Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

Finding a writer lost in exile and history

Directed by Maria Schrader
Written by Schrader and Jan Schomburg
Produced by Stefan Arndt, Uwe Schott, Pierre-Olivier Bardet, Danny Krausz, Kurt Stocker and Denis Poncet
Released by First Run Features
Germany/Austria/France. 106 min. Not Rated
In German, Portuguese, French, English and Spanish with English subtitles.
With Josef Hader, Barbara Sukowa, Aenne Schwarz, Matthias Brandt, Charly Huebner, Stephen Singer, and André Szymanski,

By Nora Lee Mandel

Irony hangs over Maria Schrader’s staid bio-flick. First, that the Austrian Jewish writer who was acclaimed in the 1930’s and much translated from the German, is now hardly read or known, until Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel 2014 tribute revived some curiosity about his life and writings. Second, that the years she profiles, from 1936, he’s not only in exile from Austria and Europe, but from the German language, where he cannot be published. But, as played by Josef Hader, he’s being endlessly celebrated and honored in big cities, like Rio de Janeiro, and small towns, in Bahia, as he travels through South America, even as colleagues keep pressing him to speak out more forcefully against the Nazi regime. Unfortunately, these events seem as tedious to us as they are to him.

The emphasis is on his pacifist refusal to publicly condemn Hitler (like Thomas Mann did prominently) and highlight other persecuted writers, until we eventually learn that he’s using these somewhat boring occasions of receptions with ambassadors and government officials to press for visas and travel documents for the many desperate friends (and even former critical enemies) begging him for help to try and get out of Europe, though even these exits are closing for Jews. (At the P.E.N. Congress press conference in Buenos Aires, activist Jewish journalist Joseph Brainin (André Szymanski) challenges him against how Austrian Jewish exile writer Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1933) brought attention to the Armenian genocide with its contemporary comparisons, as detailed in Joe Berlinger’s Intent to Destroy, world premiered at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, the companion documentary to Terry George’s The Promise.

When he travels through Argentina and Brazil with his pretty young, auburn-haired wife Lotte (full name Elisabet Charlotte Altmann Zweig, played by Aenne Schwarz), all seems so peaceful, until she tries to explain to their uncomprehending Afro-Brazilian guide Hector (Matamba Joaquim) through lush sugar cane fields why they can’t go home and have children: “We’re Jews.” (The Zweigs are impressed by Brazil’s multi-racial society as a model for Europe, seemingly blind to the racial castes.) Only how efficient she is in keeping track of their passports, visas, conference invitations, and taking dictation on telegrams to VIPs hints that she was originally his secretary. Yet another irony is how relaxed they are in the hot Brazilian climate as more Jewish friends from Berlin and elsewhere, and multilingual friends of friends, including a Mrs. Levy (Franziska Traub) who is gossiped about as making good coffee but too much personal conversation, and his local, expatriate Russian-Jewish publishers Abraham and Paulina Koogan (Abraham Belaga and Irina Potapenko). They begin to create an intellectual German colony – a goal that will later be fulfilled there by escaped Nazis and Nazi sympathizers.

But the film only comes to life in a wonderful middle section, when Zweig goes to New York City in January 1941. (Unexplained is that Lotte is anxious to see her young niece Eva, who has somehow escaped.) Maybe it’s writer/director Schrader’s background as an actress (such as In Darkness (W Ciemnosci)) to provide a notable showcase for a great actress, but there is an appreciable injection of vitality with the appearance Barbara Sukowa. She instantly establishes with Hader’s Zweig on screen the rapport and 20-year comfort of his ex-wife Friderike (Fritzie) Burger Zweig. (She also dynamically portrayed another famous German exile in New York at the same time in Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt). Living in the apartment of patron Maggie Shapiro (whose inexplicably candle-filled menorah is the backdrop of almost every shot, though missing in the above still, implying that she too is Jewish), Fritzie is a strong matriarch managing a refugee household with two recently married daughters (from an earlier husband) Susanna/Suse Hoeller (Sarah Viktoria Frick) and Alice/Alix Stoerck (Valerie Pachner) and a dog.

While it’s not mentioned that she was a writer and translator on her own, Fritzie brilliantly puts her ex in his place when he morosely shows up a week after journeying from South America to complain about the piles of help requests he’s getting from people he never even liked. In an explicit, dramatic and impassioned monologue, she describes what she and her family went through to leave Paris just ahead of the Gestapo, even as she considered going back for some of her ex’s research materials and rare book collections, not managing to make it out on what she calls Eleanor Roosevelt’s List from out of Marseille. (This was the Emergency Rescue Committee’s list of endangered intellectuals that Mrs. Roosevelt was able to get to consular official Hiram Bingham IV via journalist Varien Fry, including most prominently novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, as Fritzie mentions, but she rattles off several names less familiar to contemporary Americans, that are unfortunately not subtitled for clarity in the film.) Her ex interrupts to ask how he could get a close friend on such a list. Sardonically bitter, she emphasizes how she instead had to flee across the Pyrenees into Portugal (presumably thanks to the posthumously acknowledged Portuguese diplomat Sousa Mendes, honored with a commemorative exhibition last year).

In the midst of these chaotic comings and goings, the doorbell rings and the two Mrs. Zweigs meet for the first time. Fritzie is gracefully understanding in welcoming her into this complicated household, and very caring as Lotte is adjusting badly from the tropics to the winter with an asthma attack. So Zweig’s whining about needing a quiet place to write away from pressures to rescue Europeans looks increasingly selfish, even as his publisher arrives with suggestions where the writer and Lotte can temporarily settle.

Zweig’s obliviousness to the people immediately around him is emphasized in the last sections in Brazil’s Petrópolis, including a 1942 epilogue, where the camera focuses more and more on the people around him. Lotte, sadly, literally disappears in his shadow, even as he disappears from the literary canon. As beautiful looking as the film is (cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler works frequently on documentaries with Ulrich Seidl), the sustained sadness of exile from language, culture, and country permeates every gorgeous frame, that no wheezing of a Strauss waltz by a sweating Brazilian brass band can heal.

(at 2017 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum)

May 12, 2017

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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