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World citizen Zweig

German actress/director Maria Schrader discusses how she captured the loss and tragedy surrounding exiled writer Stefan Zweig's life in her film Vor der Morgenröte (Farewell to Europe), out June 2.

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Photo by Christine Fenzl

Maria Schrader revisits Zweig’s last days in Brazil in Vor der Morgenröte (Farewell to Europe), opening June 2. 

In the summer of 1940, famed writer and intellectual Stefan Zweig fled Nazism and the war to find refuge in the Brazilian mountains of Petrópolis, some 70km from Rio de Janeiro, where his grave remains to this day. For her sophomore feature, the German actress/director explored the last 18 months in the life of the Vienna-born author (played by Josef Hader), before his death in a suicide pact with his young wife. 

Why a film on Zweig’s Brazilian exile?

I feel that in 
the final phase of his life, Zweig became a character from 
a novel himself. His experience as an exile, his loving and losing Europe, his living at the other end of the world, in safety, while so many suffered… He couldn’t handle his radical pacifism and his loneliness. He saw paradise around him and he had this nightmare inside his head. He couldn’t bear his empathy and his imagination. He was a European surrounded by a tropical climate; he was utterly disconnected. So he killed himself.

Couldn’t he relate to his fellow exiled writers?

In the 
scene of the P.E.N. Congress in Rio de Janeiro, we show the speech of the writer Emil Ludwig, who used the congress the way people today use talk shows to propagate their opinions. Zweig refused to use his language for politics. He refused “yes or no”, “black or white”. When things got simplified, he fell silent. He was horrified by Ludwig and the standing ovation for sympathy and solidarity with the refugees and exiled authors. He hated being celebrated as a martyr.

Isn’t it paradoxical that he, the man who foresaw the imminent disaster, fell silent?

He wasn’t silent! But he didn’t believe that an artist could influence politics with talks. He felt that to have an impact he should keep on doing what he does best – write books. That’s what he did. He wrote The Royal Game and the allegory The Buried Candelabrum, which he often read during lectures.

Why did he choose to live away from his fellow exiles in the isolation of the Petrópolis mountains?

He didn’t like big cities. And then there was his great disappointment about his book Brazil: A Land of the Future, which he published in 1941. The book was an international success; it got published in five languages. But the nationalists attacked him for not being Brazil-friendly enough, while the leftist exiles accused him of being too pro-Vargas, of writing the book to get himself and his wife unlimited residence permits. This was a very serious accusation against his integrity. He was terribly hurt. That’s one of the reasons why he left Rio for Petropolis. And, yes, this made him lonely. This man who’d always been at the epicentre, who had always interacted with so many people, was forced to withdraw. He was disappointed that his great love for Brazil was not reciprocated.

So how did you come to make a film about him?

Denis Poncet wanted to make a film about Stefan Zweig. And he wanted to make a film with me. I became interested in Zweig’s exile, and I thought it would be interesting to make a film about war without showing the war. A film about Europe without showing Europe. The war in the fantasy of refugees. Such films haven’t been made yet.

Did you feel a special connection with Zweig?

I have this fantasy about his personality. Melancholic. Enthusiastic. He reminded me of my late friend Roger Willemsen, who was a contemporary of Zweig’s: energetic, friendly, loyal, his vast knowledge, his endless curiosity, his love of travel.

Zweig loved to travel?

He travelled to India before the First World War and always said that one should be stateless. A world citizen. He even refused to call Austria his home country. But then he had to leave Vienna in 1934 and went to exile in London, and after the Anschluss in 1939, he was forced out of the UK as an “alien enemy”. That’s when he really became stateless. He’d lost his Austrian passport, and was forced to travel eternally – and he suffered tremendously. That’s beautiful and tragic.

Vor der Morgenröte is out in Berlin cinemas on June 2. Check our OV search engine for showtimes.

Originally published in issue #150, June 2016.