Feature film “before the dawn”: the great powerlessness

Maria Schrader tells the love story between the exiled writer Stefan Zweig and Europe in a few exemplary excerpts.

Europe, where are you? Photo: X Verleih

You can almost smell the lush flowers on the dining table, around which servants scurry, busily polishing cutlery and straightening plates. Finally, the buzz of voices from the next room grows louder. The doors open and the gala dinner can begin.

The protagonist from Maria Schrader’s film "Before Dawn," however, takes a while before he arrives at the meandering through the guests in front of the camera and the audience. Along with the elegantly dressed participants of the meeting in Rio de Janeiro a few years before the start of the war, the guest of honor, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (played by Josef Hader), is also washed into the hall. Like an eavesdropper on the wall, the almost motionless camera and the audience observe his movements, watch him as he shakes hands, nods, speaks, socializes, comes closer.

The first scene, almost ten minutes long, is symptomatic of the film’s concept: director Schrader has concentrated her film about Stefan Zweig on a few exemplary excerpts from his life. A prologue in Rio, Zweig’s participation in the 1936 PEN congress in Buenos Aires, from which a photo with the writer despairing over conditions in Europe and supporting his head in his hands went around the world, Zweig’s stay in Bahia, a meeting with his ex-wife and his second wife in New York, and his self-chosen end of life in 1942 in the idyllic Brazilian town of Petropolis. She doesn’t need to tell more to depict a rich life and an incomprehensible despair.

"The gap, the omission, is an elementary part of the story," Schrader says during the interview at the offices of the production company X Filme in Berlin-Schoneberg. "We open the window a few times and witness 20 or 25 real minutes from Stefan Zweig’s life."

From event to event

Schrader’s film, whose screenplay she co-wrote with Jan Schomburg, the director and writer of "uber uns das All" and "Vergiss mein ich," is a venture: Schrader tells the story against the rules of conventional dramaturgy and relies on the strength of the few, detailed scenes. Again and again, one experiences a new film beginning, so to speak – Schrader loves film beginnings in which "everything is still possible."

And again and again one is thrown into a new situation and tries to establish the connections, to identify people, events. "You know that from conversations with other people, too, that names fly around your ears – I find that kind of demanded attention believable," Schrader says, citing Todd Haynes’ great Bob Dylan film biography "I’m not there," in which various actors and actresses embody the musician in different situations, as one of her inspirations.

"Before the Dawn – Stefan Zweig in America." Directed by Maria Schrader. With Josef Hader, Barbara Sukowa and others. Germany/France 2016, 106 min.

The concept works flawlessly: The time Schrader’s film gives the viewer, instead of coaxing him along a classic arc of suspense, establishes the scenes as precisely as if you were there. Every little twitch in Hader’s facial expression can be registered and interpreted, and the missing positions in between can be supplemented with imagination, which is demanded of the audience, which is trusted of them.

It’s an experiment that involves a lot of trust on both sides. "It was a pleasure," says Schrader, "to find out whether you can’t create tension through pure content, the pure witnessing of a discourse, such as between Zweig and his ex-wife in the kitchen. Entirely without bringing the manipulative forces of dramaturgy to bear."

Schrader’s and Schomburg’s Zweig essay is nevertheless not cerebral. Its subject, the life of an exiled writer and his suffering from the conditions, ultimately his despair at the impossibility of acting, is too emotional for that, its images are too sensual, its message is too urgent. And Hader’s mimic possibilities to express this distress without overacting are convincing. For example, when Zweig and his wife have sugar cultivation vividly explained to them by eager farmers in a field in 1941, one can see his anguish: He is safe, but at home there is war, people, friends and relatives are being persecuted and killed.

He is safe, but at home there is war, and friends and relatives are persecuted and killed.

Only in the almost last scene, in which Hader and his German journalist friend, the also exiled Ernst Feder (Matthias Brandt) stand on the balcony and look into the overwhelming Brazilian nature, Zweig speaks for the first time about his distress: "How can one stand it?" Hader plays this scene so accurately that it would nevertheless not even take these words to realize what images he has in front of his inner eye: He is looking directly into hell – but what we see is paradise.

Schrader says she wanted to tell of the love story between Zweig and Europe, which took a tragic turn as a result of the war – but without showing Europe. The director, who discovered Stefan Zweig as a reader late in life, also sets out to explore the writer’s inner life without analyzing or unnecessarily psychologizing him: "The fact that he was Jewish, and that his offensiveness was therefore different from how Thomas Mann, for example, dealt with it – that fascinated me," she says, pointing out the similarities between the two writers.

"You have to compare him with Mann, because they had a similar radius." Both fled the Nazis into exile, continued to work, but their lives there were fundamentally different. Mann finally landed in the U.S. after many stops, and from there was always heard as a clear, active political voice against the Third Reich. Zweig – the film also tells of this – was an absolute pacifist even in the war situation and wanted to stick to his credo of separating art and politics – and felt so powerless in doing so that he broke.

Breaking with his own straightforwardness

The precise choreographies of the situations, which make do with sparse cuts, are reminiscent of theater acts: There, too, the ensemble has to work together even more than in film, looking and listening to each other, participating with concentration for as long as it takes.

The fact that Schrader’s ensemble speaks in the respective national languages at all times, and that the soundtrack thus resembles a course in Esperanto with Austrian, French, Spanish (and the corresponding mumbling live interpreters), is another mark of authenticity of the film. This was difficult to implement: "At the beginning, there was always only one reaction: ‘That’s not possible,’" Schrader says. "It doesn’t work, so many names, so many languages, so much dialogue."

It worked sensationally. With the second film she directed – after "Liebesleben" from 2007 – Schrader was nominated for best director at the German Film Awards. She has brought the life of an extraordinary writer back into the collective memory and found worthy images for how he breaks down from his own straightforwardness. Along the way, Schrader and Schomburg have finally given the biopic format, which is often far too well-behaved, a run for its money.

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