For a film about life during wartime, Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe is relatively delicate and restrained. Director and co-writer Maria Schrader's precise compositions, six-part structure, and refined color palette make the film feel more like theater than cinéma vérité.
In the 1930s, when Austria forbids Jewish author Zweig (Joseph Hader, subtle but effective) from publishing his work, he relocates to South America. Schrader opens on a 1936 writer's conference in Buenos Aires, where Zweig (Letter From an Unknown Woman) receives a warm welcome. He relishes his freedom, but he also loves his country, and refuses to condemn it, confusing the journalists he meets.
Though he represents everything the Nazis seek to destroy, he has no interest in politics. Five years later, he's traveling across Brazil with his lovely wife, Lotte (Aenne Schwarz), giving readings and conducting research. In Bahia, they enjoy the sweetness of sugar cane and witness a brass band performance so inept it makes him cry—a sign of the trouble to come. Later, in New York, while visiting his ex-wife, Friderike (Fassbinder player Barbara Sukowa), he admits that he's tired of wrenching letters from European friends pleading for help. He does what he can, but the faraway look in his eyes suggests a pain far greater than weariness.
By focusing on an exile of relative comfort, Stefan Zweig isn't the most dramatic film about the Holocaust, but it's one of the least clichéd, since the loneliness of statelessness represents a special kind of hell.
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