Part WWII displacement tale and part Nazi horror from the outside looking in, all in the guise of a biopic.
It’s hard to imagine how once-popular authors fade from collective memory. But it’s just as hard to imagine a political expat from Third Reich Germany ignoring the plight of other Jewish authors desperately trying to flee. Maria Schrader’s third feature, Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe, is part WWII displacement tale and part Nazi horror from the outside looking in, all in the guise of a biopic about Stefan Zweig (Josef Hader), a wildly popular Austrian writer in the ’20 and ’30s. It requires an intriguing balance and, subsequently, plays less as a straightforward narrative and more as a piecemeal tale of an author’s personal demise.
Schrader’s film is a fairly unconventional biopic in that it shirks genre conventions, notably never even showing its subject in the act of writing. Schrader and co-writer Jan Schomburg don’t attempt to cram Zweig’s entire life or career into one film, opting instead to depict the period between 1936 and 1942, when Zweig was in exile before committing suicide. In keeping with the writing theme, the film is presented in six chapters, introduced with title cards and often significant gaps in time. Given that the goal of Farewell to Europe clearly isn’t to give a holistic view of Zweig’s life, the framework then is geared towards charting how a popular author, welcomed in his adoptive home of Brazil, comes to end his life in the way that Zweig and his second wife, Lotte (Aenne Schwartz), did.
As told by Schrader, what it boils down to is Zweig’s displacement and growing alienation from his homeland. His connections allowed him to uproot to Brazil and New York with ease, but as the first segment of the film shows, Zweig is reluctant to denounce the Third Reich, stating that such pronouncements from an author are merely attention-seeking, nor are they adequate responses to Hitler. He has a point, but he also sounds noncommittal, especially given that he is in an ideal position to make a public denouncement. Later in the film when Zweig complains about the dozens of Jews asking for his help in escaping Nazi Germany, he characterizes it as an annoyance. His first wife Friderike’s (Barbara Sukowa) tale of leaving the budding horrors of persecution behind are all that open his eyes.
That portrait doesn’t inspire much confidence in Zweig the man, but Schrader aims to reveal Zweig’s survivor’s guilt, his growing awareness of and disturbance by the events in Europe and his rapidly deflating hope of ever seeing the Europe he knew again. His new life in Brazil – even penning a new novel about his adoptive country – is easy, and he is surrounded by those who respect his work. But he and Lotte frequently belie deep-set sadness, even in the happiest of moments like on Zweig’s birthday.
While Farewell to Europe may do better than replicate typical biopic beats, it suffers at the hand of Schrader and Schomburg’s narrative structure. On the one hand, it requires viewers to come in to the film with more extensive knowledge of Zweig, his life and the events of WWII, making them fill in the many blanks themselves. On the other, the episodic nature makes it more difficult to pin down Zweig’s emotional state or its progression therein over time. The combination of the two poses a significant hurdle for audiences to overcome in order to connect with the story. The many static interior settings and dulling calmness of the film create an overall tone that lacks the urgency required of such a period drama.