Where there’s a mass human tragedy, there are often heroes who emerge from the rubble. And then there are those who evade it altogether. The eponymous character of “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” is an example of the latter. In this timely biopic, director Maria Schrader adds another intriguing perspective to one of the darkest moments in human history.
“Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” chronicles the years of exile in the life of one of the most celebrated Austrian authors of the 20th century. Rising to prominence at a time when Nazism was gaining a foothold across Europe, Stefan Zweig made the decision to leave his beloved homeland. As Jewish Austrian, his action is one that leaves him forever conflicted. He tries to find his place in the Americas, living for extended periods in Brazil, Argentina and the United States. But as he wrestles with the decline of European society, he still bears a hopeful affinity for the German people, unable to make a public condemnation of Hitler. The mixed emotions will haunt him forever, as external and internal pressures threaten to overwhelm him.
Divided into parts to reflect Zweig’s nomadic journey, the narrative gets off to a strong start in the prologue and first chapter in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires respectively, where Zweig is to be feted for his contributions to literature. Through media interviews and speeches at a writers congress and other associated events, the central conflict comes into sharp focus. Hailed as the flagbearer for the intellectual cause promoted by writers during wartime, Zweig’s position comes with obvious expectations. But surprisingly, he refuses to speak out against Germany. And as he attempts to rationalize his opinion, the script’s eloquent dialogue comes to the fore. With mentions of the relevance of the 1915 Armenian Revolt and the 1936 Berlin Olympics, these scenes will surely delight history junkies, and more simply, fans of good screenwriting.
Just as other films (“The Monuments Men,” “Woman in Gold”) have explored the loss and reclamation of Jewish art during the Nazi era, Schrader uses Zweig’s thriving career to represent a different type of heroism. Though some see his apolitical stance as cowardice, he fights back in his own way. As he explains to a concerned American journalist, the mere intellectual quality of Jewish scientists and writers are a rebuke to the alleged superiority of the Aryan race.
As the film moves on from this contentious literary sphere, the film admittedly loses some of its power. The narrative becomes as listless as its protagonist as he searches for renewed purpose in New York, and most notably, rural Brazil (which inspired his nonfiction book “Brazil: Land of the Future”). But Schrader is able to at least maintain the visual stimulation through her impressive mise en scène. With her keen eye, she is adept at crafting both the cluttered frames of banquets and conferences as she is with intimate living rooms and open fields. Central to these expressive images is the figure of Stefan Zweig, played with brilliantly understated despair by Josef Hader.
Ultimately, “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” is less a character study than an evocation of a pervading state of mind. And in that sense, the film has unexpected contemporary relevance as exceedingly nationalistic sentiments emerge in the Western world. The film is a lament for a society where a charismatic leader rises to power on the basis of white supremacy and a divided populace. Sound familiar?
“Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” is the Austrian submission for the 2016 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.