Stefan Zweig was a famous writer back when that profession could garner so much attention it felt like being a rock star. Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe begins in 1936. We first meet him during a tour in South America, as he heads to the P.E.N. writers’ convention. During an interview ahead of the event, we learn that his philosophical leanings are based on espousing peace and optimism. While a group of reporters press him to take a political stance, he cannot bring himself to criticize his own country, Austria, or the larger Europe, at that. However, his stature as one of the most famous writers and thinkers of his time meant that his thoughts carried weight, so he was pressed on taking a position on politics. The film, which happens to be Austria’s entry to the Oscars for the foreign language prize, is a quiet and meditative contemplation of the interplay between life and politics as seen through the eyes of one of the most influential contemporary thinkers. It is a beautifully shot film that delivers a cinematic type of lyricism rather than a matter-of-fact detailing you would expect from a biopic.
Actress turned Director Maria Schrader has a patient eye and develops this biopic carefully, paying attention to the most subtle details. For instance, she shows Zweig in the company of those he loved as well as in public affairs. His temperament comes through more by the lack of explanation and through the subtle composition of shots. It is a poetic view that also requires the type of human empathy that will not simply come from a reactionary stance but requires attention to the character development offered by Schrader. While Zweig is a writer, she does not offer those required shots of the anguished writer at work, rather she offers a series of episodes that depict a man tormented by the war, struggling to come to terms with the loss of a home and living in exile, while recognizing that he leads a privileged life being able to pursue and live out his own passion.
Early in the film, Zweig asks a simple question: How do we achieve a peaceful coexistence in today’s world despite all our differences in class, race and religion? The question, directed to a polished crowd at a stately dinner in Brazil at first seems like a challenge but is easily turned into a compliment when Zweig says that it seems Brazil has found the answer. This early scene seems to portray the many preoccupations of Zweig with peace and with the loss of his residence in his home country, that connection that feeds his own work. Although not spelled out quite clearly, Zweig changes his mind several times throughout the film, about Brazil, about peace, about the role of intellectuals in the war. He is a man who is torn and continues to search for that connection to home. One of his more raw and honest moments comes later in the film when he talks to his first wife about the difficulties he is having with facing politics and how he should be reacting both as an individual and as a public intellectual.
Politics and the war seem like a nuisance, an event that interferes with Zweig’s personal life, yet the film makes a point that politics is life. Though far away in another continent, political strife and the Great War impacts every inch of the life of Zweig and those around him. This is topical film, as many, nowadays, may believe that politics is something outside their personal lives, yet it is not. It often defines many of the more important life choices we have to make. No man is an island, even if that man has fame and money. Schrader shows how it wears on Zweig in a very slow but deliberate way, and how he comes to drop his guard over time. Wolfgang Thaler’s camera work is impeccable, and the final scenes demonstrate a heightened sensibility to the feelings of loss the writer felt through the difficult times of the war. It makes for one of the more poignant films about one of the most dramatized wars in cinema that does not need to show the carnage of the war to demonstrate its devastating effects.
Stefan Zweig, Farewell to Europe runs 109 minutes, is in German, Portuguese, French, English and Spanish with English subtitles and is not rated. It will have its East Coast premiere at the Miami Jewish Film Festival on Sunday, Jan. 22, at 8:30 p.m., at O Cinema Miami Shores. There’s a second screening on Wednesday, Jan. 25, at 7 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For details, visit this link. The film is currently making the festival rounds, and a U.S. distributor has yet to be announced. A screener link was provided by Shotwell Media for the purpose of this review.