Stefan Zweig on the Screen: Maria Schrader’s Vor der Morgenröte

Maria Schrader’s episodic film Vor der Morgenröte, which is released today on 2 June 2016, depicts the last years in the life of Stefan Zweig. It is the most recent manifestation of a re-discovered interest in Zweig. It is different from other projects that have tried to solve the enigma of this best-loved and best-hated Austrian writer. In his arguably sensationalist book Ulrich Weinzierl for example claims to have discovered Zweig’s “burning secrets,” in particular his alleged homosexual and pedophile fantasies and exhibitionist habits as a young man (see this critical review by Stephan Resch). Schrader’s film, on the contrary, carefully negotiates Zweig’s role as the world’s most famous writer before and during the Second World War.

Framed by a prologue and an epilogue the film catches up with Zweig in four episodes between 1936 and his suicide in 1942. The first one shows Zweig during his journey to South America in 1936, on his way to represent the German-speaking writers at the 14th International PEN Congress in Buenos Aires. Compared to the outspokenly antifascist Emil Ludwig, who soon becomes the Argentine newspapers’ star, Zweig refuses to speak against Germany. Writers should focus on their work and not become involved in politics.

His contemporaries accuse him of cowardice and arrogance, charges that echo in his European and North American reception throughout the century and until the present day. Apart from questioning his works’ quality (some might remember Michael Hofmann’s attack on the “Pepsi of Austrian writing” of 2010), his skepticism towards politics is one of the most important reasons for his controversial position within the canon of modern German-language literature.

Vor der Morgenröte is the second film directed by the acclaimed actress Maria Schrader, who is nominated for the German Film Prize. Stefan Zweig is played in a grandiose performance by Josef Hader, otherwise famous as a satirical cabaret artist or the always grumpy private detective Brenner in the film adaptations of Wolf Haas’ crime novels. He is accompanied by two, in their very own way, very strong women: Aenne Schwarz as his second wife Lotte Zweig and Barbara Sukowa, who is also nominated for the German Film Prize as best supporting actress, as his ex-wife Friderike Zweig. The film is a cinematographic masterpiece, thanks to cameraman Wolfgang Thaler, who is known for his work with the Austrian directors Michael Glawogger and Ulrich Seidl.

The film neither intends to condemn nor to defend Zweig. Its strength is to allow us a glimpse into the depths, the friendships and alliances but also the conflicts, solitude and the despair of exile – then and now.

Vor der Morgenröte is featured as the film of the month by Kinofenster.de, a cooperation of the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung and Vision Kino. Apart from interviews with director Maria Schrader and cameraman Wolfgang Thaler, the online platform provides a film review, background articles on German-language exile literature in the 1930s and the narrative strategies of the biopic as well as a set of practical suggestions for teachers.

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