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.

Manhood VS. Marriage: A Quick Film Tip

Yesterday The New York Review of Books published “Manhood Against Marriage” by Francine Prose, a review of Ruben Östlund’s new film Force Majeure, that I would like to share here as both, the film and the review, refer to an issue that I am intensely working on in my research at the moment: representations of masculinities in different forms of art and cultural contexts.

Force Majeure won the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year and will be showing in different cinemas across the US later this month. The review certainly promises an exciting insight into contemporary Swedish cinema tackling issues of masculinities and their compatibility with modern middle-class expectations of marriage and fatherhood.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Stefan Zweig and the Neglected Field of Adaptation Studies

As The Guardian announced two days ago, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel has just become the filmmaker’s highest-grossing film (beating The Royal Tenenbaums at $71m in 2001 and Moonrise Kingdom at $68m in 2012) by breaking the $100m mark while global box office taking rising (interestingly with the most enthusiastic audiences in the UK and France).

Apart from its stellar cast and Anderson’s usual cinematographic playfulness, the film has received considerable attention due to its “inspiration” from the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942). Apart from the closing credits referring to Zweig, Wes Anderson has supported his claim in various interviews. Extracts of his conversation with George Prochnik, whose biography of Zweig with the title The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World will be published by Other Press in May this year, have been published by The Telegraph under the title “I stole from Stefan Zweig”. It has been included in full in The Society of the Crossed Keys, a new compilation of writings by Stefan Zweig, which takes its name from the fictional secret society of master concierges in Anderson’s film, published by Pushkin Press and selected by Wes Anderson according to their inspirational value.

The Grand Budapest Hotel has undoubtedly sparked the most recent re-discovery of Stefan Zweig among the British readership. It has also launched a true treasure hunt for allegedly Zweig-inspired elements in the film among Zweig enthusiasts, reaching from moustaches to experiences of war and exile, high society settings with Central European flair and pastry to sophisticated narrative techniques (mis en abyme). Furthermore, this successful case of what could be called “literary adaptation” in its wildest and widest sense beautifully showcases the interconnectedness of literature and film. The field of adaptation studies indeed represents an important genre in 20th-century cultural production but has received surprisingly little scholarly interest. It has rather been treated as an orphan trapped between literature and film studies. Throughout the century adaptations of Austrian literature, in particular, have generated outstanding success stories, ranging from Max Ophühls’ adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s most famous novella in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) and, more recently, Stanley Kubrick’s filmic version of Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle in Eyes Wide Shut (1999) to the very Grand Budapest Hotel.

One of the most recent and most fascinating scholarly contributions to the adaptation of Austrian literature is certainly Catriona Firth’s Modern Austrian Literature through the Lens of Adaptation. Analysing five canonical texts in post-war Austrian literature and their Austrian filmic counterparts, Firth proposes an innovative interdisciplinary approach which aims to move beyond a traditionally linear conception of the adaptation process in order to understand the relationship between the two media not as a unidirectional but a more complex reciprocal transaction. Drawing on an arsenal of theoretical concepts developed within the realm of psychoanalytic film theory, the five chapters discuss Gerhard Fritsch’s Moos auf den Steinen (1956) and its adaptation by Georg Lhotzky (1968), Franz Innerhofer’s Schöne Tage (1974) and its adaptation by Fritz Lehner (1981), Gerhard Roth’s Der Stille Ozean (1980) and its adaptation by Xaver Schwarzenberger (1983), Elfriede Jelinek’s Die Ausgesperrten (1981) and its adaptation by Franz Novotny (1982), and Robert Schindel’s Gebürtig (1990) and its adaptation by Lukas Stepanik (2002). The study provides inspiring new perspectives on the literary works, on the films, the history of Austria after 1945 and, most importantly, on the methodology of adaptation studies.

Read my review of Modern Austrian Literature through the Lens of Adaptation in the most recent issue of the Journal of Austrian Studies.