Ordinarily, I would not recommend Googling the subject of a biopic prior to seeing the film. In the case of Stefan Zweig: Farewell To Europe, I have to make an exception. Director/writer Maria Schrader and co-writer Jan Schomburg operate under the assumption that viewers are already familiar with Zweig’s life. Expending work to piece together the relevant details together may distract viewers from this visually striking and thought-provoking film.
And that would be a shame. Farewell To Europe may be uneven, but it raises interesting questions about the role of an artist during troubled times. It also spotlights the real-life tragedy of an idealistic man who is forced to confront his worst nightmares.
The Austrian-born Zweig achieves worldwide fame in the 1920s through his novels. Everything changes with Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Zweig, who is Jewish, becomes a literary exile in 1934. Farewell To Europe depicts episodes from the last six years of his life.
Not that Zweig becomes less read, or less beloved. The opening section of Farewell To Europe shows Zweig at a reception in Brazil. Schrader opens to a table-filling arrangement of tropical flowers, establishing location and the occasion’s formality. Zweig (Josef Hader) addresses the crowd, saying he has found more friends in Brazil over just a few days than in years spent at home. There is poignancy to the scene, but Schrader wisely moves on instead of emphasizing it.
Conflicts are more pointedly stated in another episode. It takes place at a 1936 PEN (Poets/Essayists/Novelists) International conference held in Buenos Aires. A writer vehemently criticizes the Nazis and faults Zweig for his apolitical stance. At this time, Zweig feels the relevant issue is not politics but culture. He thinks it is a waste of time to denounce the Nazi regime without possessing a viable alternative.
Other episodes lead Zweig to New York, where he encounters first wife Friderike (a predictably wonderful Barbara Sukowa) and, ultimately, to the Brazilian town of Petrópolis with second wife Lotte (Aenne Schwarz). The New York episode, in particular, suffers from the screenplay’s failure to provide backstory. This episode could have been more effective if the screenwriters did not force the audience to guess the nature of the tension between Stefan, Friderike, and Lotte. As it is, the audience is held at a distance when it needs to be engaged.
Another huge drawback for me is that the episodes seem to stop rather than conclude. There does not seem to be an attempt to tie them together-another sign that the filmmakers assume viewers are familiar with the details of Zweig’s life.
Even so, there is quite a lot to commend Farewell To Europe. Wolfgang Thaler’s cinematography is luminous, and Susanne Abel (who handles both art and set direction) does outstanding work. As mentioned before, Sukowa is terrific. Hader is well known for his work in comedy, but he does a good job of playing it straight here. Schwarz is touching as Lotte.
Just remember to do your homework before you go to the theater.
Theme: Dedicated To Stefan Zweig
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