The literary biopic can be a tricky, sometimes even self-defeating, film genre. After all, watching a great writer (or a thespian facsimile thereof) furrow their brow over a typewriter tends to teach us far less about them and their legacy than actually reading their work. The best literary biopics, then, tend to be more selective and less, er, literal — and in this respect, Maria Schrader’s “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” has the right idea, filleting out a handful of episodes from the eponymous Austrian author’s later life to make broader historical and political inquiries. Yet this articulate, formally immaculate portrait proves less compelling in practice than it does in principle: Over-burdened at the outset with extraneous ceremonial detail and starchy speechifying, the film takes a dry, acolytes-only approach before later, more domestically focused chapters raise the body temperature of proceedings. Arthouse audiences closer to home, however, have been receptive to this academic affair, selected as Austria’s foreign-language Oscar entry after Germany left it at the shortlist stage.
German actress-turned-filmmaker Schrader (known internationally for roles in “In Darkness” and “Aimee and Jaguar”) has perhaps wisely assumed that audiences likely to show up for “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” are already au fait with the celebrated novelist, journalist and playwright, a Jewish pacifist who lived the last eight years of his life in exile from the Nazi regime in his homeland, before committing suicide in 1942. Focusing exclusively on those years, the film’s dense, talk-heavy screenplay — by Schrader and Jan Schomburg — furnishes viewers with little detail about Zweig’s life and career to that point, or even the precise circumstances of his flight from Europe. Those who require further context while gradually glean it from passing remarks and allusions throughout the film’s five discontinuous sections, which take Zweig (played with dignified reserve by Josef Hader) and his wife Lotte (Aenne Schwarz) through a range of professional and personal encounters in North and South America.
But Schrader is as fascinated by the international response to Zweig as she is by Zweig himself: Much of the film is spent observing the pomp and ceremony, some of it absurd, that trails his travels. This preoccupation is wryly amusing to a point, though as minutes tick by while watching a complete translation of an address delivered at a literary convention, or a full rendition of Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” by a rural Brazilian marching band, “Farewell to Europe’s” resistance to conventional dramatic momentum begins to feel a tad perverse.
A few supremely well-staged set-pieces relieve the torpor, none more so than an exactingly composed introductory sequence that plunges the viewer into the rituals of an official banquet held in Zweig’s honor by the Brazilian Foreign Ministry. Wolfgang Thaler’s crisp, controlled camera opens disorientingly on the iridescent spectacle of the dinner table’s tropical floral centerpiece — an immediate visual cue that we are far from Zweig’s native territory — before zooming out to follow the social whir of the occasion, with its repetitive layering of greetings and gossip, in gliding, stately fashion. That the choreography of these functions is more involving than anything said at them may be partially the point: Zweig himself never looks wholly at ease in this welcoming but alien environment.
If so, however, it’s an idea the film stresses to a fault. The second and most arduous section sees Zweig as the guest of honor at a PEN (Poets/Essayists/Novelists) International conference in Buenos Aires in 1936, and is thick with formal rhetoric as the rise of Nazism — and the author’s enduring but more politically ambivalent belief in a free and unified Europe — is directly discussed. Some subtly implied parallels to contemporary European frictions survive the stodgy verbiage, but the film only really begins to crackle in its fourth (and by far its strongest) chapter, set in 1941, in which Zweig and Lotte visit his more angrily activistic ex-wife Friderike (a sensational, salt-tongued Barbara Sukowa, sorely missed as soon as she leaves the screen) in New York, where she herself has taken refuge from the Nazis. His reluctantly recognized moral obligation to assist his homeland peers in making a similar escape is vigorously argued back and forth, in an exchange that potently reverses and twists the stakes of the refugee crisis debate currently raging across the Continent. (It’s among the film’s subtler virtues that its oblique contemporary resonances never feel entirely calculated.)
This heated (albeit palpably wintry) climax mellows effectively into the more languid, sun-warmed melancholy of the film’s denouement, depicting Zweig’s final days in the mountainous Brazilian idyll of Petropolis. The tranquil perfection of his surroundings, however, can’t be squared with the gaping unhappiness he feels at being forever outside of his home — at not belonging in the paradise where he finds himself. As it shifts into a more intimate, conversational register, this frustratingly arrhythmic, sporadically rewarding biopic finally attains a grace befitting its quietly raging subject.