We rarely view a film with five principal languages – German, English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. But the film Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe, written and directed by Maria Schrader, pays homage to the last seven years of the extraordinary life of the great Jewish Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (Josef Hader), whose popularity in the 1920s and 30s made him the most translated author in the world. It also telescopes us into his world where, after his writing was banned in Austria and his citizenship revoked on account of his Jewishness, Zweig fled – in exile – to live in London, New York City, and to settle, finally, in Brazil.
The film is divided into segments, each reflecting a different time and place where Zweig and his second wife Lotte (Aenne Schwarz) travelled – Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, New York City, to name a few. But wherever Zweig is, the realities of the ascendency of fascist Europe form, although off-screen, an inextricable part of the story. Nazi horrors and the decline of moral values are never far from Zweig’s inner and tormented world.
One of the earliest dynamics shows itself in Rio, 1936, where Zweig is being honored by the P.E.N (Poets, Essayists and Novelists) Club for their 14th International Conference. American-Jewish journalist Joseph Brainin (André Szymanski), also of Austrian heritage, confronts and challenges Zweig to use his international literary clout to publicly condemn Nazi aggression. Zweig, however, lives in two worlds and one of those worlds is the intellectual world, where there is no room for polemics.
Balancing against the intellectual world of his writing and his idealistic hope for the long-run future of Europe is his emotional world, in which he has lost the very bedrock of his life: his home, homeland, citizenship, and the world of German, the language in which he thinks and writes.
Wherever Zweig goes, requests to sponsor a fellow Jew in Europe for travel to Brazil pursue him. In a remote village in Brazil, he steals time, as the town’s mayor is honoring him, to make some arrangements before Brazil ceases to issue visas. “He who has no country has no future,” he states. In New York City, he and Lotte are guests of Zweig’s first wife Friderike (Barbara Sukowa), who, with her two daughters from her first marriage, crossed the Pyranees by foot in order to escape France and reach the United States. As the clouds of war, devastation and anti-Jewish legislation begin to mount in Europe, Friderike prevails upon him to sponsor another desperate Jewish acquaintance still in Austria for travel to the U.S. Zweig himself aches to have a sense of belonging and of peace, which he needs to write and make a living in this new world. He cannot sponsor everybody.
To demonstrate the increasing desperation of European Jews, director Shrader’s clever camera work shows not scenes of war, but a shot of piles of bundled mail on Frederike’s table with similar requests awaiting the revered writer.
In Petrópolis, Brazil, he and Lotte choose to settle down where they feel the warmth of acceptance, racial and ethnic diversity, and the beauty of an unspoiled land. In this paradise still his mind is restless. He and friend and fellow writer Ernst Feder (Matthias Brandt), who has also settled there, look upon the splendor from the balcony of his home. “We have no reason to complain.”
“No.” Each man stares into the tropical distance. The silence answers.
“Not us.” Both men attest to the impossibility of blocking out the suffering of their kinsmen and the moral depravity now marking Europe.
Most viewers will not know of Zweig or his international renown and will have to piece together a great deal of background information, the film’s most prominent shortcoming. We will wonder what he wrote, the specifics under which he left Austria, why he and Friderike divorced and how they yet maintained a trusting friendship, and more. The transitions between segments are somewhat bumpy.
But the reward of seeing this strong film overcomes this. Passionate acting dynamics, in particular of Josef Hader and Barbara Sukowa, and dialogue place us in the middle of ethical dilemmas. I’m hoping the film inspires viewers to read Zweig’s stories and novellas and his revealing and magnificent autobiography “The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European,” completed in 1939. Viewers may be surprised that his writing was the inspiration behind the critically-acclaimed film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” or that a Jewish writer in the 1920s and 30s could have the international stature that rock stars have today.
One of the film’s lighter moments takes place in a Brazilian village where Zweig is so revered that the mayor hires a marching band to serenade him and Lotte with “The Blue Danube” waltz.
Interestingly, the film’s original title is Stefan Zweig: Before the Dawn, and we might ask what dawn this refers to. Perhaps this is the author’s personal search; perhaps it is the viewer’s search, hoping that Zweig personally, and Europe overall, will reawaken from its Nazi horror and, one morning all will be well.
The final scene in the bountiful unspoiled Petrópolis connects eerily with the film’s opening scene, where he is being honored by the president of Brazil with a lavish and highly orchestrated meal. Flowers are arranged by attendants with the delicacy of heart surgery. How better to then transition to the contradiction between that, and Zweig’s internal world and the external horrors of a suffering Europe and Jewish population.
Some may judge the way the revered Zweig and his wife’s lives ended, so gingerly depicted in this film, but Maria Schrader’s film boldly depicts the monumental challenges encountered by Zweig – a great writer, refugee, pacifist and idealist in search of pride, self-esteem and a life of meaning – when all of Europe and the world he knew was falling apart.