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There is an extraordinary moment in Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe (Vor der Morgenroete) in which the titular Jewish-Austrian author, in his late fifties, looks out of a car window in Brazil — he’d been living in exile in the Americas since 1940 — and watches a burning sugarcane field, which viewers can see reflected in the window. Simply an exotic sight? Not quite, as actress-turned-director Maria Schrader’s film isn’t only about the literary icon but at least as much about evoking what’s happening offscreen in Zweig’s beloved Europe, which is going up in flames. The staggering emotional toll not only of living far removed from his physical and intellectual Heimatland but of knowing that it was actually being destroyed in his absence would prompt Zweig and his wife to take their own lives in their home in Petropolis, Brazil, in 1942.
A critical darling and modest art house hit in Germany, where it was released in June, Farewell to Europe opened in France last week, where it could do decent numbers, even though it will have tough competition from German Cannes hit Toni Erdmann, released this week. Though more of an art house item than a purely mainstream drama, it recently played Locarno’s 8,000-seat Piazza Grande, which suggests a more international audience might also appreciate this impressively handled if rather atypical biopic.
Schrader has directed several features before but especially abroad, she’s better known as an actress, most notably as Jaguar from Aimee and Jaguar. For the screenplay of Zweig, she has teamed with writer-director Jan Schomburg, in whose Lose My Self she starred. As seems appropriate for a feature about a writer, their screenplay is really the backbone of the film. What makes their work psychologically insightful and also pack a serious emotional wallop is their smart choice to focus on a handful of specific moments, rather than opting for a more traditional bio-drama structure that tries to cram in a much larger chronology in which depth is often sacrificed for mere incidents.
There is nothing didactic or too explanatory about Zweig. The filmmakers assume (rightly so) that audiences coming to see a movie about him will be aware, for example, that alongside Thomas Mann, he was the most-read German-language author of the 1920s. As if to underline the point, Schrader doesn’t even bother to show him engaged in that most un-cinematic of activities: writing. Instead, she focuses on the author’s interactions with others — some purely ceremonial, others more intimate, all of them revealing — to help suggest something about both his character and his slowly decaying sense of place in a world where his body, in exile, might be safe but his mind keeps wanting to wander back to a place he knows is being erased from the map.
The film’s five episodes and an epilogue are set between the mid-1930s and 1942, in various locales in the Americas. In the first and most stately sequence, Zweig attends an official banquet in Brazil, shot in a single, symmetrical and static composition that befits the somewhat stiff ceremonial aspect of the occasion. This also allows the viewer to get to know Zweig from the outside in; like most of those present at the toast, the viewer will know of the author but not know him personally. In his thank-you speech, Zweig (Josef Hader, dignified) admits he has made more friends in Brazil in a couple of days than in years at home, a pronouncement that’s both a happy one — he’s been in exile in Britain and then the Americas since 1934 — but of course also a deeply tragic one.
The author’s complex stance on the Nazi terrors in Europe is examined next, at an international writers conference in 1936 Buenos Aires where he’s asked to denounce the Nazi regime but, to the shock of many, refuses. In a washroom, he offhandedly explains that denouncing something while knowing there’s no risk of possible change as a result is useless. It’s a typically perceptive response from the writer, a man who carefully considered not only the meaning but also the value and possible consequences (or lack thereof) of words.
The film’s look at Zweig’s visit to Bahia State, Brazil, contains the heavily symbolic burning sugarcane-field sequence but also the drama’s drollest moments by far. Their constant travels, for his 1941 nonfiction book, Brazil: Land of the Future, took Zweig and his second wife, Lotte (Aenne Schwarz, radiant), to many small towns that all wanted to honor their famous guest; the fact that a maladroit local mayor and his aides aren’t ready in time for their planned festivities results in a chortle-inducing sequence. By juxtaposing melancholy and lightness in the same segment, Schrader manages to suggest why — despite not wanting for work, being a famous author even in rural Brazil and sometimes actually amusing himself abroad — these surface pleasures never amounted to more than temporary distractions for Zweig. In this regard, Schrader’s expert use of offscreen space — Europe is never seen (and in the film’s original title not even mentioned) — is just as important as the various discussions of the Old Continent.
The film’s coldest episode, in look, manner and actual temperature for the characters, sees the Zweigs visit Stefan’s ex-wife, Friderike (German icon Barbara Sukowa, reliably phenomenal), who’s found refuge in the New York home of Maggie Shapiro in the winter of 1941. Most of Stefan’s discussion with Friderike centers on how to deal with extricating their friends and acquaintances from Europe, with urgent requests for help flooding in. Zweig finds himself in an impossible situation, not wanting to compromise his standing with his contacts (whom he might need in the future for himself), but Friderike points out it’s their duty to help as many as possible.
It’s through laying bare moral quagmires such as these that it becomes clear what kind of maelstrom of thoughts Zweig was dealing with when not writing. And they feed directly into the film’s epilogue, beautifully choreographed by cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, in which the bodies of the Zweigs are discovered in their bedroom in Petropolis. Much of the feature’s quietly accumulated emotional power derives from the fact that viewers have to connect some of the dots themselves. Indeed, just like in the subject’s own work, the imagination of the audience is as important an ingredient for the final result as what is actually written or suggested.
Venue: Locarno International Film Festival
Production companies: X Filme Creative Pool, Ideale Audience, Maha Productions, Dor Film
Cast: Josef Hader, Barbara Sukowa, Aenne Schwarz, Matthias Brandt, Charly Buebner
Director-executive producer: Maria Schrader
Screenplay: Maria Schrader, Jan Schomburg
Producers: Stefan Arndt, Uwe Schott, Pierre-Olivier Bardet, Danny Krausz, Kurt Stocker, Denis Poncet
Director of photography: Wolfgang Thaler
Production designer: Silke Fischer
Costume designer: Juergen Doering
Editor: Hansjoerg Weissbrich
Music: Tobias Wagner
Casting: Lisa Olah, Youna de Peretti, Karen Wendland, Joao Roque
Sales: Films Distribution
Not rated, 106 minutes
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