‘Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe’: An Outsider’s View of WWII ✮✮✮

As one might suspect, to appreciate Austria’s official entry for the 89th Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film, ‘Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe,’ one must know something about Zweig. Told episodically, this handsomely realized movie looks at the life of this Austrian Jewish writer between 1936 to 1942 with little exposition. Rather than answering why Zweig died, the movie uncomfortably reminds us of the desperation of immigrants at a time when borders were rapidly closing.

Who was Stefan Zweig? Zweig’s novella, “Letter from an Unknown Woman” was adapted into a 1948 dramatic romance film of the same name that starred Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan, Mady Christians and Marcel Journet. In 1992, the United States National Film Registry of the Library of Congress selected the movie for preservation in recognition of its cultural, historic or aesthetic significance. The movie is about a woman (Fontaine) who falls in love with a famous concert pianist but despite a carnal tryst with him, she remains largely unknown and unrecognized by the man for years.

Zweig was born into a wealthy Jewish family in 1881. His father was a textile manufacturer and his mother, the daughter of a rich Jewish banker. His father died in 1926. His mother in 1938, after Zweig have fled Austria for England (1934) and left the wife he had married in 1920. By 1938, Zweig divorced his first wife, Friderike, and in 1939, he married the woman who had been his secretary, Elisabet Charlotte “Lotte” Altmann. These are important details to understand “Farewell to Europe.” Zweig was never a starving artist; he did not have to write. He was a novelist, playwright, journalist and biographer. Yet during the 1920s and 1930s, he was one of the most popular writers worldwide. The world in the 1940s had begun to change.

The movie consists of five episodes with an epilogue. Zweig  (Austrian actor Josef Hader) is always outside of his element, far from Europe in the Americas. We first meet him during a stately banquet in Brazil, where Portuguese is the official language. Schrader doesn’t begin with Zweig, but  the sound of birds against a white screen as the opening credits are shown. The first image is an array of colorful flowers and a woman’s hand tweaking the arrangement. The sound of Latin American music plays as the camera pulls back. We’ve been looking at the extravagant center flower arrangement for a formal banquet in a spotless white room. The female servants are dismissed by the head wait person and the waiters open the doors on cue to let in a crowd of well-dressed people speaking Portuguese, French, German and English. Zweig is on his way to Buenos Aires with the woman who will become his second wife, Lotte (Aenne Schwarz) and has stopped in Rio de Janeiro.

Just as he has finished his remarks in German (which are translated into Portuguese) and all are about to sit which , Zweig stands and addresses the company in French: “How do we achieve a peaceful coexistence in today’s world despite all our differences of race, class and religion.”  For Zweig, every nation with every generation must face this vital question and he feels that Brazil has found the solution. Yet we know that Germany has its own solution.

From there, we are taken to the legs of horses pounding on a grass turf. The intertitle tells us we are in Buenos Aires, September 1936 for an international literary conference by PEN International at which Zweig is the guest of honor. We then find ourselves in a crowd of people in front of a grand building. Zweig is being photographed and he’s signing autographs before going inside. The question of desperate immigration is raised. We learn that aside from Palestine and the USA, Argentina is taking in the most refugees. Zweig is interviewed by, among others, The New Yorker. While Zweig talks about “freedom of thought, freedom of expression,” he refrains from commenting about the current situation in Germany.

Historically, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in 1933 and the same year defined the Nazi Party’s primary goal as securing a proper place for the German master race. The Communist Party, trade unions and all political parties besides the Nazi Party were banned the same year. By 1935, the Nuremberg laws enacted, defining German citizenship and banning relationships between the Aryan master race and Jews.  The Berlin Olympics had already taken place (August 1936).

Kristallnacht would not occur until November 1938. Hitler had not invaded Austria yet (March 1938) nor Czechoslovakia (March 1939) nor Poland (September 1939) nor Denmark and Norway (April 1940). Great Britain and France were still hoping diplomacy would work and would not declare war until September 1939. Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France invaded and occupied by May 1940.

The first concentration camp, Dachau, had already been established (1933), but the inmates were supposed to be all Communists with those defending parliamentary democracy (Reichsbanner) and the Socialist Democrats added for good measure.

In the movie, Zweig refuses to make any comments other than, “Predictions about Germany are impossible. Every prediction has turned out to be false.” Yet he’s asked if Germany is preparing for war and he comments, “I will not speak out against Germany. I would never speak out against a country. And I’ll make no exceptions.”

The question then becomes what is the function of the writer in society? Zweig contends, “The intellectual should devote himself to his works. ..To be intellectual means to be just.”  An intellectual “cannot supply the masses with political slogans.” He further states, “I cannot write out of hatred.” He clearly understand that his silence may be seen as “a sign of weakness.”

Still, despite his lack of commentary on the greater issues facing the international community and the stands made by others in this meeting, he is invited by Madame Ocampo to a private banquet. 

We aren’t invited to that banquet. Instead the movie then jumps forward to January 1941 in Bahia province, Brazil. At first the focus seems to be sugar canes. Zweig and his second wife are learning about how sugar canes are planted and harvested.  It only takes 12 months for them to grow taller than a man.

Zweig travels to learn more about his newly adopted country, Brazil, which will result in the 1941 “Brazil: Land of the Future” (Brasilien, Ein Land der Zukunft ). One of the men being interviewed in the field has seven children–the oldest 17 and the youngest only two and a half years old.  He asked Zweig’s second wife about children, but they have none because, “We travel a lot. It’s difficult with children.”

The Zweigs ponder the problem of their packed schedule; they will be arriving in thin tropical clothing during the winter in New York City. And then there’s another banquet, less precisely managed than the first one. The little town scrambles and fumbles to honor such a famous artist–Zweig was internationally known and extremely popular at the time.

One almost feels the organizers on the verge of tears. The Zweigs comfort and offer praise, but at the same time, the specter of Nazi barbarism intrudes. Favors must be asked for someone attempting to escape Europe.

In New York City (January 1941), Zweig’s first wife,Friderike (Barbara Sukowa),  is a contrast to Lotte. She is, of course, older. Her hair is white. She is not fat, but she is not thin. She does not defer but asserts herself, acting almost as a conscience to her ex-husband.

An acquaintance, Emil Landsberg, has requested Stefan Zweig for help, but Stefan is obsessed with a perceived insult that occurred 25 years ago. He sounds almost whiny, complaining “is there a single invitation that I can turn down” when “every ambassador is doing me a personal favor.” He reminds his ex-wife that “90 percent of everything I owned was destroyed” and yet he is alive, free and well fed. Friderike has also found refuge because of her connection to Zweig. The two are joined by others, including Friderike’s family (adult daughters from a previous marriage) and the ex-wife meets the current wife without the slightest grumble.

When the intertitle announces we are in Petropolis, Brazil in November 1941, the mundane act of renting a place has more meaning if you know how it all ends and that is the epilogue: Petropolis, Brazil in February of 1942. Zweig has his own solution after becoming “exhausted by many years of wandering.”

While Brazil was the land of the future, it was the land of the past and its associations that hung like the sword of Damocles over Zweig. Zweig infamously completed his memoir, “The World of Yesterday” in 1942, the day before he committed suicide.

For some, wandering is a choice, immigration is a choice. For others, it is necessitated by things beyond their control. Some cultures call such generations rootless–they cannot return to the land they loved and they never set down roots in their adopted country if they find one.  On first view, without any background and almost no knowledge of Zweig, “Farewell to Europe” is beautifully framed depiction of snippets of Zweig’s life that seems oddly detached and distant. Zweig is an outsider and that seems to be one of the themes. An article in The New Yorker calls him, “The Escape Artist: The death and life of Stefan Zweig” (27 August 2012).

In the article, Leo Carey writes, “Zweig’s death arguably marked the high point of his literary standing: to most English-speaking readers, he is now little more than a name.” Carey adds, “Beside contemporaries like Thomas Mann and Joseph Roth, Zweig can seem like an also-ran; he left no single, defining masterwork. But, in the past few years, it’s become possible to appreciate anew the variety and ambition of his writing.” Because of his wealthy family, Carey characterizes Zweig as having “the freedom to arrange his existence as he wished” and he thus “maintaining a careful independence from personal and professional ties.”  The article comments upon the writings of Zweig—something absent from this movie and notes that “A man in whom genuine modesty and a genius for self-publicity existed side by side, Zweig spent his life backing into the limelight, and his death followed the same pattern.” Zweig’s death wasn’t a “political act”  and his elaborate funeral was actually very different from the one he wanted.

There is another problem in understanding “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe.” We aren’t Europeans. We are not Germans; we do not feel the hubris of two world wars. The dates and reality of a bombed and ruined continent are distant to Americans who did not live through the wars. Even the remaining veterans of World War II who saw the destruction in Europe, are not daily reminded of those who will never return, the places that were bombed and never repaired. Even those that were repaired are never quite the same. That kind of resonance is not part of our experience when we view the movie. The associations with Nazis and Jews, death camps and complicity are less distant for the intended German-speaking audiences of Austria and Germany.

German actress turned director Maria Schrader co-wrote the script with Jan Schomburg, another director (“Uber uns das All”).  Schrader won a Bavarian Film Award for Best Direction for “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe.” The film was nominated for Best Film by the German Film Critics Association and for Best Direction for the German Film Awards. Schrader had previously won two German Film Awards for acting (1999 and 1995). The film was released in Germany last year (2 June 2016) and was one of the selections for the Palm Springs Film Festival this year (8 January 2017).  While the film was released on 12 May 2017 in the US, it will play at the Laemmle Royal beginning in June 16.  In German, English, Portuguese, French and Spanish with English subtitles.

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