Shot in enveloping widescreen, director/co-writer Maria Schrader’s “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” opens with the frame filled with vibrant tropical flowers. As the camera pulls back, it reveals an extravagantly decorated, enormous banquet table in an elegant, old-world style room at Rio de Janeiro’s exclusive Jockey Club in August 1936. Stefan Zweig (Josef Hader), the internationally celebrated Austrian writer, is being feted, the day after he gave a reading from his latest book, which drew 2,000 people.
Zweig, a Jew, is banned from publishing in Nazi Germany. Attuned to the approaching danger, he had left his home in Salzburg in 1934, two days after it was searched by the police, for London, but remains consumed with the deteriorating situation in Europe. Believing, if somewhat naively, that Brazil is a model for co-existence of people of different races, religions and classes, Zweig addresses the gathering, praising the country as, “a vision for the future.”
He is determined to eventually make a new life in Brazil. Suffering from the loss of his country, culture and language (his book are widely published, but only in translation), Zweig wants to find a place, where as a writer and committed pacifist, he can work, giving voice to his outrage and despair at the destruction. He rejects any role/responsibility as an artist to speak out publicly, and during an interview in Buenos Aires at the 1936 PEN writers’ congress refuses to make a statement to a New York-based journalist condemning Germany.
The film is divided into episodes (Schrader says, “I wanted it to have an immediacy as if we opened a window six times–for 20 minutes each–to be part of Stefan Zweig’s life in real time”) and follows the writer in exile from 1936 through 1942. He travels with his younger second wife and secretary, Lotte (Aenne Schwarz), in South America–where he lectures and gathers material for his book on Brazil–and stays briefly in New York, visiting his first wife, Friderike (Barbara Sukowa), and his U.S. publisher, and in New Haven. There he finishes his autobiography, “The World of Yesterday.”
Zweig is ultimately unable to find home, although he genuinely admires the architecture, landscape and people of Petrópolis, the tropical Brazilian town where he and Lotte settled in 1941. Despite his depression, it was there he wrote “The Royal Game,” possibly his most famous work.
Schrader’s long, final shot, in and outside the couple’s bedroom in February 1942, spectacularly uses a mirror, to show Zweig’s choice not to begin his life and work again at 60, and his inability to transcend his expatriate psychology, feeling underserving of his safety while Europe is engulfed by misery.
Zweig “was a visionary, dedicating a large part of his writings to the utopian idea of a peaceful, united Europe without any national borders,” says Schrader. “He believed in the peacemaking power of cultural exchange and variety. His creativity had its source in his curious and enthusiastic appreciation of ideas and people. ”
I shot Maria Schrader in 2000, for the New York release of “Aimée & Jaguar,” a very moving story of the love and courage of two women in Berlin during World War II. Schrader indelibly starred in the latter role. It was a great shoot and I was so happy that Sasha Berman (who made it happen, and is also expertly representing “Stefan Zweig”) accompanied Schrader to my studio.