The subtitle of director Maria Schrader Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe has a contemporary relevance in the wake of Brexit and the writing of such books as John R. Gillingham’s The EU: An Obituary, released in June 2016. If taken literally, the film’s subtitle refers to Austrian-born author Stefan Zweig’s departure from a Germany under Nazi rule in 1936 for South America, where he would spend the bulk of his days until his suicide in 1942. However, much of the film’s early dialogue and scenarios contain such a naked relevancy to Europe’s present-tense political uncertainty that the film hovers between being a straight-up biopic of Zweig and a diagnosis of neoliberalism’s recent ceding to neofascist policy and nationalistic fervor.
The film is divided into four chapters and an epilogue, each section marking a new destination for Zweig (Josef Hader), whose reluctance to publicly condemn National Socialism becomes a primary source of tension at a writer’s conference in Buenos Aires. Schrader represents Zweig’s decision to withhold a printable condemnation of Nazism as a matter of ethics, since he believes decrying fascism to a crowded room of other writers and journalists would amount to little more than a solipsistic cry for recognition. Per the film’s dialogue-driven argumentative mode, journalist Joseph Brainin (André Szymanski) bemoans Zweig’s refusal to take a stand given that he’s Germany’s most read writer, second only to Thomas Mann. All the talk of principles and ultra-conscious decision-making on the characters’ parts confirms Schrader’s determination to bring politics to the fore, so that nearly every line of dialogue explicitly comments on the larger matter of global diplomacy.
The aesthetic strategy steadily loses steam, however, as Schrader uses Zweig’s departure from Buenos Aires to leap five years into the future to the Bahia Province in Brazil, where Zweig and his second wife, Lotte (Aenne Schwarz), are to attend a local ceremony honoring Zweig, who plans to write a book about his stay. Shifting gears from a prolonged tête-à-tête on the role of intellectuals during political catastrophe to a regional examination of cultural difference, Farewell to Europe becomes thoroughly entrenched in the Zweigs’ mounting sense of alienation from their homeland. Schrader encapsulates this through Lotte’s conversation with a local man, who seems to know little about the brewing European conflict. When he assures her there are no wars in Brazil, it’s a matter of historical irony, as Brazil would shortly thereafter align with the Allies under dictator Getúlio Vargas’s rule.
Although Schrader keeps such events almost entirely off screen, an extensive knowledge of WWII’s reach into individual nations informs Farewell to Europe, even if its depths don’t necessarily translate to the screen. In fact, much of the film’s subsequent action lacks urgency because of Schrader’s sampling approach. Upon leaving Brazil, Zweig visits New York City, where he remains confined to an apartment for nearly half an hour of the film’s runtime, as he battles with his depression over not being able to write and how to assist several Jewish friends who remain trapped in Europe. The segment feels like a self-contained short film in relation to the rest of the chapters and epitomizes Schrader’s stop-and-go approach to Zweig’s state of mind. The film momentarily benefits from a detour to this singular, claustrophobic setting by convincingly depicting Zweig’s ongoing frustrations, but the jarring break from the preceding locations abandons compelling thematic angles, among them Zweig’s political status in the eyes of citizens from other nations.
As a final chapter commences, which takes Zweig back to Brazil, Farewell to Europe has the air of a long-winded lecture that, despite the impressively researched content, lacks a compositional consideration to make it sustainable as more than a dutiful matter of intellectual servitude. Schrader’s camera takes hold of its subjects and compellingly charts their psychological sense of displacement in numerous moments, yet the film’s greater consequences, especially as a reminder that the dilemmas of Zweig’s era are still firmly in place, dwindle in favor of a broader lament of time’s passage. The seeming impossibility of sustaining youthful enthusiasm, ambition, and ideals culminates in an all-too sentimental scene, in which Zweig momentarily gains peace through the presence of an affectionate dog.