Friday, December 09, 2016

AFI’s EU Showcase ’16: Stefan Zweig—Farewell to Europe

Stefan Zweig was one of the many Jewish intellectuals who escaped National Socialist-dominated Europe through Varian Fry’s network, yet he tragically took his own life in 1942, out of despair with the state of the world and his Austrian homeland. Such depression was not uncommon among European emigres. The guilt and alienation of the involuntary expatriate experience are fully explored in Maria Schrader’s Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe (trailer here), Austria’s official foreign language Oscar submission, which screens during the AFI’s 2016 EU Film Showcase.

After Thomas Mann, Zweig was the second most widely read German language novelist in Europe and the Americas during the 1930s. Thanks to The Grand Budapest Hotel, he has made a recent posthumous comeback. Farewell to Europe should further fuel the Zweig renaissance, even though does not always portray him in the most flattering light. Frankly, many viewers will be frustrated by Zweig’s reluctance to condemn the country he could no longer call home. However, they should also respect his principled refusal to grandstand or to criticize as someone now safely standing on the outside looking in.

Basically, Schrader evokes a sense of Zweig’s life in exile through five extended vignettes. In terms of tone and structure, Farewell to Europe often resembles a theater piece, but the thesp-turned-helmer shows a strong aptitude for visual composition, which helps viewer engagement. Much like its subject, it is a cerebral film that refuses to engage in cheap sentiment or phony moral uplift.

Although scrupulously buttoned-down and reserved, Josef Hader is just terrific as Zweig. When he quietly lowers the boom, it is guaranteed to flatten the audience. Likewise, Aenne Schwarz is wonderfully smart and sad as his younger but constitutionally weaker second wife Lotte. German grand dame Barbara Sukowa (who played the title role in Von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt, a fitting comparative film) gives the film some real bite as Zweig’s first wife Friderike, with whom he maintains complicated but mostly amicable relations. The way she first rebukes him and then absolves him during a New York reunion is quite compelling, but also rings consistently true.

Schrader proves to be an actor’s director, which maybe is not so surprising. Farewell to Europe also represents quite an accomplishment of mise en scène, but pacing remains an area where she could better refine her craft. Still, it is refreshing to watch an intelligent film that trusts the audience to pick up on its points without shining a searing spotlight on them. Recommended for admirers of Zweig and German-language cinema, the potential Oscar contender Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe screens this Sunday (12/11) and Wednesday (12/14), as part of the AFI’s annual EU Film Showcase.