Farewell to Europe: Maria Schrader's Stefan Zweig biopic pays tribute to a great, nearly forgotten writer

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The great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig is almost completely forgotten in this country, but he nevertheless lives on in actress-turned-director Maria Schrader’s elegiac ode to him, Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe. Instead of tackling this great, tragic man’s entire storied life, she presents him in a series of brief episodes, which illumine various aspects of his personality and mind. She primarily focuses on his final years, in exile, in Brazil, where he, a Jew, and his second wife, fled the Nazis. Safe and sound, it would seem, in a tropical paradise, there was no reason not to believe that he would wait out the war years and eventually return home to his beloved and sorely missed Vienna. Unfortunately, his fortitude and patience were unequal to his inner psychological turmoil and despairing dismay at a brutal world. The bodies of him and and his wife were discovered in their bed, suicides.

It’s typical of the sublime tact of Schrader as filmmaker that she doesn’t milk this final, horrible event as almost any other director would, in these gratuitously graphic times. The taking of lives is not even shown and the most we receive is a pathetic quick, distant and infinitely mysterious and pathetic shot of the Zweigs, as reflected in the mirrored door of their wardrobe, left slightly ajar.

Film Journal International: What was the impetus behind your wonderful, important film?

Maria Schrader: I had done some movies set during this period and I knew about Zweig, but I wasn’t really aware of how he still haunted people. Also, there was this whole theme of being in exile. When you read about him, you realize what it means to be an exile because of his last years in Petropolis, Brazil. He was such a public figure, so very well known and welcome as a statesman wherever he traveled. And, at the same time, he was not able to be published in his own language anymore. He was a radical pacifist—his own political position was different from that of Thomas Mann’s, say—and to end up in this incredibly beautiful but at the same time incredibly tragic place in Brazil, Petropolis: You see him in pictures, surrounded by this so-called paradise, this little European figure amidst all that tropical beauty, and that was such a strong visual image.

I could go on forever, I found him so interesting in everything I read about his decision to move, and also that incredible final decision to take his own life, even though he was so much better off than millions of others. His life was almost like a literary tale in itself.

FJI: I’ve been fascinated with him since childhood, when I attempted to read his biography of Marie Antoinette, so obsessed was I about her as a child. Then I realized what a rich source his novels have been for beautiful film adaptations like Max Ophuls’ exquisite Letter from an Unknown Woman and Liebelei, Beware of Pity and Burning Secret, one of the very first film reviews I ever wrote. I researched his life and was stunned to read about that suicide.

MS:That suicide shocked the world. He had planned it with his second wife and they wrote farewell letters to family and friends. He couldn’t seem to distance himself from what was going on in Europe. He had dedicated so much of his work to this idea of a free united Europe without national borders, and today he is considered one of the masterminds of the European Union.

I thought all of this would be an interesting topic for a movie. It goes beyond mere survival, for he was a person of deep responsibility, with much of his money used to help others. And he couldn’t turn into a private person, even in exile. He was still a public figure, and everything he did was under surveillance.

There’s a mystery about it all, but Itried to respect the complexity of his situation. Of course, as a filmmaker, you have to ask yourself the question: Am I supposed to answer any of these questions? Or, rather portray the dilemma in all of its complexity because Zweig was a master of empathy and nuance?

I purposely chose not to do a conventional biopic—i.e., he was born in Vienna, etc., etc. If you were to ask me, I’d say it was about the exile of one of the most celebrated artists of his time. I chose to focus on the most fascinating part of his life.

FJI: So you filmed these sequences in Brazil?

MS:Actually, no. In Africa, we found this small island. It was an ex-Portuguese colony which looks exactly like Petropolis. Brazil is now a very prosperous country, and we could not have done it if we had gone there. But that African island was untouched since the 1940s, so historic, and some of our crew members, who were Brazilian, said it looked just like Petropolis, in the middle of a rainforest.

We shot in Lisbon as well, and our location manager had shown us a picture of this island. There was no infrastructure for filmmaking, but a scout found a place which could house fifty cast and crew members. That island was one of the great gifts of the movie—our only alternative would have been to go to some botanical garden and we were so grateful that we found it and were allowed to travel there.

FJI: I happen to be from Hawaii and could relate to Zweig’s dilemma. I was surrounded by tropical gorgeousness but it was very depressing, even oppressive, because there was no culture or intellectual life, and I could not wait to leave when I turned 18. I loved that you didn’t ever show him gnashing his teeth or tearing his hair out. Your actor, Josef Hader, expressed everything with his deeply melancholy eyes, and the way he clung to heavy, scratchy woolen clothing, even in the tropics, like other German expatriates. How did you choose him to play this important role?

MS:Yes, that beauty was an extra cruelty—you had that tension of all these Europeans in front of those banana trees. Josef Hader you may not be familiar with, but he is a superstar in Austria, everybody knows of him. He is really more of a comedian and does cabaret, and ordinarily he would never be in a movie like this. I thought he was an interesting choice because he is a tremendous actor, first of all, and is an artist in his own right in his career, and would not be thought of for a biopic, which is exactly what I did not want to make.

FJI: And then you have the great Barbara Sukowa, as Zweig’s passionate first wife, who invested the movie with such deep humanity in her one scene. Amazing!

MS:She is the greatest, I really love her. You know, I think there is hardly anyone like her who combines so elegantly and so easily the elements of the mother figure, practical, warm, and she manages to rescue not only herself but her daughter and her daughter’s husband, and install them in a new home in New York in no time. [Her character] is so full of energy but at the same time is also such an intellectual figure, always in Zweig’s thoughts. It’s quite rare to be able to combine this intellectual quality with such accessible warmth.

I can’t praise her enough, to be honest. Everyone on our set got so much from her. She’s very well prepared, of course, and brings her whole body of work with her everywhere she goes. She is also such a knowledgeable person regarding this era, and doesn’t hold back. She throws herself into her character and has the most incredible attitude. She’s a great collaborator, and spreads the most wonderful empathy around her. She was always searching for a better way to approach the scene, and when she had breaks she would chat with everyone. Such warmth, everything she does is pleasurable and she’s such fun.

FJI: In your film there is actually not a whole lot about Zweig’s actual writing—you never see him at the typewriter, to use a clichéd image. Only once do you hear a lady say to him that he understands women so well.

MS:Yes, and besides his novels, he was an incredible historical biographer as well.  He had such a big life that the question was how to do a movie about him. If you try to squeeze it into a melodramatic structure—point A leads to B leading to C—and the ending leads to his suicide, that’s not life. If you want to capture a complex figure like Zweig, you cannot pretend to give a full picture within the length of a feature film, impossible. So, instead, we got inspired by a specific, very few moments in real time, as if we open a small window six times into his life. It lasts maybe fifteen minutes, and then we close that window, allowing you to imagine the other 150 moments of his life. This idea was the birth of the whole project and it gave us great freedom.

FJI: How was your film received in Europe?

MS: It was actually very successful in Germany, as well as France, our co-producer. In Austria, it had the biggest box office, and I was accompanying it to various territories. It’s opening in South America right now and I am so sorry I cannot be there or in New York because I’m shooting a film. It opened in Denmark and Spain, where it was very successful, they had 40 copies of the print and now need 60. 

We started working on this film in 2011, and we never could have foreseen how relevant the topics of exile and oppressive regimes would become, as they are now. This is a film about the man who helped invent the whole concept of a unified Europe, what was thought to be only a historic dialogue. But a German newspaper put us on their front page with the headline “Escape to Europe.”

Wherever I travel with this movie it seems to be at home, because every metropolitan city is full of stories of exiles, people leaving their country and building new lives elsewhere.

FJI: What is it you’re shooting in London now?

MS:It’s a miniseries for the BBC, “The City & the City,” based on China Miéville’s novel, and I’m playing one of the leads. Our director is Tom Shankland, who has directed episodes of “House of Cards,” and it stars David Morrissey, an interesting series that been sold to the U.S. as well. 

I find it the greatest luxury to go from behind the camera to in front of it. I’m really enjoying it, and the second season of “Deutschland” is coming up, so this is really an acting year for me.

FJI: You are such a wonderful actress. Aimee & Jaguarstill haunts me. I will never forget the finale, when you are dragged out of hiding by the Nazis, what very well may have happened to Zweig if he had not been able to flee.

MS:You know, hardly a day goes by that someone does not talk to me about that film. I just saw it again a week ago in Berlin, where it was presented in the same theatre where it premiered 18 years ago.

That movie lives on for various reasons, but also because it treats the homosexual love story like any other love story, except the war got in their way. If you really look at movies that have a gay love story, like Brokeback Mountain, those stories have a tragic turn because the characters are gay. Ours was a gay love story, but the problem was the war, not being gay, really. I think people still love and remember that film for that reason.