Still from Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe.
Poorly served by Wes Anderson in the “The Grand Budapest Hotel” as a comic-opera figure in line with the director’s overripe pastel-colored sense of whimsy, Stefan Zweig now reappears in a thoughtful and dramatically compelling new film titled “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” that is Austria’s Official Academy Awards Entry for Best Foreign Language film. It will certainly garner my vote for the New York Film Critics Online awards meeting in early December.
Directed by Maria Schrader who co-wrote the script with Jan Schomburg, it is structured as a five-act drama with each act centered on a pivotal moment in Zweig’s life in exile, all but one taking place in Latin America where he still enjoyed a lofty reputation. For Zweig, the 30s were an ordeal both for being forced into exile from his beloved Vienna and for having to deal with a painful reality that literary fashion had passed him by.
Despite a certain Zweig revival that counts me and CounterPunch editor Jeff St. Clair as standard bearers, the critical establishment today would likely agree with earlier critics who found Zweig far inferior to Thomas Mann, the only German-language author to exceed him in sales. For example, Michael Hoffman treated him contemptuously in the pages of the London Review of Books:
Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing. He is the one whose books made films – 18 of them, and that’s the books, not the films (which come in at a stupefying 38). It makes sense: these are hypothetical and bloodless and stiltedly extreme monuments and monodramas for ‘teenagers of all ages’, as someone said, books composed for the bourgeoisie to give itself culture or a fright, which needed Hollywood or UFA to make them real, to give them expressions, faces, bodies, rooms and dialogue; and to drain some of the schematic grand guignol out of them.
As is so often the case, when a novelist writes for the public rather than the critical establishment, there will be such disapproval.
The sensibility of a Zweig short story or novel is very much fin de siècle Vienna, with an aura of Freud, Mahler and Klimt lingering over every page like sickly-sweet magnolia blossoms. For writers and intellectuals of middle-Europe in the pre-WWI epoch, such decadence went together with a love for the urban life in which the coffee shop or wine bar is the favored public space in much the same way they are in New York City today. For a “rootless cosmopolitan” like Zweig, this was as comfortable a setting as Walden Pond was for Thoreau. All that came to an end in 1914 as the contradictions of monopoly capitalism tore Europe apart and led to the showdown between fascism and revolutionary socialism of the 1920s and 30s. As a liberal artist, disdainful of all extremes, this was a world he could not navigate successfully either in personal or artistic terms.
We see Zweig at the PEN writers conference in Buenos Aires in 1936 where he is the guest of honor in a gathering focused on denouncing Hitler. Before it begins, he is approached by the Jewish journalist Joseph Brainin who asks him to make a statement against Hitler. When Zweig refuses, Brainan demands an explanation. In response, Zweig defends art as an appropriate instrument of humane values for opposing fascism rather than polemics. He tells Brainan, “I won’t speak against Germany. I would never speak against a country. And I won’t make an exception.”
As the conference begins we hear the less famous but far more political author and fellow Jew Emil Ludwig making a fiery speech against Nazi Germany in line with Brainan’s agenda. Zweig sits next to him on the podium and coolly watches the audience give Ludwig a rousing ovation. Ludwig is followed by the Belgian writer Luis Pierard reading the names of persecuted and exiled German-speaking writers. This gesture appears empty to Zweig who had little in common with either Pierard or Emil Ludwig who conducted an amiable interview with Stalin in 1931.
It is not as if Zweig did not care about those trying to flee the Gestapo. Much of his time is spent writing letters or donating money on behalf of both intellectuals and ordinary people hoping to flee Nazi persecution to the point of robbing him from more productive work as an artist. He often does not feel fulfilled in such a role since beneath it all he views the world as descending into a barbarism that will make all efforts at spiritual or artistic redemption impossible. Throughout the film, Zweig, who is played to perfection by Josef Hader, has a look of profound sadness growing out of a sense of futility that will culminate in his and his wife Lotte’s suicide in 1942 in Petropolis, the Brazilian town where he spent his final months.
Fleeing the ultra-nationalism that had swept across Europe, Zweig found Brazil to be the welcome alternative. In the opening act of the film, we see Zweig as the guest of honor at a state dinner at the Jockey Club in Rio de Janeiro in August 1936. That people of different colors could live in peace and harmony in Brazil—at least in the eyes of Zweig—meant that another world was possible. After making the country his home, he began work on one of his last books “Brazil, Land of the Future” that hailed the country ironically in the same way that some British Fabians hailed Stalin’s Russia except more in racial than economic terms.
Whereas our old world is more than ever ruled by the insane attempt to breed people racially pure, like race-horses and dogs, the Brazilian nation for centuries has been built upon the principle of a free and unsuppressed miscegenation, the complete equalization of black and white, brown and yellow. What in other countries is only theoretically stated on paper and parchment an absolute civil equality in public as well as in private life shows itself here in reality in the schools, offices, churches, in business, in the army and the universities. It is moving to see children of all colours chocolate, milk, and coffee come out of their schools arm-in-arm.
Never to be relied upon for a sophisticated political analysis, Zweig did not seem to realize that this racial utopia was under the control of Getúlio Vargas, an admirer of Mussolini who hounded the Brazilian left even if he was an economic nationalist like Argentina’s Peron. His social welfare programs had earned him the nickname of “The Father of the Poor”. In the film, there is a brief allusion to the anger that greeted the publication of the book from people like the popular Communist novelist Jorge Amado who found him too cozy with the country’s autocracy.
In the final act, the shortest of all five, we see the corpses of Stefan and Lotte Zweig in bed as the police scour the apartment to make sure it was suicide that took their lives, the best evidence of which was the letter that Zweig left behind that is read by Abraham Koogan, his Brazilian publisher and a close friend. It could only have been written by someone as self-aware and honest as Zweig:
Every day I learned to love this country more, and I would not have asked to rebuild my life in any other place after the world of my own language sank and was lost to me and my spiritual homeland, Europe, destroyed itself.
But to start everything anew after a man’s 60th year requires special powers, and my own power has been expended after years of wandering homeless. I thus prefer to end my life at the right time, upright, as a man for whom cultural work has always been his purest happiness and personal freedom – the most precious of possessions on this earth.
One supposes we can’t expect too much from writers of fiction. In the final analysis, they respond to a powerful left that in its absence leaves them rudderless as should be obvious with the flailing about we see in the wake of Trump’s victory. Perhaps Zweig lacked the insights and strength of character that led a James T. Farrell to embrace Trotskyist politics. Then again, as soon as the 1930s radicalization began to ebb, Farrell became a cold war liberal.
As should be clear from what I have written so far, we are dealing with some of the same social and political disturbances that plagued Europe in the 1930s. With polls indicating that Marine Le Pen might become France’s Donald Trump and with refugees being attacked by cops and rightwing gangs across Europe, one cannot help but feel a certain sense of déjà vu.
In the press notes, Maria Schrader is asked “In what respect is Stefan Zweig contemporary?” She replies:
He was a visionary, dedicating a large part of his writings to the utopian idea of a peaceful, united Europe without any national borders. Today he is considered one of the masterminds of the European Union. He believed in the peacemaking power of cultural exchange and variety, his creativity had its source in his curious and enthusiastic appreciation of ideas and people. At a time when open discussions were no longer possible and everything was either black or white, this master of nuances and differentiated thinking refused to view the world in a simplistic manner and adopt his opponents’ verbal brutality.
Today we are also living at a time when hysteria and ruthlessness are on the rise. Zweig would probably be appalled that we who have experienced a peaceful and free Europe for such a long period of time would be willing to abandon that achievement.
For some—perhaps rightfully—Zweig would appear to be a reactionary since the EU has become such a hated symbol of neoliberalism. Most of the ultraright movements that are sweeping Europe embrace an ideology not much different than Brazil’s Vargas, a dictator who Zweig ironically did not seem to mind.
For the left, this is a time of vexing problems. Trying to navigate between the Scylla of the European Union and Hillary Clinton on one side and the Charybdis of Trump, Le Pen and economic nationalism on the other requires skills that might have been beyond any of Odysseus’s gods to furnish. Perhaps the one thing that we might find useful in Zweig’s writings is the radical internationalism that was at the heart of socialism at its inception. If Zweig was shaky when it came to class questions, at least he got the world citizenship concept right. As a “rootless cosmopolitan” to the marrow of his bones, that was what came naturally.