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Schachnovelle (The Royal Game)
Germany 2021

Opening 23 Sep 2021

Directed by: Philipp Stölzl
Writing credits: Eldar Grigorian, Stefan Zweig
Principal actors: Clemens Berndorff, Samuel Finzi, Luisa-Céline Gaffron, Oliver Masucci, Birgit Minichmayr

A year before committing suicide, Austrian author Stefan Zweig, living in exile in Brazil, wrote Schachnovelle in 1941. It has been the inspiration for films, theater, and even an opera. It takes a look at a forgotten history travelling back to 1938 when the Nazi regime occupied Austria. It is a time period when they decided to annex Austria by eliminating the monarchy while withholding the financial assets.

The film opens with the brilliant and yet defiant Dr. Josef Bartok (Oliver Masucci) who is preparing for a glorious night on the town with his lovely wife Anna (Birgit Minichmayr). The costumes and settings cast a flavor of richness and vibrant colors. Everything shines with elegance and the world seems to be in order. Tonight will be a night to remember since the Vienna Opera Ball opens and will bring together the high society of Vienna where they will dance the waltz and they can forget the chaos that is pounding outside on the streets. At least, that how it began but then the film shifts. Bartok receives a warning that he needs to leave immediately, or it will be too late. Ordering his wife to flee without him, Bartok, a lawyer and notary returns to his office to burn important documents listing valuable assets in various accounts which cannot fall into the hands of the enemy.

His unfortunate capture puts him into the hands of Franz-Josef Böhm (Albrecht Schuch), Head of Gestapo at the Hotel Metropol where his total isolation has driven him almost over the edge. Thanks to a moment of opportunity, he is able to steal a little chess book which helps him maintain his sanity by absorbing the contents of this book. Director Phillip Stölzl creates a world of mental chaos where we are uncertain if he will win and if so at what costs. The view into Dr. Bartok’s worlds makes me think of those who become so absorbed into the game of chess that they can lose themselves. At one point I realized that the doctor is playing both white and black parts and had the feeling he too was becoming schizophrenic. I would not be surprised if both Phillip Stöhl and Oliver Masucci were to receive awards for their work. Although the theme is not an uplifting one, the performances were brilliant. (Shelly Schoeneshoefer)

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