Film Review: Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe

Maria Schrader’s boldly understated look at a great, forgotten 20th-century writer is one impressive achievement, all the more admirable for its understated subtlety.
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Stefan Zweig was, next to Thomas Mann, the most widely read writer in the German-speaking world in the first part of the last century. The fact that he is almost completely forgotten today owes to the vagaries of publishing (i.e., books still in print) and his not being taught in schools anymore. The only real mention of him in modern times has been by Wes Anderson, whose Grand Hotel Budapest was inspired by his rich, sweepingly romantic oeuvre, a fact which that director made clearly evident.

To address this serious literary oversight now comes actress-turned-director Maria Schrader. However, instead of the usual “I was born, then…” biopic approach, she instead chooses to focus on Zweig’s final years, in which, as a Jew in Vienna at the start of World War II, he chose to flee to America and then Brazil. There, despairing of the world situation and what he perceived as an overall hopelessness, he and his second wife committed suicide in 1942.

Schrader presents this eminent, world-famous man (played by Josef Hader) in a series of vignettes. We see Zweig, a basically inward type of personality, attending a tiresomely overstaged formal function in his honor; at an anti-Nazi rally where his apparently more ambivalent position on the matter is viewed negatively by some; at home in New York with his first wife (Barbara Sukowa), who sets him straight about how he must use his position to help other Jewish emigrés, even those with whom he has had professional tiffs; then in Petropolis, Brazil, with his second wife, enduring a disaster-ridden village tribute to him; and finally the awful discovery of those two corpses and the loss they represented.

Every man is essentially a mystery, especially a great artist, and Schrader deserves high praise for the extraordinary tact, sensitivity and subtlety with which she seemingly merely glances at Zweig’s rich if abbreviated life and yet manages to convey a real sense of his complexity and greatness. Her star, Hader, is not really an actor, formally speaking, but a comedian. Whatever he is, he is rich with humanity, which especially exudes from his eyes. Surrounded by the lush tropicality of South America, clinging to his scratchy woolen suits as if not to forget his beloved, chillier European roots, Hader deftly conveys Zweig’s misery and feeling of intellectual impoverishment in that veritable Garden of Eden. This is no grandstanding kind of Paul Muni-Great Man approach: Schrader gives him very little to actually say—and we never see him writing, by the way—but the few words he does utter are profound, if simple, and you get a full sense of him as the keen observer who even managed to get under the skin of the female characters he wrote so memorably (and who provided the source for such memorable films asLetter from an Unknown Woman, Liebelei andBeware of Pity, even Marie Antoinette, based on the biography he wrote, which MGM bought for Norma Shearer).

The film is so confidently understated that it may strike some as hard to get into, but Schrader has one formidable secret weapon in the person of the great Sukowa, who provides a fervent heart for the tableaux. She has only one scene, but what a scene it is, as she manages to convey worlds of deep affection, anger at being replaced, and justifiable outrage at Zweig’s narcissistic tunnel vision when it comes to the matter of saving human lives. In a lifetime of moviegoing, I don’t think I have ever seen a film so completely dominated by one person in one scene, doing oh so very much with so little.

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