On Sept. 18, as the first installment of a three-week German film festival, Images Cinema screened a 2016 partial biopic centering on the self-exile of one of the 20th century’s great European writers in response to the ultimately continent-destroying rise of Nazi Germany.
Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe, directed by Maria Schrader and starring Josef Hader as the title character, is a film with a remarkably specific scope – its visual storytelling is almost incidental to its character study of the renowned Austrian Jewish novelist. That study narrows to the final years of his life in the midst of the second World War; in so doing, the film provides a haunting portrayal of how even a man of considerable wealth and prestige could suffer enormously by being forced to flee from his home country to escape the Nazi regime.
The film strips away any pretense of being a flowing dramatic narrative, instead dividing itself into chapters with title cards that provide the date and location for each vignette of Zweig’s exile. The first of these opens with a still shot of colorful flowers, which are then revealed to be table decorations in a room overflowing with opulence and prestige. In this first setting, Zweig’s character is defined as a culturally revered writer and public figure, even as he has been forced to leave his home behind. When asked to take a stand on the events occurring in Nazi Germany, he refuses, thinking such statements to be perfunctory when he has no power over the situation.
While at first he has the opportunity to express this opinion in academic terms at a conference of writers, the reality of his powerlessness becomes increasingly crushing as the film moves on. Zweig lacks not at all in material resources, and his facility with multiple languages means he has little trouble communicating in New York, Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro. He cannot speak his native tongue consistently, however, which serves as a constant reminder that he is entirely alienated from Europe, the continent that his seminal work The World of Yesterday sought so earnestly to understand and which is in the process of being consumed by one of history’s darkest cataclysms. While conversations with family and newfound friends provide some measure of nominal optimism, the tenuousness of his new life is omnipresent, especially in a difficult exchange with his ex-wife Friderike.
That the film positions its finale as a post-mortem after his and his wife Lotte’s suicides provides a brutal check against the outward illusions of contentment, including his own naïveté about Brazil being an anti-racist antidote to the genocidal war-zone of the Europe he never saw again. Despite being unable to see beneath the surface of idyllic upper class life in his final home, the pressures of being a refugee prove inescapable.
With such morose thematic material to work with, the cast acquits themselves admirably, with Hader and the ensemble carrying a dialogue-heavy screenplay with both the ease of casual conversations and the tension of intractable misery.
The film’s laser-focused narrative, while thematically provoking in its own right, is not easily appealing to all audiences – and it does not try to be. While a base level of knowledge about Zweig’s life and work would certainly enhance the experience, the decision to only include the chapters of his life after exile from Europe works in that it grounds the context of Zweig’s illustrious career, whether known to the audience or not, in a profound sense of displacement and loss. That Zweig’s means allow him to escape the Holocaust and that non-elite refugees face much more imminent danger and horrific abuse ensures that this film will not be the most important contribution to an ever-topical subject; however, Farewell to Europe understands the scale on which it operates, and the quiet humility with which it stages a deeply intellectual story provides a clarifying gravitas to one small human vector amidst an atrocity the horrific ramifications of which can never be truly processed.
‘Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe’ centers on the theme of isolation in the midst of the Holocaust. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.