When German director Maria Schrader began her work some years ago on her new historical feature film, “Stefan Zweig: Farewell To Europe,” she had no idea just how relevant it would soon become.
Set before and during World War II, the film is about the final years of the prolific Jewish Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. As the Nazis rose to power, Zweig fled his native Austria, went into exile, and eventually committed suicide in 1942. But with the global refugee crisis, the UK’s recent pro-Brexit vote, and the US election of Donald Trump, the film highlights resonant parallels between the political forces that destroyed Zweig’s world and those taking root globally today.
“Stefan Zweig,” an Austrian-German-French production, is Austria’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the upcoming 89th Academy Awards.
Schrader, who is also a successful actress (Aimee & Jaguar), became fascinated by the exile-induced psychological turmoil that plagued the Vienna-born Zweig, one of the most popular and translated writers of the first half of the 20th century.
As the New York Times‘ A.O. Scott put it, Zweig “left behind an almost absurdly various and voluminous body of work.” A contemporary of Joseph Roth, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Herzl, his short stories and novellas were his strength. While some criticized his prose for being too lightweight, others praised it for its humanism and simplicity.
Lately, a new generation became aware of Zweig when Wes Anderson revealed that his 2014 critically acclaimed comedic film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was inspired by some of Zweig’s short stories.
Despite escaping and finding safety first in England, and then on the other side of the Atlantic, Zweig was haunted by the brutal disintegration of the liberal, cosmopolitan Europe he loved, and by the horrors that had befallen those he had left behind.
In six beautifully shot episodes, Schrader’s film tells the story of Zweig’s life in exile between 1936 and his suicide (together with his second, and much younger, wife Lotte) in February 1942 at the age of 60 in Petropolis, Brazil.
The film’s pacing is unconventional, but effective as things unfold in what seems like real time. It was a deliberate choice made by Schrader.
“I dreamed of making an historical documentary with the tools used to make a fictional feature,” the director said.
In the film’s first episode, the famous author is welcomed and honored like a statesman to Rio de Janeiro in August 1936. The Brazilian foreign minister introduces Zweig to a large group of dignitaries. Zweig, who is banned from publication in Nazi Germany, is impressed by Brazilian society, especially for its peaceful coexistence of people of different races.
The second episode jumps ahead only one month to September 1936, where we see Zweig at a P.E.N. literary congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Eighty writers from 50 countries have gathered to discuss the position of the writer in society, in particular against the backdrop of rising fascism in Europe. In an interview with journalists pressing him to go on the record with a condemnation of Hitler, Zweig refuses, maintaining that as a pacifist and an artist, he will not use words as a weapon to respond to the ruthlessness of his opponents.
‘I won’t speak against Germany. I would never speak against a country’
“I won’t speak against Germany. I would never speak against a country. And I won’t make an exception,” he asserts.
Zweig, played with intelligent restraint by Josef Hader, is also visibly uncomfortable when the gathering stands in reverence as the names of famous intellectuals forced into exile are announced. It is almost too much for him to bear as the crowd erupts into applause as his own name is read out and he is expected to stand.
Next, the film flashes ahead to Bahia, Brazil in January 1941 where, after lecture tours through South America for months after leaving their home in England following the war’s outbreak, Zweig and his wife traipse through a sugarcane field under a burning sun. Zweig also pens telegrams to ambassadors in South America, using his connections to get visas for friends trapped in Europe, symbolized by a burning field he glimpses through a car window.
The film’s fourth, and strongest episode, takes place immediately afterwards in New York City. There, Zweig is reunited with his first wife, Friderike (played by the captivating Babara Sukowa, who had the title role in “Hannah Arendt,” a 2013 film about another famous Jewish exile). Friderike has made it to the US with her two grown daughters from her first marriage and their husbands. Their escape was thanks to Varian Fry, an American journalist who ran a rescue network in Vichy France that helped several thousand high profile Jewish and anti-Nazi intellectuals leave Europe through the port of Marseilles.
An anguished Zweig speaks with Friderike about the desperate letters friends and acquaintances trapped in Europe send him, begging him to get them out. He has spent much of his money already on guarantees, and he feels hopeless and powerless as he is unable to help everyone, and also suspects that many are already dead.
Although Zweig’s American publisher shows up with good news about Zweig’s books and offers Zweig and Lotte a place to stay and work in New Haven, Connecticut, the couple is not long for the US Northeast.
Indeed, the film’s fifth episode brings them back to Brazil, this time to Petropolis in November 1941. It is the writer’s 60th birthday. His depression is evident even as he bumps into an old friend, a Jewish German newspaper editor who has also ended up in this city two hours from Rio.
The film’s epilogue presents Zweig and Lotte’s friends, neighbors and servants gathered in their home after the couple has been found dead in their bed, after killing themselves by ingesting poison.
Zweig left a suicide note, in which he wrote: “I send greetings to all of my friends: May they live to see the dawn after this long night. I, who am most impatient, go before them.” (The suicide note is now held by Israel’s national library.)
Criticism has been leveled at Zweig not only for refusing to speak out against fascist nationalism, but also for killing himself.
“Other German-speaking writers and artists — Thomas Mann, Hannah Arendt and Bertolt Brecht are three well-known, contrasting examples — turned survival into a form of resistance. They were determined, in the face of moral and political catastrophe, to press ahead into the world of tomorrow. Zweig…saw himself, at 60, as someone who belonged irrevocably to the past,” A.O. Scott wrote.
Schrader, however, told The Times of Israel she was sympathetic to her subject. She understood the loneliness he felt among other writers and intellectuals.
“This was a case of a man of words holding back his words because there was no way for him to articulate what he wanted to say in a differentiated, nuanced way. Zweig was a radical pacifist and therefore wouldn’t use language as a means of combat,” Schrader said.
She recognized that some perceived Zweig’s suicide as an act of cowardice, but she preferred to see it as a pacifist’s ultimate act of resistance.
“He was torn between two worlds. He was physically in a new place, but he couldn’t distance his mind from thoughts of what was happening in Europe and the pain of others. His talent for fantasy became a curse the minute he became an exile,” Schrader explained.
The director suggested the world today should take a page from Zweig’s book.
“Today, you just need to click and say, ‘I am for this’ or ‘I am against this,’ but it doesn’t mean anything,” Schrader said.
“LIke Zweig, we need more words. We need to see the whole picture, to see developments on a larger scale — not just from today to tomorrow. If we simplify things too much, we are in danger of answering radicalism with radicalism.”