Review: ‘Chess Story’ makes masterful moves in tense update of a Stefan Zweig novel

Though the nondescript title doesn’t exactly suggest the promise of deep intrigue, Philipp Stölzl’s “Chess Story” masterfully confounds expectations as a carefully calibrated and intricately constructed puzzle of a period drama set during Germany’s annexation of Austria. Nazi.

Smugly dismissive of the increasingly bleak political climate surrounding the country in 1938, elegant notary Dr. Josef Bartok (Oliver Masucci) assures his wife, Anna (Birgit Minichmayr), that “as long as Vienna keeps on dancing, the world won’t. can end.”

But Bartok’s world as he knows it quickly comes to an abrupt end, with German troops marching into Austria just as he and Anna plan to set sail for America.

Separated from his wife, he is arrested and taken to the Hotel Metropol, requisitioned as a Gestapo headquarters, where the quiet and calculating Böhm (Albrecht Schuch) expects Bartok to provide him with the access codes to the accounts belonging to his aristocratic clients. change your freedom.

Realizing that there is no guarantee that his life will be spared once he delivers that information, Bartok embarks on a cautious game of cat and mouse with Böhm while remaining a prisoner in a claustrophobic hotel room where a smuggled book of Annotated chess moves serves. as his only connection to the outside world.

It is not the first time that “The Royal Game”, an 80-year-old novel by Stefan Zweig, has captured the imagination of the international art community, having previously been filmed in 1960 under the more sensational moniker of “Brainwashed”, followed by a 1964 TV movie called “Checkmate” as well as several stage productions, including a 2013 opera.

But here, director Stölzl and screenwriter Eldar Grigorian, in addition to adding several characters not found in previous versions, take advantage of the book’s surreal underpinnings and weave them more prominently into the fabric of the winding narrative, building or turning in spiral, depending on how you look at it. in it, toward a mental breaking point of decidedly Kafkaesque proportions.

Appearing in every scene, Masucci powerfully conveys a multitude of unspoken emotions with his extraordinarily expressive face, both in his confinement in a lonely hotel and (ostensibly) later, aboard that ship en route to America, where he finds himself surpassing in maneuvers to world chess. champion (also played by Schuch).

He is never less than mesmerizing, expertly tying his character in place even as his mind gradually begins to lose its moorings in an existence where days, weeks, and months have merged with cloudy uncertainty.

While Bartok emerges from his labyrinthine struggle decidedly broken but, unlike the original text, armed with a glimmer of hope, author Zweig’s journey was less encouraging.

Captured through the darkly cloudy lens that was Europe at the time, “The Royal Game” was written between September 1941 and February 1942 in Brazil, where Zweig and his second wife had been living as Austrian exiles.

The day after he mailed the manuscripts of his “curious novel,” the Zweigs took their own lives with an overdose of barbiturates.

“I think it is better to conclude with time and an upright bearing a life in which intellectual work meant the purest joy and personal freedom the greatest good on Earth,” he wrote, desperate for what could happen in the coming months.

Eighty years later, “Chess Story” and all of its variants continue to serve as a reminder of the importance of staying in the game, no matter how futile it seems, to the last possible move.

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