The Pawn’s Gambit: On Adapting Stefan Zweig’s “Chess Story”
By Annie PfeiferApril 13, 2023
Chess Story by Stefan Zweig
This is the scene laid out in Chess Story, Philipp Stölzl’s 2021 film adaptation of Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig’s last novella. Published posthumously in 1943, Chess Story is a gripping meditation on the psychological torture of isolation; ironically, the film’s stateside release was delayed by COVID-19. The film’s long-overdue release ultimately turns an important lens on politics, apathy, and complicity in our own time.
A notary to the wealthiest families in Austria, Bartok refuses to recognize that his charmed life is disintegrating before his eyes. The opulent, cultured life of Bartok in the film mirrors Zweig’s own existence in Vienna before the Nazi annexation. Born into an upper-class Jewish Viennese family in 1881, Zweig had achieved considerable success and fame during his lifetime as a writer, dramatist, and critic. Zweig became the center of controversy in 1934 when he completed The Silent Woman, an opera libretto, at the behest of German composer Richard Strauss, who served as the first president of Germany’s state music bureau under the Nazis. After the Anschluss in 1938, Zweig fled first to England, then the United States, finally settling in Petrópolis, Brazil, where he and his second wife took their own lives in 1942. As Zweig often pointed out in various letters during his Brazilian exile, Europe itself had died by suicide.
Due to Zweig’s collaboration with Strauss and his hesitation to publicly denounce Nazism, he was often criticized for his apolitical orientation. Hannah Arendt’s 1943 review of Zweig’s The World of Yesterday contains a famously withering denunciation of Zweig’s silence during the rise of Nazism:
Not one of Stefan Zweig’s reactions during all this period was the result of political convictions […] He failed to perceive that the dignified restraint, which society had so long considered a criterion of true culture, was under such circumstances tantamount to plain cowardice in public life.
Arendt’s assessment was largely based on Zweig’s biography rather than his work, her measure of his failure based on his political commitments or lack thereof. Arendt never mentions Chess Story, one of Zweig’s last works and, arguably, one of his most direct confrontations with politics. Not only does it pointedly treat the rise of fascism; it also deftly shows the way that the “physical and spiritual degradation” inflicted by the Nazis far exceeded the concentration camps and battlefields. The form of torture that Zweig so powerfully captures in his narrative is, in fact, an important facet of totalitarianism’s new, internally focused mind control, which Arendt describes in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism.
But Stölzl’s film adaptation takes Zweig’s novella one step further to transform it into an overtly political drama between a prisoner and a Nazi interrogator. The film’s seeming present—a steamer carrying passengers between the Dutch port of Rotterdam and New York—is interspersed with flashbacks to Bartok’s traumatic imprisonment in the Hotel Metropole, where the Gestapo urge him to give up the codes to his aristocratic clients’ bank accounts. Oliver Masucci gives a virtuosic performance of Bartok as both a prewar bon vivant and a post-imprisonment waif, with little more than a mustache to differentiate between these two phases of life.
The film is littered with the cynical witticisms of Bartok, whose first line of defense against the Nazis seems to be humor. Even as he is first escorted by the Gestapo into the hotel, Bartok laughs with a friend who regales him with another joke about the Nazis. But humor is hardly an effective strategy against a bloodthirsty foe. As Theodor Adorno notes, while many Germans at the time ridiculed Nazi slogans like “Blood and Soil,” their jokes did not diminish the effectiveness of the propaganda. For Bartok, humor functions as a coping mechanism, but it is also a way of disengaging from reality by making it into a game.
It is hard to make chess exciting on the screen—the game is individual and cerebral, and its slow build up does not operate at a cinematic pace. The success of Netflix’s chess-themed hit series The Queen’s Gambit (2020), for instance, hinges more on the star power of Anya Taylor-Joy and the drama surrounding her character’s life than on the game itself. Similarly, in Stölzl’s film, the tension lies in the drama beyond the chessboard.
Locked in solitary confinement, Bartok—like Dr. B. in the novella—is desperate for any form of contact with the outside world. While his Nazi captors are distracted during one of his interrogation sessions, Bartok manages to steal a book, which ends up being a chess primer. He becomes possessed by a chess mania that single-handedly allows him to withstand the months of psychological torture and isolation. After memorizing every move in the book, he fashions his own chess pieces, which he moves on a makeshift board on the tiles of his bathroom floor.
One of the strengths of the film is how it departs from Zweig’s novella to stage another kind of game: a match between its prisoner protagonist and his Nazi interrogator, the head of the secret police. Unlike Zweig’s novella, which focuses only on Bartok’s attempt to survive solitary confinement, Stölzl’s film deftly sets up a battle of the wills between Bartok and the Nazi. The real game becomes about Bartok’s strategy against his captor as the two constantly try to outmaneuver one another. Just as Scheherazade ingeniously survives the king’s murderous wrath by telling stories in One Thousand and One Nights, Bartok quickly realizes he has to play the game to stay alive. This high-stakes match is what makes a film about chess not only eminently watchable but also downright nail-biting, even for those who don’t know how to play.
Zweig’s interest in psychology and the teachings of his friend and compatriot, the Austrian Jewish neurologist Sigmund Freud, is discernible in much of his work, but especially in Chess Story. “Chess is 90 percent psychology,” the Nazi interrogator claims in the film. “It is about grinding down the opponent.” From this angle, Chess Story is a chilling psychological study of an imprisoned, desperate man with few moves left. Eventually, his captors catch on to Bartok’s strategy and destroy his chess pieces in a harrowing scene that leaves him begging and howling on the floor. Stripped of any remaining dignity, Bartok begins playing chess against himself, which leads to “a schizophrenia, a split personality” as Bartok starts to hallucinate and hear voices. In Freudian terms, this divided self reflects how the human psyche deals with trauma. Even as the Nazi interrogator once improbably declares, “You’ve won,” it becomes clear that Bartok, a broken man and shadow of his former self, has lost far more than he has gained.
Being imprisoned in a private room in the Viennese equivalent of the Ritz-Carlton seems like a luxury compared to the fate of millions of other victims of the Holocaust and war. Yet, as the Nazi interrogator boasts, he can completely destroy a person without ever laying hands on him. The same was true for Zweig, who was psychically destroyed even as he was lucky enough to escape Europe in time. In despair over his loss of language, culture, and “spiritual homeland,” Zweig ended his own life, as much a victim of the Nazi genocide as the millions of other Jews killed in the Holocaust.
While Zweig’s reputation may have suffered after his death, his works have gained increasing attention over the past decade. Chess Story might be seen in the context of a larger Zweig revival, including George Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World (2014), the recent New York Review of Books editions of many of his works, the English translation of Oliver Matuschek’s Three Lives: A Biography of Stefan Zweig (2011), and Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), inspired by Zweig’s autobiography. And the return of the far right across the globe has made the plot of Chess Story more urgent than ever. Zweig’s hesitation to act and unwillingness to take a stand should be a warning to all who merely go on dancing as the world melts down.
Chess is a convenient metaphor—almost as timeless as the game itself. But it also has its limitations as a conceit. In a recent episode of the podcast Unburied Books, on the topic of Zweig’s newly republished Chess Story, Dylan Cuellar and Kassia Oset note how saturated the English language is with chess expressions and metaphors. With its almost deceptive simplicity, the game has been used to explain conflicts, wars, and political crises, a lexicon particularly favored in the realm of international politics. Metaphors always run the risk of making false equivalences, but they seem to be particularly dangerous when applied to a catastrophe of the magnitude of World War II. As both Arendt and Zweig observed, the horrors of the Holocaust were so indescribable and unreal that they defied linguistic expression.
At the same time, in both the film and novella, chess is more than just a game. Although Bartok initially dismisses chess as a diversion for “bored Prussian generals,” it quickly becomes his means of survival. As the narrator in Zweig’s novella argues, “[A]re we not already guilty of an insulting limitation in calling chess a game? Isn’t it also a science, an art […] a unique bond between every pair of opponents, ancient and yet eternally new; mechanical in its framework and yet only functioning through the use of the imagination[?]” In the face of these paradoxes, the narrator concludes that chess is “art without an end product, architecture without substance, and nevertheless demonstrably more durable in its true nature and existence than any books or creative works? Isn’t it the only game that belongs to all peoples and all times? […] Where is its beginning and where its end?”
But where the game begins and ends in the film is much less clear. Unlike the sleek novella, in which every line is as strategic as a chess move, this captivating film adaptation generates some aesthetic confusion in its third act. Once the narrator is revealed to be unreliable, it becomes increasingly hard to follow the plot, as the setting switches back and forth between the ship and Bartok’s imprisonment. In the end, we are completely disoriented, harboring a sneaking suspicion that the ship journey might itself be a figment of Bartok’s tormented mind. Just as the torture has erased all traces of “time and space,” we are unmoored, unable to discern past from present and reality from torture-induced hallucination.
Written shortly before Zweig’s suicide, Chess Story offers a possible self-portrait of his mental dissolution in exile. Zweig mailed the final typescript of the novella to the publishers the day before he chose to end his life in February 1942. Through the lens of his last work, Zweig’s suicide note reads as a refusal to keep playing the game that has been stacked against him. Describing the difficulties of rebuilding his life “after the world of my own language sank and was lost to me and my spiritual homeland, Europe, destroyed itself,” he concludes:
[T]o start everything anew after a man’s 60th year requires special powers, and my own power has been expended after years of wandering homeless. I thus prefer to end my life at the right time, upright, as a man for whom cultural work has always been his purest happiness and personal freedom—the most precious of possessions on this earth.
As the Nazis were rapidly advancing across Europe, Zweig—like Bartok, his fictional alter ego—felt degraded and cornered, believing that there was no way out. By escaping capture, he had lost everything.
Annie Pfeifer is an assistant professor in the Department of Germanic Languages at Columbia University. Her book To the Collector Belong the Spoils: Modernism and the Art of Appropriation was published by Cornell University Press in February 2023.
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