Stefan Zweig (Josef Hader) - "He was considered one of the greatest travelers, the big European mastermind of the European Union."
In 2000, Max Färberböck's Aimée & Jaguar star Maria Schrader was on the Berlin Film Festival jury with Andrzej Wajda, Gong Li, Walter Salles, and Marisa Paredes when Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia won the Golden Bear and the number of translators had an impact on her. In New York, the director of Stefan Zweig: Farewell To Europe and I discussed her creative team, including co-writer Jan Schomburg, cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, and editor Hansjörg Weißbrich. We followed a Zweig trail from Terence Davies on Max Ophüls' Letter From An Unknown Woman to George Prochnik's influence on Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel to Varian Fry, Lion Feuchtwanger and Defying The Nazis: The Sharp's War, directed by Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky.
Maria Schrader: "I dedicated the movie to Denis Poncet." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Schrader's second film after Love Life (Liebesleben) drops us off into the world of Stefan Zweig in exile (1936-1942) where moments in real-time come alive through the performances of Josef Hader and Aenne Schwarz with Barbara Sukowa, Matthias Brandt, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Tómas Lemarquis, Charly Hübner, and Stephen Singer.
Anne-Katrin Titze: You take great care with different languages, showing us the need for translation. There are always translators around. Sitting behind them, at the P.E.N. Congress in the audience there are husbands and wives, or whoever they are, translating for each other. You have this mix of languages. The European idea, Stefan Zweig and internationality - is this the point you were making?
Maria Schrader: Yes, it's both. If you research about the P.E.N. Congress for instance, it was just like that. They had their consecutive translators. After every lecture there was a translation in three other languages. It was unbelievable. On the one hand, you're right, it's an image for one of the central ideas in Stefan Zweig's work. That cultural exchange is a peace-making process. He was considered one of the greatest travelers, the big European mastermind of the European Union.
Stefan and Lotte Zweig (Aenne Schwarz) with translator Vitor D'Almeida (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) in Bahia
And then if you just tell the story as it was, you see all the translators. I myself experienced being on the jury of the Berlin Film Festival. It had some impact on me and I was remembering that. We were at the roundtable - Andrzej Wajda, Gong Li, Walter Salles, Marisa Paredes. In these final talks everyone insisted in staying in their own language to be as precise as possible. And then we had consecutive translators, so it doubled up the number of persons around the table.
AKT: Which year was that when you were on the jury?
MS: I believe 2000.
AKT: What did you vote for?
MS: We voted for [Paul Thomas Anderson's] Magnolia. Magnolia was the winning [Golden Bear] movie. And I remember that so clearly. And yes, in the interviews of this little Vitor D'Almeida [Nahuel Pérez Biscayart] in the sugar cane - he was a journalist translating from Portuguese into Spanish all along this trip.
Minister Soares (Virgílio Castelo) with Stefan Zweig - Jockey Club, Rio de Janeiro
AKT: The first image of the flowers already has two layers of meaning. On the one hand, it is a reproduction of a photograph that actually exists. This is the centerpiece [at the Jockey Club in Rio de Janeiro], this is Brazil, these are the flowers. At the same time because of the framing of the shot - you could think of death already.
MS: A grave?
AKT: Yes, you are already starting with death?
MS: I think, it's subtle. It's just the first frame of these lavish flowers. You might think, even though they are the most colourful and most exotic flowers, they could also be on a grave. And then the music starts and you see the glove coming into the frame. It wasn't really meant on purpose that you should think of a grave. Since we all know where the story leads to. Since it's maybe also such a traditional thing in so-called biopics to start with the flashback or something.
Stefan Zweig at the 1936 P.E.N. Congress in Buenos Aires
MS: I'm not such a fan of biopics but I know that you have these kinds of associations.
AKT: One of the best edits that I adored in your film is The Blue Danube performance. You chose the perfect, perfect false note to cut. Did you have fun with choosing the exact moment when to stop each episode?
MS: Of course. I had the pleasure to work with this wonderful editor [Hansjörg Weißbrich] He kind of saved my first movie. No, he didn't save it but he worked a little bit on it. In the very end I asked him for advice. Ever since, I thought on my next movie if it's ever going to happen, he has to be the editor. Funnily enough, I was always the one in this particular case, in this film, to force him to be brutal with the edits. To leave even in the word.
For instance, New York is a very brutal ending. When we discovered the structure. When we thought this might be the accurate way to approach all these themes and maybe also a life as complex as the one of Stefan Zweig - to just open windows into a life and just be with him just for the period of either 23 minutes or 23 minutes and 20 seconds - but these in real-time. With these abrupt entrances and exits you make it maybe clear. I just liked it, the looseness of folding in real-time and then with a hard cut exiting.
AKT: Taking you out and making clear - this is not your life, don't even think you really know everything?
MS: I wanted this idea of almost an historic documentary and not like an a typically shot movie. We just follow the life. That was also the discussion with the DP [Wolfgang Thaler], that we don't do this epic filmmaking.
Stefan and Lotte Zweig in the sugar cane of Bahia
AKT: Why Stefan Zweig?
MS: The movie how it turned out was my idea and that of the co-writer Jan Schomburg. The first initiative to look into Stefan Zweig with a completely different idea at first, came from a French producer, whom I dedicated the movie to - Denis Poncet. Maybe that is also why … the last credit in the front credits says dedicated to someone and then you see the flowers.
AKT: Yes, true.
MS: This is our initial French producer, Denis Poncet. He was a great connoisseur of Stefan Zweig. He approached me after seeing my first movie.
AKT: So Stefan Zweig entered the realm of possibly becoming the subject of your next movie?
Stefan Zweig with Ernst Feder (Matthias Brandt) in Petrópolis
MS: Sometimes there is something mysterious that you can't really explain why this project and not others developed the energy to become a movie. There is something slightly mysterious. It can be a constellation or that you think, I understand something here that I can't really explain.
AKT: So it hasn't been a childhood obsession of yours with Stefan Zweig?
MS: Not at all, not at all! If you'd ask me, I would probably say it's a movie about life in exile. In one of his late works, his autobiography, Die Welt von Gestern, there was a quote in the beginning saying - "I would have never talked about my life because it's so tremendously interesting. I used myself as a representative of a generation and me as a Jew, as a world-known writer, as an artist, as a pacifist who went into exile, just experienced my time in a different way than for instance, a salesman from Switzerland." That's what he says and that was his initiative to write this book. And we were kind of inspired by that.
"Reading about him [Stefan Zweig], for the first time, I got very interested in this whole theme of exile …"
Reading about his last years, the fact that there are so many contradictions: Being welcomed as a statesman, not being able to publish in his own language anymore, being surrounded by a paradise, being tormented by the brutal images in his mind, being safe and then killing himself even though there are millions of others fighting a different kind of situation. Reading about him, for the first time, I got very interested in this whole theme of exile, you know, being haunted by the fact that you had escaped. How the war haunted people who actually were on the other side of the world already.
AKT: He says "Sometimes I envy the dead."
MS: He also says "I hate going into exile because it makes those who are staying behind be prisoners." It's also a very powerful sentence.
AKT: I was linking some of this with his earlier work and was thinking of Max Ophüls' Letter from An Unknown Woman.
On Stefan Zweig: "He was always at the epicenter of what was happening in the political and literary discourse."
MS: Which I have never seen.
AKT: Bad Maria!
MS: Bad Maria, yes. You know what? There are actually also some books by Stefan Zweig I have never read. I read a lot and I looked at so many things. The co-writer and I did so much research but you cannot study literature before making a movie. We are very punctual specialists. We met with biographers and we asked them - we know it's Sheridan Square, we know it's a friend of the Salzburger Festspiele, so which floor was it, what was the name of that friend? They were like [she groans].
AKT: Because you wanted the specific details?
MS: Yeah, the moment we were decisive on what parts to tell in the movie, we started to be very specific.
AKT: You will be so happy when you see the Ophüls movie. You captured something of the main character. He is played by Louis Jourdan and he is called Stefan, there is Joan Fontaine as this young girl whom he mostly overlooks. Your film also shows Zweig, the man and his relationship to women. I was thinking of it recently, because Terence Davies brought up this film in connection to honesty on screen.
Friderike Zweig (Barbara Sukowa) with Stefan Zweig in New York
He needs to catch something real, which is what he said to me when I had a conversation with him about laughter and smiles. He had mentioned the one moment [in Letter From An Unknown Woman] when Joan Fontaine looks away. She was supposed to be crying and he said it had to be done because it probably wasn't real and Ophüls knew that. Has Wes Anderson seen your film?
MS: I don't think so, unfortunately. Because it hasn't been released yet. But I'll meet George Prochnik tonight. he wrote a very interesting book. It just came out in German and it came out here while we were researching, called The Impossible Exile on Stefan Zweig. He was a collaborator on the Wes Anderson movie. The specialist for The Grand Budapest Hotel. I think he wants to show it to him.
AKT: He should see it! Publisher Ben Huebsch, speaking of literature, I liked the performance by the actor who plays him.
"For instance, New York is a very brutal ending." Friderike Zweig
MS: Yes, Stephen Singer. I knew him from before because he was in my first movie [Love Life (Liebesleben)]. And I'll meet him today. He is New York-based. Yes, Ben Huebsch was the publisher of Viking Press. I'm just coming from Los Angeles. A couple of days ago I visited the Villa Aurora. You know what it is?
AKT: Yes, of course.
MS: So many people don't know. It's just for the German speaking this big exile meeting point. You'll find there all the pictures of Eisler and Feuchtwanger and Werfel and Brecht. Due to the fact that we did not shoot in Brazil, I've never been in real places where Stefan Zweig was. We did not shoot in Salzburg, nor Vienna.
AKT: New York wasn't New York.
MS: New York wasn't New York. Brazil wasn't Brazil. Now all of a sudden, being in the Villa Aurora, knowing that he's been there, having a quartet from the Berlin Philharmonics rehearsing there for a concert in the evening. And they are the Varian Fry quartet. It was almost overwhelming because I felt I might not have been as close to him ever before in a physical way. I met the filmmaker there who is artist in residence. She is working in the library of Feuchtwanger and another one is working on Werfel's desk.
Stefan Zweig: Farewell To Europe poster
AKT: Did you see [Defying The Nazis:] The Sharp's War [directed by Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky]? Did you hear of the documentary? They were an American couple [Martha and Waitstill Sharp] who went on a rescue mission to Czechoslovakia. He was a minister and was part of that group around Varian Fry who got Feuchtwanger out of Europe. I met their grandson [Artemis Joukowsky], who made the film, and he mentioned that his grandparents were very close to the Feuchtwangers.
MS: This sounds very interesting. Varian Fry is so completely forgotten in Germany. He was at least the initiator of the whole half-illegal ring of people working with him. He was called back once by Eleanor Roosevelt and resisted and stayed. Do you know the movie on him?
AKT: No. Fictional?
MS: Yes. It's a terrible movie [Lionel Chetwynd's Varian's War: The Forgotten Hero]. A biopic on him with this wonderful actor [William Hurt].
AKT: Let's talk about the dogs and Stefan Zweig. The first dog you show, he seems to be more happy to see than his first wife's daughter. And then Plucky. It says something about him as a person and his struggle and how he is connecting and not connecting with the humans around him. I thought the dog scenes were very well done.
MS: Thank you. There are a lot of scenes in the movie where pictures are taken. Most of those are historic moments and we've seen all those pictures. We've seen the pictures with Plucky on the terrace in the afternoon of his 60th birthday. I always thought that giving him an animal for a birthday present is something that touched me already.
Stefan Zweig: Farewell To Europe German poster
This guy who was in contact with all the big figures in Europe. He was always at the epicenter of what was happening in the political and literary discourse. All of a sudden he kneels down and almost starts crying about this little dog. It was a subtle moment and quite delicate to achieve that that's not only cute. That it's desperate, that there's something truly desperate about him. Lonely. And he kind of loses himself playing with the dog.
As he said "I'm so far away from where my thoughts are that I'm just a spectator, unable to influence anything anymore. I think giving him a dog as a birthday present is also this cry for keeping him alive.
AKT: Keeping him alive and forcing him to live!
MS: What also Plucky could not achieve.
AKT: The shot you have near the end in the mirror is mind-blowing. It's terrific for making us think, perhaps even laugh, making us aware. I loved that shot.
MS: Thank you. I had it in mind while writing already. It was very difficult to describe it with words. The architecture of the shot - that all of a sudden there would be a room visible actually behind us. I told the storyboard artist exactly, just a few weeks ago, I found this and I thought, "Hmm, it looks just the same." It worked. Most of it was very much like you work in the theatre.
And the last shot was very different from everything else because you had to be so accurate to get the angles right. Everything else was more documentary with hand-held camera and they could move.
Stefan Zweig: Farewell To Europe was Austria's Oscar submission.
Read what Maria Schrader had to say on the performances in Stefan Zweig: Farewell To Europe and casting the film.
Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe has been chosen to close the New York Jewish Film Festival on January 24 at 3:30pm and 9:00pm with an introduction by author Leo Spitzer and a Q&A with Stephen Singer at the Walter Reade Theater, Film Society of Lincoln Center.