the Second World War. Stefan and Lotte Zweig died as double suicides in their home in Petropolis, Brazil where they tried and failed to start a new life.
Zweig explored many of his thoughts about literature, politics, policy, and the role of the artist in his celebrated memoir The World of Yesterday and, indirectly, in several of his long biographical essays. Maria Schrader’s film attempts to dramatize what Zweig left out of that memoir — his harried, exhausting final years when he was nearing the age of 60. In 1934, his home in Salzburg had been ransacked and his books burned. He fled to Bath, England and moved from place to place until the end of his life.
Schrader has set herself a very ambitious agenda in Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe, one that would give pause to even a veteran writer/director. She is a German actress, best known in the U.S. for her starring (and very powerful) turn in the role of the Jewish partner in the film Aimee and Jaguar. In this, her second film as a director, she takes on the challenge of evoking the inner life of a famous and famously complicated intellectual struggling to negotiate a world in which he can find no comfortable place in which to live or work. Among the world’s best-selling authors in translation (outselling Thomas Mann), he was both a recluse and a self-promoter, thought by many to be a closeted gay man.
I was fascinated by Schrader’s project of bringing this character to the screen, and how she dramatized his relationships with friends, colleagues, journalists, and two wives, as well as his relationship to his work. There is not much discussion of Zweig’s literary output, nor do we see him actually writing much — as in more primitive films about authors. Instead, we see how and what a writer observes and how he withdraws in order to protect a literary career in the face of what seems like erasure. Zweig was unable to publish in his own language, unable to access most of his papers and files, and unable to cash in on his considerable royalties. At the same time, he was besieged by hundreds of pleading letters from colleagues, old friends, and strangers trying to get out of Europe. He attempted, in the face of these circumstances, to maintain a semblance of his formerly secluded life while trying to produce new work and to keep up a public presence as a writer.
Schrader’s film, taking a cue from Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage is structured in a way that might be called “Six Fragments from an Exile.”
It begins with a full screen shot of tropical flowers — bright, lavish, colorful — that turn out to be the centerpiece of an ultra-formal banquet in Rio de Janeiro in August 1936, a scene meticulously reconstructed from newsclips, diaries, and letters of the time. That summer, Zweig had stopped in Brazil en route to Buenos Aires for a PEN conference. Portugese, Spanish, German, and French are spoken; the subtitles are in English. Although the scene is overlong and everyone speaks slowly, there is so much to take in (even after a second viewing) that it’s difficult for the viewer to know what to focus on.
The next fragment takes place at the PEN conference in Buenos Aires, where Zweig is the guest of honor. He is first interviewed by a group of journalists (again in several languages) who ask pointed questions about his refusal to condemn Nazism, then appears on a panel where an anti-Nazi colleague speaks passionately about the situation of writers and Jews in Nazi Germany, about those who have died there and those who have have fled, such as Zweig. Schrader does an excellent job of showing Zweig’s ambiguous stance in this context: he can be read as a coward, an idealist, an idiot, an opportunist, and whatever else the viewer projects on his pale, placid face. He acknowledges applause from the colorful international audience (again, it’s difficult for the viewer to know what the director means to foreground and background), but does not himself speak.
In the third of the six fragments, Zweig and Lotte are shown touring a field of sugarcane, and trying valiantly to adapt to their new reality. Everywhere he goes, the famous writer is pursued by telegrams from refugees asking for help, obliged to ask favors from people in power, and to accomodate local dignitaries anxious to fete him. In one of the most poignant moments of the film, Zweig and Lotte stand sweating in the tropical heat while a terribly off-key brass band serenades them with an attempt at a quintessentially Viennese tribute: the Blue Danube waltz.
That’s followed by a scene of a massive snowstorm in Manhattan where Zweig is shown visiting his first wife, Friderike, and her daughters, and his American publisher Ben Huebsch. The last two scenes are in Petropolis, where Zweig and a former Jewish German editor commiserate about their exile and writer tries to cheer his friend up. The film concludes with the suicide scene.
Director Schrader succeeds in showing us the world through the eyes of a desperate refugee writer who is consistently well portrayed by Josef Hader. The actor vaguely resembles Zweig, and captures his mysteriousness, his discreet charm, his belief in European ideals, his narcissism, and his ambiguous refusal to speak out decisively against Hitler. The wonderfully subtle and strong actress Barbara Sukowa portrays the first Mrs. Zweig, practical and patient Friderike (see her memoir, Married to Zweig) and Aenn Schwarz is excellent as the second Mrs. Zweig. One of the highlights of the film is when the first and second Mrs. Zweig meet at the door of a borrowed apartment in a hilarious parody of German convention that seems to have held up in the worst of times.
The supporting cast is also superb, the details of costume and locales impeccable. The film’s fragmented structure clearly mirrors the fragmented nature of Zweig’s life in exile. Schrader’s technique of incorporating translation into the script is useful at times, but too often it slows down the action, posing difficulties for the viewer in its attempt to illustrate the many difficulties that confront Zweig.
Zweig is shown as overwhelmed by his circumstances. I was overwhelmed by trying to process all the narrative’s information — verbal and visual — while trying to read the subtitles. I wondered whether a German speaker, who would not be distracted by the translation and more familiar with the era’s cultural history, would find the film more cohesive than I did. I wish I could say that all of the fragments add up to an unequivocally satisfying film. It didn’t for me. But I recommend it to anyone interested in Zweig, in the psychological trauma of seeking refuge, and the situation of a gifted and established literary figure forced out of his homeland.
Helen Epstein and her husband have published most of Stefan Zweig’s non-fiction at Plunkett Lake Press.