The World of Yesterday, Today: On Maria Schrader’s “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe”

By Kathleen B. JonesFebruary 17, 2017

The World of Yesterday, Today: On Maria Schrader’s “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe”
GERMAN DIRECTOR Maria Schrader’s new film about the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig’s years of exile, Vor der Morgenröte, has been given the title Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe in English. This creative “translation” couldn’t be more appropriate to our moment, when the rise of right-wing nationalist populism in Europe and the United States threatens both the utopian ideal of peace and the social fabric of pluralism and cosmopolitanism to which Zweig devoted his life. In essays penned before and in the midst of both world wars, now newly collected in Messages From a Lost World: Europe on the Brink, Zweig waxed eloquently, if somewhat naïvely, on the “perennial yearning” for a unified, co-existing world. In “European Thought in its Historical Development,” a lecture he gave at a 1932 conference in Florence, Zweig reprises the themes he first explored in his 1916 essay “The Tower of Babel,” contending that “with humanity as a community all is possible, even the highest aspirations, but only when it is united, and never when it is partitioned into languages and nations which do not understand each other and do not want to understand each other.”

Those sentiments resonated ironically with world events as I viewed the film at the Goethe-Institut in Los Angeles last December. Days earlier, Austria had rejected the far-right nationalist candidate, Norbert Hofer, in favor of Alexander Van der Bellen, a member of the Austrian Greens, in the second round of presidential elections, a positive moment in otherwise dark times. Both the departure of Britain from the EU, and the election of Donald Trump, whose campaign had trafficked in racist, anti-immigrant, and misogynist messages, made Zweig’s embrace of the Goethean ideal — that it was possible to see the destiny of all peoples as one’s own — seem somewhat illusory. At the same time, these conditions make the questions of personal and political responsibility raised in Schrader’s film seem all the more urgent.

A highly regarded Austrian Jewish writer, Zweig abandoned his beloved Vienna in 1934 after Hitler’s rise to power. He lived in exile until his suicide in Petrópolis, Brazil, in February 1942. Resisting traditional biopic filmic strategies, Schrader’s Farewell to Europe tracks Zweig’s exilic years in a series of vignettes structured like one of Zweig’s novellas, with a prologue, four chapters, and an epilogue. Focusing on the price Zweig paid for his isolation and devotion to principle, the film becomes a meditation on statelessness.

The film opens with a shot of gorgeously colored tropical flowers. In the background, we hear faint sounds of warbling birds. Then, a hand reaches into the massive arrangement to pluck one flower, deftly replacing it with another. Following a single cut to a long shot, the camera stays on the emerging scene for more than seven minutes: an elegant banquet reception for an honored guest. The maître d’ commands the doors to open at the precise moment when the music in the adjacent ballroom stops and a slow procession of well-heeled guests enters the dining hall. They mingle, anticipating the arrival of the esteemed visitor — none other than the celebrated writer Stefan Zweig. Zweig is visiting Rio de Janeiro on his way to a PEN conference in Buenos Aires. The year is 1936. Zweig graciously thanks his hosts for kindly welcoming him, a refugee:

Apart from the personal joys your country has given me, apart from its beauty […] there is an even more powerful impression that I would like to share with you. Every nation, in every generation — and therefore ours too — must find an answer to the most simple and vital question of all: How do we achieve a peaceful coexistence in today’s world despite all our differences in race, class, and religion? And it seems to me that Brazil has found an answer […] [I]t has seemed to me like a vision of the future.

By the end of the film, Zweig can no longer sustain this utopian vision in light of a Europe shattered by war and the Holocaust. His suicide, along with that of his wife, casts a funereal shadow over the fecund imagery with which the film opens.

At a press meeting before the 1936 PEN Congress, a celebrated and vaguely arrogant Zweig refuses to condemn Germany’s rising militarism: “I will not speak out against Germany. I would never speak out against any country. And I’ll make no exceptions.”

“So, politics will have to get by without your voice?” asks one of the journalists. Zweig remains unmoved, insisting the artist’s duty is to “his works […] his most powerful tool […] An artist can create works with political dimensions, but cannot supply the masses with political slogans […] I cannot write out of hatred […] And if my silence is a sign of weakness, I am afraid I must live with that stigma.”

Although the film is largely sympathetic to Zweig’s position, it nonetheless shows that life with this stigma was not easy, and full of regrets. One can’t help but wonder whether the following lines from his memoir, The World of Yesterday, weren’t, in part, a self-condemnation: “[I]n 1938 the conscience of the world kept quiet, or murmured just a little before forgetting and forgiving.”

A German journalist who has traveled from New York specifically to pressure Zweig for a public statement against Hitler follows him into the men’s washroom. Zweig refuses to budge. Being “an ocean away” and “for the moment […] among the few who have nothing to fear,” he explains, means that “to pass judgment on the other side of the world in a room full of like-minded people” would be “obscene.” Such a gesture of “resistance,” without risk or impact, would merely be a “cry for recognition,” he claims. Schrader frames this confrontation in front of an ornate mirror, as if Zweig’s concern at the moment is limited to his self-image. In counterpoint, Emil Ludwig’s very public, rousing condemnation of Hitler and Nazi Germany at the ensuing PEN meeting takes place before a large sympathetic audience — a different sort of “mirror”:

Nearly all of Goethe’s books have been banned from schools. Can an international writer’s conference remain indifferent to such matters? Again and again we writers are asked to stay in this intellectual Garden of Eden […] Where is the line between literature and politics?

Ludwig sees it as his duty to speak out against a spreading wave of censorship and repression: “The fate of German-language writers could be your fate tomorrow.” He receives a standing ovation, and even Zweig does not fail to congratulate him. But when the Belgian writer Louis Piérard recites the names of exiled German writers, including Zweig’s, Schrader shows Zweig burying his face in his hands, gesturing his growing embarrassment and discomfort at the “honor” of being exiled. Yet, as the audience rises to recognize these victims, Zweig hesitatingly stands too.

These scenes raise more questions than the film answers, which is its strength. Can one remain politically silent among those Hannah Arendt called the “superfluous” people? Can devotion to the purity of art suffice, either for the individual or the larger society? How should we understand Zweig’s suicide?

The remaining chapters of the film chart Zweig’s last year of life, from January 1941 until his death in February 1942. We follow Zweig and his second wife, Lotte, on his research into Brazilian sugar cane production, which informed the book he published to mixed reviews, Brazil: Land of the Future. On the eve of a trip to New York, Zweig is to be feted by a provincial mayor. In the car on the way to the celebration, Lotte reviews the papers for their safe passage: “Passports, Brazilian residence permits, plane tickets, visa, fingerprints, photographs, speech invitations.” Zweig shakes his head at these reminders of his refugee status. This subtle disdain echoes the sentiment he expressed in The World of Yesterday: “We have been constantly made to feel that we might have been born free, but we were now regarded as objects, not subjects, and nothing was our right but was merely a favor granted by the authorities.”

Schrader frames Zweig gazing out the car window at the burning sugar cane stalks, then shifts perspective to shoot from outside the car, casting fiery images across Zweig’s pensive expression. Brazil morphs into Europe: “traveling, even as far as to other worlds under other stars, did not allow me to escape Europe and my anxieties […] However far I went from Europe its fate came with me” (The World of Yesterday). Despite Lotte’s attempt to spare the obviously exhausted Zweig yet another reception, the driver insists on keeping the appointment. The next scene provides comic relief, as the mayor, not fully prepared for their arrival, scrambles to get the festivities in order. 

In Manhattan, visiting his first wife, Friderike, Zweig is outraged by a letter he has just received asking for his help: “Emil Landsberg, would you believe that? A man who detests my work, who harmed me every way he could.” Friderike replies, “Stefan, that’s half a lifetime ago.” She reminds him that it is he, not Landsberg, who has and always has had influence, “Or he wouldn’t have to humble himself asking you, of all people, for help […] People are asking for your help because you can afford it.” Zweig did, in fact, spend much of his fortune trying to provide a means of escape for as many as he could. Yet the position of deciding who should be saved added a moral crisis to his depression. What Zweig claimed he wanted, more than anything, was to get back to his work: “I can’t go on like this. I need a break from visas and affidavits.”

In the months before he ended his life, Zweig wrote about how difficult it was to “[escape] the present even for a brief time […] it was our fate to be aware of everything catastrophic happening anywhere in the world at the hour and the second when it happened.” Perhaps it was that awareness that led Zweig to take his life. Schrader’s film remains equivocal on the subject. It ends on the suicide scene cleverly shot to avoid any direct view of the dead couple. Instead we see them reflected in a mirror, a vantage point that links the viewer with the neighbors and mourning friends who have gathered to bear witness, whose shock prevents them, at the moment, from questioning Zweig’s choice.

In her 1943 review of Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, Hannah Arendt offered a different perspective on Zweig:

A friendly fate protected him from poverty, a favorable star from anonymity. Concerned only with his personal dignity, he had kept himself so completely aloof from politics that, in retrospect, the catastrophe of the last ten years seemed to him like a lightning bolt from the sky. […] He continued to boast of his unpolitical point of view; it never occurred to him that, politically speaking, it might be an honor for him to stand outside the law when all men were no longer equal before it.

While praising Zweig’s writing (“There is no better document of the Jewish situation on this period than the opening chapters of Zweig’s book”), Arendt faults Zweig for his political aloofness, which she believes explains his suicide: “Thus this Jewish bourgeois man of letters, who had never concerned himself with the affairs of his own people, became nevertheless a victim of their foes — and felt so disgraced that he could bear his life no longer.”

Was Arendt’s judgment too harsh? What about Zweig’s conviction that the artist had to remain true to his art, never stooping to polemics? I asked Maria Schrader this, among other questions, in an interview about why she decided to make this film.


KATHLEEN B. JONES: What motivated you to make this film?

MARIA SCHRADER: When my co-writer, Jan Schomburg, and I first read Emil Ludwig’s speech from the PEN Congress of 1936, we were very impressed. What a courageous speech. I mean, with our view about what happened then … how he talked about the war, how insightful … history proved him right. And then we read Stefan Zweig’s perspective, how he despised all the instruments of language that Ludwig used: hysteria, rhetoric, polemic. Zweig’s perspective is diametrically opposed to Ludwig’s. We found it so interesting, this conflict about how to behave, being on the other side of the world.

So we thought, imagine you would have a film where you would just hear Ludwig’s whole speech, just be there in real time and see it all. It would be like we were kind of “the audience” to it. And then the audience applauding and then going out and having a coffee and feeling better. And Zweig remains there. This was more or less the birth of the film: try to get the audience interested in the same way about what they’re viewing, just from the content, not though manipulative, linear storytelling.

And this affected how you structured the rest of the film?

We wouldn’t be able to tell the story in an hour and a half, like in a biopic. You need the time. This was the idea. But in the usual approach, if you want to do a biopic, you will necessarily become a manipulator, because there are lots of things you have to leave out and still tell a linear story, where A leads to B and B leads to C. So we thought, if we look just at a few moments, and then jump, it becomes very obvious that we aren’t painting a complete picture, and aren’t pretending to paint one.

Can you talk a little about the aesthetic decision not to show any of the things actually happening in Germany at the time, just to allude to them.

I think we have seen so many fiction and nonfiction films about World War II that it becomes common historical knowledge, and this is what the film counts on — that we know what Zweig and his colleague Feder see in their inner eyes. We know because we’ve seen it before. These chains of associations, these arousing invisible images are already in our heads. That’s what I found interesting from a filmmaker’s point of view, to have this double layer of visibility and invisibility. And it also captures the conflict of people who actually went into exile: my thoughts are back there and I am here. I always said the movie is more about exile, with Zweig as an example, and this is actually inspired by his own approach in The World of Yesterday. It’s about statelessness and not particularly about the writer Zweig.

Tell us about the research that went into the filmmaking.

You know, the movie, the script, it was all about language. You have no idea how much I worked on the translations. First of all, we wrote it in German and German was the reference — it was the language of Stefan Zweig. But then, adapting it into the parts of spoken English, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, French … we worked so much on the language, the dialogue. And of course you are referring to so many things you’ve read — and diaries and letters — and trying to recreate a sense of that time. So this is a language-driven film.

What about the sources you consulted?

The whole part of the PEN congress, almost everything, is an exact, historic quote. With the PEN Congress, we found those meeting records. So we knew there must be an exact transcript, every word, of what was written. We found the speech first in Spanish. For six weeks we looked all over for the others. We had guidance. Have you heard of the Harry Ransom archives in Texas?


I never even graduated from school, so this was my first true academic research. You contact all these PEN archives and they say, call New York, no, call the Harry Ransom archives. Okay, so we wrote to them. And they told us they found a letter from Jules Romains in level 24, box 15, folder six. Do you want it? Microfilm or scanned, please wire $100. The most fascinating thing for me was this “level 24, box 15, folder six.” I just tried to visualize how they store it. And then the handwritten note from Thomas Mann saying, “I’m sorry we cannot come to Buenos Aires, to the PEN Congress.” All this correspondence.

Did you consult with other biographers, historians?

Yes. Salzburg is not far and they have the big Stefan Zweig Centre there, and I invited the director of the Centre to read the script. He became very passionate about the film, very helpful. He’s even in the movie in the opening scene, receiving the first autographed copy of Zweig’s book. He provided us with lots of material. We met with another biographer, Oliver Matuschek, the author of the famous book Three Lives. After we finished shooting, Eva, Lotte’s niece, who was referred to in the movie and who is still alive, in England, gave one or two of Friderike’s daughters’ letters to Matuschek and he gave them to me. Then I found out that the Zweigs’ apartment was on the 11th floor — I had put it on second floor — and that they didn’t feel comfortable because it was very impersonal, very cold. I had done the opposite, making it an artistic environment with paintings on the walls and so on. This is also the taste you give to the locations, the production design, costume design. And, of course, this is also manipulative. You cannot be totally non-manipulative as a filmmaker.

But with the structure of the film, are you trying to make a particular point about Zweig’s position?

In the Q-and-A after the film, people often ask, “So what do you think? Why did he kill himself?” But I don’t think there is a simple answer. It’s a very complex question and there are probably a thousand reasons for it. If I had used a very classical narration, I would have included the fact that the Gestapo landed in Rio de Janeiro a month before his death, and then jump to the epilogue, and you have the causal: “Oh, that’s why.” This is what you cannot avoid if you put things in terms of causality within a 100-minute film. Then you cannot serve any kind of truth, any complex situation … The great benefit of movies is that we can show things which are very uncertain. The movie doesn’t give clear answers but, hopefully, makes us reconsider certain strong opinions.

I was thinking of the scene in the men’s washroom, where Zweig says that it would be easy to condemn Nazi Germany in this room full of people who think the way we do and are far from the immediate threat, because it would be risk-free.

It’s obscene, in his eyes; it’s obscene.

I don’t necessarily agree with that, but it made me think about the difference between taking a stand in a safer environment and in one where one’s life is more immediately threatened.

My theater is the biggest in Hamburg. You exit the train station in Hamburg and there it is. When the Charlie Hebdo attack happened in Paris, I got off the train and looked at the house and there was this huge “Je Suis Charlie.” It was all over Europe. You know, I cannot say what’s right or wrong. I understand, like back then, people applauding Zweig is a sign of solidarity and empathy, and these are all good things. At the same time, it’s a fucking lie. The “Je Suis Charlie” suggests that I am the one who took that risk for years, doing these cartoons after someone in the Netherlands was killed for it. No, they were taking the risk. I wasn’t taking it. I’m not Charlie Hebdo. I am not.

Also, you may have heard about the refugees arriving in Munich. And the people gathering at platforms and welcoming them and applauding them. There is also another layer to this, because we all agree that the people who’ve been paid to get the refugees to Munich illegally, the schleppers, should go to prison. We all know those who’ve arrived would not have arrived without the help of the smugglers that we want to go after. We all know the ones who’ve arrived were not the ones who drowned in the Mediterranean. So we applaud them for surviving all the obstacles we put in their way. I mean, there is something so complex about it and, at the same time, as a Munich person, going to the platform and welcoming them is such a humanistic and friendly gesture.

Compared to putting up the razor barbed wire and fences to keep them out at various borders.

Right — so we are talking about things that could be read as easy and clear, but they’re dancing on top of something much more complex. So there are no easy answers to things like this.

I’m sure you know about Hannah Arendt’s review of Zweig’s The World of Yesterday. She took him to task for not taking a political stand.

It’s the same accusation of cowardice: that Zweig, whose voice has impact and weight, holds it back to protect the purity of the artist and the independence of art. It’s the same accusation.

But the difference is that he feels the burden of his times — the crisis — on a personal level. He tries to do something, individually, to save his friends or the people who write to him. As you say in the film, he spends all his money trying to save people …

Absolutely. He says, “I cannot be in New York because I am not Thomas Mann. I cannot say no to people.” And Friderike says, “That’s why people love coming to you.” And that’s probably one of the many reasons why he seeks solitude; he always flees these metropolitan regions. He always said that he couldn’t write a single word in civilization. And Thomas Mann could. So, yes, Zweig was really overwhelmed by helping others … but … about Arendt’s point, why wouldn’t he just say, “I hate the Nazis, I just want to annoy them”? You know, this is not only the bildung bourgeois not taking a stand. It is a very clear position. He says, “I would never say, ‘I hate.’” He didn’t hate; he was a pacifist. And if his silence was to be misinterpreted as cowardice, then he would live with that stigma.

And that’s her point. She says, when the chips are down, you are asked to make a judgment and bear the burden of your decision. You show it so well in the film — the judgment he makes to stay out of the fight, and the consequences he bears.

People are very different. Who knows how we would deal with it. Some people are more sensitive and others less sensitive to these things.

The film is so timely. You said everywhere it’s been shown it finds a home. In the United States, we are dealing with the consequences of the election, which has sent a lot of people into a deep depression, and fear.

Also where I come from, in Austria.

We now face some of the same concerns that haunted Zweig. On the one hand, you might be tempted to retreat, protect those around you. And on the other hand, you wonder, “What can I do? Where do I put my energy politically? I know I can’t stand to the side and watch people be rounded up. I cannot stand to the side and watch students being deported.”

Yes, back to Zweig. The story “The Royal Game” is a political piece of art, and it is his strength. This is why he became so known, why millions of people listened to his voice. Because he was a writer. And if he could move people with an allegory or parable like “The Royal Game,” than he might be right in saying this is where his influence lay.

Taking a very small example, I could be the chairwoman or spokesperson of countless organizations. The newspapers ask me what is your opinion about this and that, and I say no to them. I’m not doing this. I’m taking the effort to present this work, which turns out to be a much more political work than it originally was. And I’m trying to start this conversation, exactly this. Because I think it’s very important to bring it to people and to look at things from different perspectives — and this may trigger a movement, coincidentally. And I can be an agent for it.

I could say, “I’m not doing this film, I’m choosing one of these political formations and putting all I can into that…” But it takes a lot of effort to gain credibility. I personally dislike all these actors who take stands. There’s this actor who, for years now, has been “protecting” animals. I cannot help but see all the portraits he has taken for these causes as self-promotion.


Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe will be released in New York and Los Angeles in May 2017.


Kathleen B. Jones taught Women’s Studies for 24 years at San Diego State University. In addition to numerous academic works, she has published two memoirs: Living Between Danger and Love (Rutgers University Press, 2000) and the award-winning Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt.

LARB Contributor

Born and educated in New York, Kathleen B. Jones taught Women’s Studies for 24 years at San Diego State University. In addition to numerous academic works, she has published two memoirs: Living Between Danger and Love (Rutgers University Press, 2000) and the award-winning Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Fiction International, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and The Briar Cliff Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Among her numerous awards, she is a recipient of multiple grants from the National Endowment of the Humanities, writers’ grants to the Vermont Studio Center, and an honorary doctorate from Örebro University, Sweden. She recently completed an MFA in fiction and lives in Stonington, Connecticut.


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