Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe is political cinema at its most archetypal. It’s the story of the final years of the great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, as he lived in exile in South and North America between 1934 and 1941. Although Zweig deliberately distanced himself from the international polemics that raged at the time, the film itself — starting from the title — will inevitably be seen as politically charged in the light of Brexit, the refugee crisis, the reeling state of the European Union, and Donald Trump’s isolationism.
This is because Zweig’s statements, which the film explores in six distinct and elegantly executed vignettes of the writer’s personal and public life, seem almost calculated to appeal to Western sensitivities in 2017. The writer speaks of the dream of a continent with no borders, in which everyone is free to move as they please, and he looks dumbfounded at Brazilian society, where people of so many ethnicities, backgrounds, and religions coexist peacefully (something which, to a European of the ’30s and ’40s, must have appeared near-Utopian).
As is often the case, the film’s topical relevance came about by a combination of foresight and coincidence. Acclaimed German actress and director Maria Schrader, who co-wrote and directed the film, confirmed as much when I got hold of her by phone.
‘We started writing in 2011,’ she told me from Berlin, ‘and only started shooting in April 2015, so things like Trump’s election and Brexit had not happened. Naturally, we knew the project would deal with issues like exile, loss of language and homeland. And then in 2015, when we came back from shooting, suddenly all these people were coming here to Europe looking for a safer place. So, of course, the situation of Zweig — who is still considered one of the visionaries behind the EU — seems to put up a mirror to contemporary society.’
To what extent a radical pacifist like Zweig can and should be taken as a model is a question the film prefers to leave open. One of the most memorable — and, I’d expect, divisive — scenes in the film sees the writer interviewed about Hitler’s Germany.
His response is decidedly non-committal, refusing to condemn even something as indefensible as the Nazi regime. Predictably, this was a position that drew criticism from a number of his contemporaries, including the likes of Thomas Mann — and which seems particularly out of place for a Jewish refugee like Zweig.
‘I think it’s something we have to respect,’ says Schrader. ‘Obviously, Zweig’s stance had no parallel with that of Adolf Hitler, but he viewed making a statement in that particular context as a big gesture with no real effect on anything. You could look at it as a big circus of vanities. An artist has several possibilities to deal with a society that descends into radicalism, but I don’t think he or she can be forced into political involvement. And Zweig, as a radical pacifist, would not allow anyone to turn him into a political instrument.’
Josef Hader as Stefan Zweig
This is a profoundly opposed stance to many other writers of the time, including Emil Ludwig, whose emotional anti-fascist speech is reproduced in the film (at the P.E.N. writer’s conference in Buenos Aires, which the film’s protagonist also attends). But it also sets Zweig at odds with many contemporary artists of all ilks, from George Clooney and the late Umberto Eco to Gérard Depardieu and Slavoj Žižek — the latter in particular recently defined Donald Trump as ‘scum’.
‘When I read that, I thought, this is exactly the opposite of what Zweig would do,’ says Schrader, ‘that is to say, using the same mode of speech as your opponents. I remember when we started researching, we were deeply moved by Ludwig’s speech; and immediately after that, we found a letter, written that same day by Zweig to his first wife Friderike, which introduced us to the complete opposite position. It was an educational moment.’
It was precisely the complexity of these political alternatives, Schrader explains, that convinced her to make a film on the subject.
‘French producer Denis Poncet contacted me because he wanted to do something told through the eyes of Lotte Zweig, the writer’s second wife. I started to read about the couple and I decided that all of these contradictions made for a much stronger theme: being a radical pacifist, a famous writer, one of the most renowned Jewish refugees, dedicating so much of his work to this idea of a united Europe, and then taking this incredible decision [the writer committed suicide] even though he was safe…
‘I realised I never thought much about exile, and what it meant to be haunted by so many problems even in a safe place. And I decided, let’s look into that. I asked Jan Schomburg to join me because I realised there was so much research to be done. It was clear from the beginning that all of this would have a political dimension, although of course, we had no idea what kind of actuality it would gain with the times.’
The actuality is, naturally, almost uncanny. Watching the film as a European writer — one who departed from London and went to live in Germany after the Brexit vote — I couldn’t help but think of how many people would feel that the film’s speeches touched them personally.
Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe is Austria’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award, a title which seems particularly appropriate as the language constantly, casually switches from German to French to Portuguese to English among others.
‘There was an original idea to cast an American star and do it all in English,’ Schrader admits, ‘but I felt that went against the very heart of the project. Of course, from the first moment, we talked to the producer, shooting in seven languages and gathering such a multinational cast was a big issue. It was quite a fight, to be honest.
‘Zweig himself said: “I despise nationalism and dream of language exchanges; everyone should be a world traveller, for this is a peace-making process.” We re-created that situation — that Babylonic mix –behind the camera, and we realised first-hand that he was right: getting together made everyone gentler, more delicate than if they’d been only among their own cultural code. It kind of brought the best out of all of us.’
Understated, unorthodox, and effortlessly multicultural, Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe opens in New York City on 12 Ma. Although not what you might call ‘a film for the whole family’, it’s a must-see for anyone interested in the intersections of politics and film.