In a better world, everyone would be free to define their identity — whether it be gender, religious, or sexual — as they pleased and let a million gray areas and nuances bloom between the binaries of male and female, Christian and Jew, gay and straight. Obviously, this is not the one we live in.
In the 1920s, writer Stefan Zweig was the second most popular author in the German-speaking world, and his success was brought down only by the rise of Hitler. One can guess the reasons for that: he was Austrian-Jewish. As he described in his excellent memoir “The World of Yesterday,” his Judaism was only incidental for large portions of his life; he spent his adolescence and college years in a Vienna bohemia of aspiring Austrian writers. It seemed coincidental that almost all of them also happened to be Jewish.
Thanks to the New York Review of Books’ re-publication of several of his novels and novellas and Wes Anderson’s nod to Zweig in his film “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Zweig has been experiencing a posthumous resurgence lately. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons German director Maria Schrader was able to get her film “Stefan Zweig: Farewell From Europe,” about the last six years of his life, made.
Maria Schrader explores an Austrian Jewish writer’s reluctant wartime awakening
“Stefan Zweig: Farewell From Europe” consists of five sequences set in Argentina, New York, and Brazil, where Zweig (Josef Hader) and his second wife Lotte (Aenne Schwarz) died in 1942. The film begins in 1936 at a Buenos Aires conference of the writers’ organization PEN, where Zweig is called upon to make an anti-fascist political statement he seems reluctant to do for some reason. This does not exactly endear him to the rest of the conference’s participants and observers. Elsewhere, he roams sugarcane fields with Lotte in Brazil and takes in guests in a claustrophobic New York apartment with his first wife Friderike (Barbara Sukowa). An epilogue set in Brazil covers the end of his life.
Better known as an actress — especially for the lesbian landmark “Aimée and Jaguar” — than a director, Schrader proves quite talented behind the lens. Even Cinemascope is too narrow for her: she uses a 2.39:1 aspect ratio and often fills every centimeter of the screen with people and activity, as well as showing an affinity for long takes. Toward the beginning, she slowly shows a banquet room filling up with a huge crowd and captures them taking their seats while also directing the spectator’s attention to a huge and colorful bowl of flowers in the center of the screen. Later on, she continues to use the widescreen frame in expressive ways, such as a scene in the Zweigs’ New York apartment where Stefan sits in the far left corner and Friderike all the way to the right, aptly conveying their alienation from each other.
At worst, some of Schrader’s directorial choices reek of empty virtuosity, particularly in the epilogue. This scene is mostly shown via a reflection in a mirrored door, which swings open to reveal the image of a dead body. I got the impression her whole choice to use the mirror existed for that shock device, yet it goes on for an additional 10 more minutes. The following hustle and bustle seems somehow beside the point.
A certain amount of heavy-handedness is unavoidable in depicting this portion of Zweig’s life, but Schrader constantly violates the rule “show, don’t tell.” She depicts Zweig talking about his reluctance to criticize the Nazis, then other people expressing their dismay about his decision. In the third section, set in New York, Zweig, at length, expresses his anxiety about being asked to help desperate German- and Austrian-Jewish acquaintances — including ones who panned his work 25 years before — get American visas. He complains about constantly being harassed by visitors, but what we see of his life during this period doesn’t look that terrible to anyone who values active socializing.
The excessive talkiness of these segments contrasts with the sunnier second section, set in Brazil. Schrader and her co-screenwriter, Jan Schomburg, constantly throw in hints that the multi-racial Brazil appreciated by Zweig (at least on the surface) represents present-day Europe’s future as well.
“Stefan Zweig: Farewell To Europe” dodges the structural traps and clichés of most biopics, and it’s far better directed than the typical life story of a great writer, as well. Zweig’s writing was always quite accessible, so one can’t exactly accuse it of betraying an avant-garde artist. But Zweig always had a light touch and reluctance to state the obvious; it was only with the approach of his own mortality that he came to explicit grips with the way the Nazis had ruined his life, in his novella “Chess Story.” It’s a shame that Schrader and Schomburg’s script doesn’t adopt the same aesthetic.
STEFAN ZWEIG: FAREWELL FROM EUROPE | Directed by Maria Schrader | First Run Features | In English and German, French, Spanish, and Portuguese with English subtitles | Opens May 12 | Lincoln Plaza Cinema, 1886 Broadway at W. 62nd St. | lincolnpla
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