By Matthew Fullerton.
Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe, Austria’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the 89th Academy Awards, tells the story of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) in exile, from 1936 to 1942. Written and directed by German actress (Aimee & Jaguar, 1999; Deutschland 83, 2015) and director (Love Life, 2007) Maria Schrader, the film traces in four chapters plus prologue and epilogue, and in four cities in the Americas, the writer’s descent into sadness at the downfall of Europe. Though received like a statesman wherever he went and, as Schrader describes him, “the most renowned European refugee” of this period of unbearable tragedies, Zweig was unable to find peace and a home. Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe is a story of exile, of a celebrated refugee, a man of great contradictions who is forever haunted by what he left behind.
When Maria Schrader sat down recently in Berlin for a Skype interview while on a day-long break from her busy schedule filming the four-part BBC Two adaptation of Tony Grisoni’s The City and the City in London, I couldn’t help but anticipate that her bond with Stefan Zweig would go well beyond the literary and the creative and into the personal: Her country, Germany, after all, like my own, Canada, has welcomed refugees from the conflict in Syria, the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. The goodwill in Germany, however, has been waning in recent months, a subject that saddens and worries the actress-director, whose theatre had once housed refugees before they transited to find homes in Scandinavian countries. In this interview, Maria Schrader shares her motivation for making a movie about the most famous European refugee from the Nazis in Europe, Stefan Zweig, her decision to structure the film with “six little windows”, her choice of lead actor, Josef Hader, and what Zweigian ideas inspire her as a director.
What attracted you to Stefan Zweig, and why did you choose to concentrate on the last six years of his life?
Interestingly enough, my personal history with Stefan Zweig isn’t very particular. When I was younger, I read a few small novels and I read a little about him. It wasn’t, “Stefan Zweig is my favourite writer, I’ve read everything about him.” I wasn’t like that.
I was approached by a French producer [Denis Poncet] who’d seen my first movie [Love Life, 2007] and wanted to do something on Stefan Zweig’s second wife, Lotte. That’s why he approached me as a director. And I started to look into those years in particular, because those are the exile years, the years Stefan and Lotte Zweig spent together. I realized that I was much more interested in this whole topic of exile.
Stefan Zweig, as you know, is very, very interesting because he combines great contradictions: Being a world-renowned writer welcomed as a statesman wherever he travelled but not allowed to publish anymore in the German-speaking region…a writer and pacifist dedicating so much of his work to the idea of a united, free Europe…an anti-nationalist who, even before the First World War, spread the idea that everyone should be a world-traveller and freed from nationalistic ideas and that borders should fall and people should exchange through learning languages and from other cultures, cultural exchanges, travelling. So, I thought: We’ve all seen hundreds of movies that take place in Europe during this time. Stories of survival, of great dangers in the middle of the War. I, personally, did a few movies set in that time, in Berlin or in Europe, and I never really thought about what exactly was the situation for someone who had been able to leave, how he was still haunted by the war, by everything he left behind.
Stefan Zweig is probably the most renowned European refugee of this time. Being so much more privileged than many of the others who were still struggling for survival, he took his own life, even though he was safe, he was healthy, he was accompanied by a younger wife. He published his most successful works in those last years, yet he still decided that he didn’t want to be a part of this world anymore. This arose, and still arises, questions. It’s a mysterious decision. So many people write about it and to me, all of a sudden, his whole last couple of years seem to turn him into almost a literary figure he could have written about. There’s so much to read about what it’s like to be in exile and I thought: This is the movie I want to make. A long answer to a simple question.
But, the more you look into the question, the more interesting and not so simple it gets. I knew there was going to be a lot of research that would be academic in nature. So many people have written about him. There are so many specialists, and I knew I’d have to read a hundred pages before being able to write my own first words on this. But, I was very lucky to find a wonderful co-writer [Jan Schomburg] for this and it was interesting, and also a very beautiful journey, to look into the specifics of Zweig’s last years. And, of course, you encounter so many other people along the way and there were so many moments where we weren’t sure if we’d succeed, or if I’d succeed, to make this movie happen, because it’s intellectual, it’s demanding. People thought: No one wants to see it…You will not find the money for it. There were moments when my co-writer and I thought, well, if this is not going to happen, then we had a very interesting time writing the script and looking into and learning so much about it.
I wasn’t drawn to the idea of making a movie about my favourite writer. If you were to ask me what the movie is about, I would answer: The movie is about exile, and Stefan Zweig is one of the most interesting refugees of his time. The movie is not about his literature. I concentrated on these moments because we chose to focus on various aspects of life in exile, as I would call it. The PEN [Poets, Essayists, Novelists] Congress in Buenos Aires [September 5 to 15, 1936], for instance, I would describe it as how he becomes very lonely amongst his mutual colleagues and friends. It’s a story of isolation. And the next scene, for instance, it’s his arrival into the depths, into the rough part, of exile. It’s really when it becomes physical, and very hard for him, being on the other side of the world.
Zweig is effectively portrayed by the Austrian actor Josef Hader, who is best known for comedic roles. Why did you choose him to play Zweig?
Because he’s the best.
It was a surprising idea, even though he’s a superstar in Austria. Everyone knows him in Austria, and he’s also popular in Germany. But, it was a surprising idea, and the moment his name came up, I was like, “Wow, that is interesting,” because you wouldn’t think of him for a movie like this. And at the same time, in the country [Austria], to other actors, he has experienced things: He writes his own programmes for the stage. He is an original artist. He is not only an interpreter, he’s a writer. With his stage programmes, he takes a political and also societal stand. He is his own brand. He isn’t hiding himself behind characters. He is known for what he is, you know, and this is something which is very similar to Stefan Zweig.
Hader is very intelligent and he is just such a fine actor. Such depth. And, of course at the same time, I loved the idea that people, at least in our German-speaking region, find it very surprising to see Josef Hader in such a movie. It’s like this ‘casting coup’, when you suddenly see someone in a completely different context and your audience will also go, “Hm. That’s interesting.”
In Chapter One, you capture very effectively the linguistic realities and the flow of different languages at a nineteen thirties literary conference. This clearly must have been a challenge for you as director, and for your team. How did you reach this challenge, and how did it affect the type of team you assembled for the making of Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe?
Producers suggested to do this movie all in English. That decision would have worked completely against the heart of this movie, which raises questions of: What is it like being an exile? What is exile, what is home? Is home a geographic place, or is it a spiritual place? Can you re-establish a home?
You cannot do a movie about exile and make the world look as if there were just one language. Stefan Zweig was bilingual – French was almost a mother-tongue – he was perfect in Spanish, he spoke Portuguese…English, of course. So, even for him, it was tragic that his works couldn’t be published in German anymore. Of course, going into exile is a process of adaptation, translation, and I wanted to be true to all of that. But, these moments we picked are historic moments. He’d been in Buenos Aires at that congress, and it’s just a fact that fifty nationalities were represented amongst the eighty writers who travelled there. So, if we show seven or eight languages, it’s not even a fifth of how many nationalities and languages were actually represented there.
So, I said ‘no’ to this idea of the producers and I’m very happy that I was able to be true to this Babylonic language assembly. I personally find that it’s beautiful. I’m aware for English-speaking people that there is a lot of sub-titling, and I know that in North America people are not used to that, but I hope the audience will gain something from it.
To me, it’s like music hearing these various languages and I try, of course with the help of wonderful casting agents, to find actors who echo their true historic characters because almost everyone you see in the movie is a historic character. So, the most beautiful thing for me was that during the making of the movie I kind of lived and worked through the fantasies of Stefan Zweig, combining all these nationalities, behind and in front of the camera. And the team, for all these weeks we worked, we were also dealing with all of these languages. We had team-members from France, Austria, Germany, Brazil, Portugal, New York. We all went to Africa to shoot the movie and it was, to me, the most beautiful experience, because when Stefan Zweig says, ‘this cultural exchange is a peace-making process’, I can just agree. I thought that dealing with people from so many countries with so many languages on set, so many translations, and going to Africa, brought the best out of everyone of us. It was beautiful to see. You know, I’ve acted on forty or fifty German sets, and as long as we are amongst each other, our language becomes a codex. So, we had to adapt in various ways. I thought that people, our team-members, became so gentle, so delicate with each other, but also with people who gave us locations, who were assistants, locals. It was beautiful to see that.
In Europe, the movie is very successful. It has been shown in sixteen to eighteen countries and I just heard it’s very successful in Spain: It’s number one on the art house charts and it’s number ten overall.
Travelling with the movie, I’ve realized that it doesn’t have a particular home country, either. When I came to Los Angeles when we were representing Austria for the Oscars, I realized that this united society is built on exiles, you know, immigrants. Everywhere you come to, everywhere you bring the movie, it also has a home there. Imagine going to Lisbon, going to Paris. Imagine the stories. Of course, the French refer to all of these tales of escaping from Marseilles, of stories of going from Marseilles to Lisbon. Every country has its own stories, terrible, tragic and dramatic stories, of that time.
During the interview with journalists in Chapter 1 of your film, Zweig warns of the danger of the artist and/or writer who chooses to mix art and politics becoming a sloganist. How does such a view affect/impact/influence Maria Schrader the director?
I, as a writer, together with my co-writer, went through a process of learning about this time. I mean, we knew that Stefan Zweig was in Buenos Aires at the [PEN] Congress, so we started researching that and the first thing we found was the speech of Emil Ludwig [1881-1948], Zweig’s colleague. Ludwig is giving this big speech and what he obviously does is use his language, his instrument, to fight back, to attack.
You know, when we first read this speech, we were very impressed. We were almost emotionally touched by it because we found it sharp-tongued, visionary, and from our perspective today, we were like wow, this is only 1936 and he’s so brave in what he does. And only then we learned about how Stefan Zweig felt about it. We found this letter he’d written where he talked about this ‘circle of vanity’, about how he will never use his own language to attack. He’s a pacifist. The moment he speaks in public about having positive thoughts about something as being the source of his words, he thought: How can you be on stage and attack from a safe place while millions are in danger? It has no impact. It’s self-centred. For us it was the same. It was really interesting because you know you can look at a complex situation like that from various perspectives. Stefan Zweig has been attacked by colleagues, for not giving his words like Thomas Mann.
I think no artist can be forced to talk politics. Art has no duty to involve itself in politics. Artists and art, there is one duty: To stay responsible for art. You cannot instrumentalize your art for politics. Of course, artists can speak up and stand up in a hundred different ways, but you cannot be forced as an artist to do that. And Stefan Zweig’s opinion wasn’t in doubt. Of course, as a Jew, as a pacifist, somebody who turned his back on Austria and Germany at a very early moment, of course everyone knew his opinion about what was going on there. But a journalist asks him to give a condemnation in two sentences which he can publish. And Stefan Zweig says I will never do this, I will never speak, I will never put a verdict on a whole country. It’s just not my way. My way is a different one. And he published quite a few works which have political dimensions.
And if you look at our days, how easy it is to anonymously attack whoever you want with words, Stefan Zweig’s position is quite interesting, I think. To step back and to try and not become hysterical. That’s what he says is a duty of an intellectual. The one who has the capacity of looking at a complex picture, having the words for describing a complex picture, it always is the very complex picture which makes politics become simplified. You know, this is our situation today, too. It’s very difficult to understand politics which are so influenced by economics. There are no simple solutions right now, but there is this huge cry for simplicity and simple answers.
But, the moment you try and paint a complex picture with just black or white, then you end up with radicalism. And Stefan Zweig, who is the master of painting a very nuanced picture, will never go black or white. It’s my responsibility to paint the nuanced picture, because that’s closer to truth.
You begin and end the movie with two masterful long shots. What was your reasoning for that, beyond the balance it gives to the movie as a whole? And what can you tell us about your decision to structure the film with chapters comprising a day, or part of a day, in the final six years of Zweig’s life?
The most vibrant question for us doing all of this research was how to approach it, how to put it into a movie, how to structure it, what kind of movie to make out of all of this. We were very happy the moment we had this idea to concentrate on very specific moments of his life in exile. This was our idea, to just open, let’s say four, together with prologue and epilogue, six, little windows into his life. And this is real-time, as if Stefan Zweig allowed us to accompany him for this half-hour of time. Then a year later, we catch him in a completely different positon. So, it’s more like a mosaic than a linear narrative, because a linear dramaturgy forces us as filmmakers to give a melodramatic structure, and we did not want that. We wanted to be true to these particular moments we had researched so intensely and then just put them there and as filmmakers, to paint the nuanced picture and stay away from opinionated filmmaking. To give the audience the possibility to look onto these moments from various perspectives. And I’m very happy that people now say, “I understand Emil Ludwig” and “Why isn’t Stefan Zweig doing a speech like him? He was so much more well-known. It can’t be true that he doesn’t give his words.” And others say, “No, wait a second.” So, the movie kind of evolves discussion and I find it beautiful because cinema, theatre, this is the place to ask questions and to paint the complex question. In the arts, we don’t have to come up with, “This is the answer, this is my answer, you’re wrong, I’m right.” This is the moment where we start discussions.
Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe opens in New York at Lincoln Plaza on May 12 and in Los Angeles at Laemmle Royal on June 16.
Matthew Fullerton (MA, BEd, BA) has a particular interest in the cinemas of Tunisia and Japan, two countries in which he lived, worked and studied before becoming a French and History Educator in Canada. His essay, “Folktales, Female Martyrs, and Flaubert in Tunisian Films,” was published as a feature article in Film International 13.4 (2015). This is his third interview for Film International.