The Return of Stefan Zweig

When a publicist from IFC invited me to a press screening of Patrice Leconte’s “A Promise” (the film opens Friday in NY), I could not resist. Leconte was one of my favorite directors and I considered his “Ridicule” a masterpiece. Since IFC described “A Promise” as a tale about a young man of humble origins taking up a clerical post in a German steel factory at the beginning of WWI, it sounded as if Leconte had returned to the concerns of “Ridicule”, a film that pitted a minor aristocrat in pre-revolutionary France against the snobbery and authoritarianism of Louis XIV’s court. It seemed all the more promising (no pun intended) given the screenplay’s origins as a Stefan Zweig novella titled “Journey into the Past”. I was aware that there was something of a Stefan Zweig revival afoot, reflected by Wes Anderson’s homage to him in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and new editions of his fiction and nonfiction work from both New York Review of Books and Pushkin Press, a boutique publisher specializing in fine literature.

This much I knew about Stefan Zweig. He was the quintessential fin de siècle author from the quintessential fin de siècle city—Vienna. He was a pacifist who opposed WWI and a Jew who fled Nazi Germany. He was also connected to a wide range of intellectuals and public figures, ranging from the Zionist Theodor Herzl to Richard Strauss, the German composer who had an ambivalent relationship to the Third Reich but who stood by Zweig when it came to including his librettist’s name in a programme. He was particularly close to Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler and Romain Rolland, three other key figures from fin de siècle Vienna. After relocating to Brazil, Stefan Zweig and his wife committed suicide together. Like fellow Jew Walter Benjamin, he succumbed to despair.

Let me start with Wes Anderson’s use—or abuse—of Stefan Zweig since it goes to the heart of Hollywood ineptitude, a topic that I keep returning to, alas. It turns out quite a few films have been based on Zweig’s writings. If you include teleplays, the number is 69 going back to the 1923 silent film “Das brennende Geheimnis” (Burning Secret). I doubt that any could be more contrary to the author’s legacy than this specious film.

If at least Anderson had bastardized one of Zweig’s novels, as had been the case with Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby”, you might have gotten a dim sense of the original. But instead Anderson wrote a screenplay that was ”inspired” by Zweig while having absolutely no connection to the style, the mood, or the themes of the original. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a typical Anderson comedy, which is to say that it is a picaresque tale overstuffed with whimsy, eccentric characters, visual gags and exotic settings. Rather than having anything in common with Zweig’s writings, it is much more of a mash-up of “Grand Hotel” and the Marx Brother’s “Duck Soup”, the comedy set in the fictional European nation of Freedonia that is threatened by an invasion from its neighbor Sylvania. Anderson finds mirth aplenty in ornate hotel lobbies, spiked helmets, pince nez glasses, mutton chop beards and the like—all those symbols of a lost era, the 1930s, that he is trying to evoke with affection even as if they were driving Stefan Zweig to the despair that would cost him his life.

The film has the hotel’s concierge Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) telling his story to an author obviously meant to be Stefan Zweig (Jude Law) in the Grand Budapest’s dining room. It is a farcical tale about the concierge fighting for control over a valuable painting bequeathed to him by one of his regular guests, an elderly woman he plays gigolo to even though he is supposed to be gay. The woman’s grandson sends a hit man after Gustave, who is pursued across the Alps in one far-fetched, CGI-aided chase scene after another. This has about as much to do with Zweig as Spike Jones with Mahler—or more accurately Spike Jonze.

Of all the many travesties in this film, two stand out. The first is the score, which relies heavily on the zither. I guess the composer must have seen “The Third Man” somewhere along the way. But unlike Carol Reed’s masterpiece also set in Vienna, which uses the sounds of the zither selectively and to great effect, Anderson’s film score never shuts up for a minute. Like so many Hollywood films today, the director does not trust the audience to draw its own emotional conclusions. You have to cue it with the film score, like Pavlov’s dogs. The other egregious flaw is the frequent use of profanity, with the main character Gustave, that Anderson has the nerve to compare to Zweig, letting loose with a string of “fucks” every few minutes. Since Zweig’s novels are masterpieces of subtlety, the effect is jarring. But even if Anderson had not made these blunders, the film would remain unsalvageable. With 92 percent “fresh” ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, I find myself aligned with the disgruntled minority once again.


Stefan Zweig in Salzburg.

Among the 69 adaptations of Stefan Zweig’s fiction, we are fortunate to be able to see one of the more noteworthy on Youtube, the 1948 “Letters from an Unknown Woman” directed by Max Ophuls who would be ideally suited to the Stefan Zweig weltanschauung. Born in 1902 like Zweig to a wealthy and nonobservant Jewish businessman, Ophuls became director of the Burgtheater in Vienna in 1924, a prestigious theater that Zweig held in high regard. In addition to his adaptation of the Zweig novella, Ophuls also directed a film version of Arthur Schnitzler’s “La Ronde”, a classic of fin de siècle Vienna.

Ophuls’s next to last film was “Lola Montes”, one that I would include among the 50 greatest ever made. Roger Ebert described it as “highly mannered romanticism”. That would also describe his adaptation of “Letters from an Unknown Woman” that like “Lola Montes” amounts to the tale of a tragic heroine told through a series of flashbacks.

In the opening scene, we meet Stefan Brand, a concert pianist in early middle age who has squandered a once-promising career with too much cognac and dissolute living. He has just returned from another binge where he is met by the front door of his mute valet Johann who presents him with a long letter from an “unknown woman”.

That woman turns out to be Lisa Berndle who composed the letter just before her death. The letter is a judgment from the death bed on the man who had made her pregnant when she was 18 years old and hopelessly in love with him, even if her love was not returned. As running into him on subsequent occasions later in life she is dismayed to discover that he could not even remember her name. Despite this, she allows him once again to take advantage of her. Although the film strays (unsuccessfully in my view) from the original novella by portraying Brand’s interest in her as more like love than a casual attraction, it captures the psychological morbidity and sickly sweet atmosphere of the novella.

It was not the screenplay I would have expected to be written by the Communist author Howard Koch, but in fact most of the Hollywood reds wrote on assignment rather than from political imperatives. Rounding out the creative team was producer John Houseman, another Austrian Jew born Haussmann who was a long-time collaborator with Orson Welles at the Mercury Theater, produced the radical musical “The Cradle will Rock” that was shut down by the WPA, and—most notably—“Citizen Kane”. Years later, he became famous for the role he played as the gruff and imposing Harvard Law professor in “The Paper Chase” and in Smith-Barney commercials intoning “When Smith-Barney speaks, people listen”.

In a collection of essays on the making of “Letter from an Unknown Woman” edited by Virginia Wright Wexman and Karen Hollinger, Howard Koch describes the tensions between the creative team and the Hollywood bosses, one that has only grown worse over the decades:

“Letter from an Unknown Woman”, by its nature, required slow pacing and minute attention to evocative detail. What the studio heads had done was to strip much of the flesh from the bones of the story. Since the film had very little plot in the usual sense, and since its highly romantic premise was difficult to sustain, it would only work if the audience were so caught up in its spell that they were willing to suspend their disbelief for the duration of the show. I have a theory, perhaps debatable, that any story, however slight, will hold an audience so long as the motivations and actions of its characters are credible in relation to the circumstances surrounding their fictional lives. In its abbreviated version Letter had preserved the story incidents but had lost the ambience which gave credible life to its characters. As a result, the film was shorter in actual minutes but, in failing to convince the viewer and hold his interest, it seemed much longer.Houseman agreed with our objections but it took all his powers of persuasion to keep Max from invading the inner sanctum of Universal’s top brass and telling them exactly what he thought of them—which, of course, would only have made them more obdurate. When the Doziers finally threw their weight on our side, we were able to replace the cut footage and reinstate the original version. However, a film is never safe from tampering until it is “in the can,” meaning ready for distribution and, even then, it can be so mishandled that it never reaches its intended audience. The sales department of Universal regarded Letter as a foreign film, which in those days meant art but no box office. It was tossed out on the market with almost no advance advertising and no attempt to publicize its special qualities. Even with good reviews it didn’t survive long enough to find its American audience and the studio wrote it off as a complete loss of the eight hundred thousand it cost to produce.

Let’s honor the memory of Stefan Zweig, Max Ophuls, Howard Koch, and John Houseman by watching this jewel on Youtube, the people’s movie theater of the 21st century.

“A Promise” is Patrice Leconte’s first English-language film. Opening April 18th at the IFC Center in New York, it is a reminder that exceptional movies are still being made—outside of Hollywood. Richard Madden, familiar to “Game of Thrones” viewers as Robb Stark, plays Ludwig, who has risen from poverty and orphanages to his first job. He is a clerk in the offices of Karl Hoffmeister, a powerful German industrialist (Alan Rickman). In no time at all, Hoffmeister invites Ludwig to accept a promotion to personal secretary and come live with him at his palatial estate. Suffering from heart disease, it has become impossible for the older man to leave home.

After settling in, Ludwig becomes close to Charlotte Hoffmeister, the magnate’s beautiful wife who is much closer in age to him than her husband. Eventually the young man and woman discover that they are in love with each other and can barely keep themselves from consummating their relationship behind Herr Hoffmeister’s back.

Mindful of his career path and understanding full well that the post of personal secretary could never be permanently satisfying, Ludwig is always anxious to curry favor with his employer, including advice in 1912 that he could cut costs by eliminating the middleman who has been supplying the manganese used in steel production. Why not open a mine in Mexico and cut out the middleman? Herr Hoffmeister asks why the Mexicans would not prefer to do business with the Americans who are next-door neighbors. Ludwig replies that German technicians made a great impression with the Mexican government during the revolution and that he could exploit those connections.

So pleased is the industrialist with this suggestion that he puts Ludwig in charge of mining operations. Assuming that the job would require no more than two years overseas, he agrees reluctantly. He loves his boss’s wife but loves his career even more. Before leaving the couple promise to keep their love alive no matter how long they are apart, hence the title of the film.

When Ludwig returns, he takes a trip to Heidelberg with Frau Hoffmeister, where they had once visited before his departure for Mexico. There they spot a protest demonstration of WWI veterans that will remind you that the looming crisis was never far from Zweig’s mind even though his primary theme was the need for deeper human relationships in the face of often-insurmountable obstacles. To give you a sense of his literary power, I will cite from “Journey into the Past”:

They left the station, but no sooner were they out of the door than stormy noise met their ears, drums rattling, the shrill sound of pipes—it was a patriotic demonstration of veterans’ associations and students in support of the Fatherland Like walls on the move, marching in ranks four abreast, flags flying, men in military garb were goose-stepping along, feet thudding heavily on the ground, marching all in time like a single man, necks thrown stiffly back, the very image of powerful determination with mouths open in song, one voice, one step, keeping time. In front marched generals, white-haired dignitaries bedecked with orders and flanked by companies of younger men, marching with athletic firmness, carrying huge banners vertically erect and bearing death’s heads, the swastika, the banners of the Reich waving in the wind, their broad chests thrust out, their heads braced as if to march against an enemy’s batteries. They marched in a throng—they might have been propelled forward by a fist keeping time—all in geometrical order, preserving a distance as precise as if it had been drawn by compasses, keeping step, every nerve gravely tensed, a menacing expression on their faces, and every time a new rank—of veterans, of youth groups, of students—passed the raised platform where percussion instruments kept drumming out a steely rhythm on an invisible anvil, the many heads turned with military precision. With one accord they looked left, a movement running along the backs of all those necks, and the banners were raised as if on strings before the army commander who, stony-faced, was taking the salute of these civilians. Beardless boys, youths with the first down on their chins, faces etched with the lines of age, workers, students, soldiers or boys, they all looked exactly the same for that split second, with their harsh, determined, angry expressions, chins defiantly jutting, hands going to the hilts of invisible swords. And again and again, from troop to troop, the drumbeat hammered out, its monotony doubly inflaming feelings, keeping the marchers’ backs straight, their eyes hard, forging war and vengeance by their invisible presence here in a peaceful square, under a sky with soft clouds sweetly passing over it.

“Madness,” he exclaimed to himself, in astonishment, faltering “Madness! What do they want? Once again, once again!”

Madness and war… No wonder there’s a Stefan Zweig revival underway.

Louis Proyect blogs at and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.


Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.