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Chess Story Masterfully Adapts Zweig to the Screen Once Again

Photo: courtesy StudioCanal via Film Movement.

There’s still something about the works of Stefan Zweig that continues to attract filmmakers to his stories and novellas, even after what is now nearly a full century of adaptation. Whether it’s the  marital melodrama of Fear (1928, 1954), the lyrical obsessions of Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), or the psychological torture of Brainwashed (1960), Zweig’s stories continue to attract screenwriters. And of course there is the cosmopolitan whimsy of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), the film that made Zweig an onscreen character (played by Jude Law) and a familiar name to contemporary audiences. A new adaptation of Zweig’s The Royal Game, director Philipp Stölz’s Chess Story, puts the author’s trademark sophistication to excellent purpose in a period drama with contemporary relevance.

A man both of his and out of time, Zweig left his native Austria after Hitler rose to power, relocating first in England, then New York, and finally to Brazil, where, in 1942, after years of exile, he died by suicide. It was a shocking, vexing end to the life of a man who had once been among the world’s best-selling and most-translated authors. The Europe he had known and loved—its sophistication, its culture, its advances, its people—no longer existed. Yet his stories lived on, and nary a decade went by without a new adaptation of his work leading to a beguiling film.

Interestingly, most filmmakers who took on Zweig never felt, it appears, any particular fealty to the details of his stories. Take, for instance, Letter from an Unknown Woman: director Max Ophüls, screenwriter Howard Koch, and star Joan Fontaine’s adaptation reworked Zweig’s feverish epistolary novella into a masterful melodrama by adding a clever new high-stakes frame narration, re-imagining the love interest’s occupation, using Ophüls’ gliding camera to approximate (and ultimately deconstruct) its narrator’s perspective, and even massage the strident Hays Code’s restrictions—all to the ultimate effect of creating one of Hollywood’s most revered melodramas.

Similarly, Zweig’s The Royal Game, one of his best-selling and most famous works, might lend itself to any of a number of adaptive approaches. It’s been adapted before, with similar liberty, in the 1960 German film Brainwashed. In Chess Story, Zweig’s story serves as the basic outline of the film’s narrative, though here too, Stölz and co-writer Eldar Grigorian’s script is less interested in the details—say, the algebraic notations of the chess games its protagonist commits to memory to stave off insanity—than it is the deeper implications of fascist rule and psychological torture, something Zweig understood well.

A man and woman dance at a formal 1940s gala.
Dr. Josef Bartok (Oliver Masucci) and wife Anna (Birgit Minichmayr) enjoy a last evening of freedom before his arrest. Photo: courtesy StudioCanal via Film Movement.

Chess Story begins in occupied Vienna, Austria, in 1938, where Dr. Josef Bartok (Oliver Masucci) has enjoyed a life of privilege as notary to the deposed Austrian autocracy. But with that privilege has come a blindness to the very real threat of the Nazi regime. Only after multiple and increasingly fervent warnings does he begin to realize his life in danger. As he prepares to flee to America with his wife Anna (Birgit Minichmayr), Bartok is arrested by the Gestapo. They know Bartok holds access to the Austrians’ private bank accounts, which are worth millions.

Desperate, Bartok burns the ledgers, committing what account numbers he can to his own impressive memory. The gambit works, to an extent: as long as the only place those account numbers reside is in his own head, the Nazis won’t kill him. But they will subject him to solitary confinement, a torture of isolation. And there, Bartok’s mind begins to fail him.

A small beacon of hope arrives in a surprising form: a book of famous chess games. To pass the time and preserve his sanity, Bartok immerses himself in the games, memorizing their moves, disappearing nearly entirely into the world of chess. He fashions crude board pieces from leftover pieces of bread molded with water, laying them out carefully on the grid of his bathroom tiles. Chess, it seems, provides the increasingly desperate Bartok some solace in his isolation.

A man hovers over a makeshift chess game laid out on a grid of bathroom tiles.
Bartok (Oliver Masucci) at his makeshift bathroom-floor chessboard. Photo: courtesy StudioCanal via Film Movement.

Viewers should proceed with caution, however: Chess Story is not one for the faint of heart or easily triggered. Its depiction of mental trauma is convincing and unyielding. There are images of suicide ideation and attempts portrayed unflinchingly. For the better part of the film, Bartok teeters on the very precipice of madness brought on by his solitude. Oliver Masucci’s portrayal of the man—he’s not a particularly sympathetic protagonist—is chillingly convincing.

When the action flashes forward to a transatlantic crossing, Bartok seems to have finally found his freedom. He regales his fellow passengers with his story and challenges an idiot savant chess champion to a high-stakes game. As his journey continues, however, to viewers it becomes increasingly clear that his trauma is not behind him. His isolation by the Gestapo and his immersion in “The Royal Game” have taken his sanity. (It’s hard not to think of Zweig himself, having left behind his native Austria occupied by the Nazi party, seeking solace overseas, and eventually succumbing to his mental illness.)

The film’s extraordinary attention to period detail underscores both the lavishly appointed life Bartok had enjoyed in Zweig’s native Vienna and the merciless torment of his solitary confinement. The lighting, set design, and costuming all complement Thomas W. Kiennast’s elegant camerawork. In every respect, Chess Story’s presentation is expressly cinematic, expertly using cuts, angles, lights, shadows, and colors to convey Bartok’s increasingly tenuous grasp on reality. Visually, except perhaps only for the brief exterior shots of the oceanliner’s passage, Chess Story is a stunner.

A man sits alone in a hotel room.
The lighting, set design, and costuming all complement Thomas W. Kiennast’s elegant camerawork. Photo: courtesy StudioCanal via Film Movement.

And, for director Stölz, Chess Story is another triumph in a long history of filmmakers freely adapting the Austrian author’s psychological treatises to screen. Chess Story does not so much hew to the specifics of Zweig’s last published work as employ them in its own narrative’s service. And even in a 21st century Zweig never knew nor imagined, Chess Story‘s tale—one of the tortures of isolation (all too familiar in our recent pandemic) and the evils of fascism (perhaps a greater threat today than at any time since Zweig’s)—rings as true today as then.

In fact, when Zweig was finishing The Royal Game in 1941, the author did not know that freedom would win out over fascism. He completed the manuscript, put it in the post, and fled the country, not knowing whether the Nazi occupation of much of Eastern Europe would hold. And not long after, Zweig succumbed to his own demons. His story—and his “chess story” The Royal Game, as adapted here by Stölz and Grigorian—is one that is, sadly, never out of date.

Directed by Philipp Stölzl and co-written by Stölzl and Eldar Grigorian from the novella The Royal Game by Stefan Zweig, Chess Story opens theatrically at New York City’s Quad Cinema Friday, January 13, and in other markets to follow. In German, with English subtitles.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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