Monday, April 14, 2014

A Promise: Leconte Adapts Zweig

Few understood the pain of involuntary exile as acutely as Stefan Zweig. In his day, the Jewish Austrian was the world’s most translated author, but he took his own life while living as a political émigré in Brazil. In his posthumous novella, Journey into the Past, Zweig’s protagonist is also stranded in Latin America, separated from his love and homeland. For his first English language film, French director Patrice Leconte adapted Zweig’s wistful German tale with a British cast. Whether you consider it reserved or repressed, it is most definitely “Old” Europe that dictates social expectations for the characters of Leconte’s A Promise (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Friedrich Zeitz has done the near impossible. Like a German Horatio Alger hero, the poor orphan worked his way through university as a scholarship student, eventually finding employment in the offices of the steelworks owned and operated by the dreaded Herr Karl Hoffmeister. At least, Zeitz is told to fear his aristocratic boss. However, when Herr Hoffmeister notices the young man’s keen grasp of metallurgy and relentless work ethic, he takes a shine to his new clerk.

With his health slowly declining, the increasingly home-bound Herr Hoffmeister promotes Zeitz to serve as his private secretary and liaison to the corporate office. Of course, that home is more of a castle. As soon as he is admitted into the Hoffmeister estate, Zeitz promptly falls head over heels for his boss’s younger wife, Charlotte (who goes by Lotte, echoing Zweig’s wife and secretary, Lotte Altmann).

Lotte Hoffmeister is unfailingly gracious and welcoming to Zeitz, but she initially seems oblivious to his attraction, despite the way his eyes bug out of his head like a cartoon character whenever she is around. Still, maybe someone notices his torch-carrying. Just as Zeitz is transferred to Hoffmeister’s embryonic mining operation in Mexico, Lotte Hoffmeister confesses Zeitz’s ardor is reciprocated. They vow (or promise, if you will) to do something about it, once he returns from his two year stint abroad. Then World War I breaks out.

One of the ironies Leconte and co-adaptor Jérôme Tonnere clearly make without excessively belaboring is the extent highly intelligent people can lose sight of the critically important macro events swirling around them because they are caught up in their own personal dramas. Despite working in the steel industry, Zeitz and Herr Hoffmeister are caught completely flat-footed by the onset of the first World War (you think they might have noticed a slight uptick in government orders). Likewise, the climatic reunion commences just as the growing ranks of National Socialists launch another street protest-riot.

The passionate feelings of Zeitz and Frau Hoffmeister are so chaste and restrained A Promise is likely to frustrate most viewers more accustomed to instant gratification. Yet, the yearn and burn of their thwarted love is quite powerful for those who can appreciate it. Unfortunately, Rebecca Hall and Richard (Game of Thrones) Madden must make the most vanilla couple you will ever see as Zeitz and Frau Hoffmeister. In contrast, Alan Rickman outshines everyone as the sly but not villainous Herr Hoffmeister, showing the sort of erudite charisma he brought to bear in overlooked films like Bottle Shock and Song of Lunch.

Handsomely mounted, A Promise’s period details are elegant but convincingly Teutonic in their chilly austerity, while superstar cinematographer Eduardo Serra gives it all a sensitive sheen superior to the look of your average BBC historical. A mature and emotionally sophisticated literary drama largely waterlogged by its two cold fish romantic leads, A Promise is flawed but still oddly enticing for those who share its Old European sensibilities. It opens this Friday (4/18) at the IFC Center.