Stefan Zweig: Farewell To Europe
Lincoln Plaza Cinemas
May 12th, 2017
In 2007 I took a trip to Paris, France and stayed with friends in the 17th Arrondissement. They were on a break from teaching and decided to vacation in the Loire. Shortly before leaving they suggested a DVD new to their collection - "Shoah" (1985) by Claude Lanzmann. It had been distributed at a seminar for high school teachers. Much like Raul Hilberg's tome "The Destruction of European Jews," (1961) Lanzmann's documentary analyzed the small details with special focus on how individual decisions of deceit were in fact smaller strands of a much larger tragedy.
Anti-Semitism was nothing new to the citizens of Austria and Germany since it had saturated European societies for centuries, intended to prevent advancement and progress as individuals pursued the goal of independence. However it was not until the early 1920s that anti-Semitism began a rapid, international growth bringing to fore the elections of Benito Mussolini in Italy, Adolf Hitler in Germany and, then, in America the march of the Ku Klux Klan down the Mall of Washington D.C. All three events reflected a growing discontent among a densely populated working class. And yet scholars, artists and authors like Stefan Zweig, remained resolute in the belief that neither Germany nor Austria would crumble to such low-minded demands. German society, in particular, had advanced so far during the 19th-century that the method of the Enlightenment looked promising to the Modern era.
"Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe," directed by Maria Schrader, turns on this idealism and opens at an illustrious reception in Brazil, 1936, when the author and his wife were en route to the annual PEN Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The colonial interior that hosts the banquet serves as a context for the diversity that welcomed the author, while reflecting back upon what was then known as Old Europe. Although Zweig initially fled Austria and Germany in 1934 following the national censure and burning of his books, "Farewell to Europe" begins with the global realization of impending devastation that was imminent throughout Germany.
At this early point in the film Stefan Zweig, played by Josef Hader, stands as a representative of Modern romanticism gone awry when he states: "Every nation, in every generation - and therefore ours, too - must find an answer to the most simple and vital question of all: how do we achieve a peaceful co-existence in today's world, despite all our differences in race, class and religion?" His new role crystallizes further in an interview with journalists at the PEN Congress: "80 writers from 50 nations come together for ten days. This is an enormous intellectual potential, even if the PEN Club is a small organization in a material sense. Compare us to a tiny passenger ship weaving between battleships, destroyers and aircraft carriers across the Seven Seas. But the flag that we raise today is of immense significance. It stands for freedom of thought, freedom of expression and international understanding. It is the white flag. And today, more than ever, I am its loyal bearer." Regardless of his international fame as an exile, Stefan Zweig maintained his patriotism to a progressive past and refused to utilize writing as a means to attack.
However when the PEN Congress announced the names of over a dozen German authors who had been censored by the Third Reich, Zweig grasped the new reality of his life in letters. The audience gave a standing ovation in recognition and opposition to such violent censorship while Zweig sat in silence and surprise, absorbing the gulf created between the recent past and the war-torn present. All of the accomplishments made during the first half of the 20th-century were suddenly moot.
The next part of the film finds the author 5 years later, in January 1941, wandering with his wife and colleagues through a field of tall sugar cane crops. They examine the plant's construction created by a series of joints that partner together, in order to grow and flourish. Is this a natural fault in the network? Success only occurs over time and then ends with the harvest. Schrader's assessment of nature's goal remains an unanswered question. This is compounded further with a Klezmer-like rendition of "The Blue Danube Waltz" (1866) along with numerous written requests from stranded acquaintances who had begged Zweig for visa assistance.
During a visit to New York City the author asked, "What is my work, what is anything, compared to this reality?" Although he was speaking to his ex-wife, Zweig's inquiry is also much more for the movie-going audience. By the end of the year, the author appears disoriented while wandering through Petrópolis in Brazil, reading the newspapers. Amsterdam had already been living under the Nazi occupation since May 1940. Death camps, deportations and ghettos continued to proliferate across Europe throughout 1941. Zweig was devastated that still no country was opposing the war. On February 22nd, 1942 he and his wife committed suicide by poison.
"Stefan Zweig: Farewell To Europe," brings together a formidable cast with Josef Hader, Barbara Sukowa and Aenne Schwarz and lacks the shocking, violent drama that occurs throughout documentaries of World War II. However director Maria Schrader clenches the riveting devastation through a series of juxtapositions that move no further than a shared sense of shattered isolation. Although friends, family and acquaintances appear throughout, the film leaves no compromise in its focus upon Stefan Zweig and the erosion of his personal convictions. Schrader portrays Zweig as a representative of his time so that the experiences that led up to, and followed after his exile, also function as a lasting mirror. The sounds of German, English, Portuguese, French and Spanish throughout the film clearly portray the situation of those who wander and become, by default, rapidly knowledgable in foreign languages and cultures in order to establish a sense of place, to live.
Jill Conner, New York