Although the blandly nondescript title doesn’t precisely recommend the promise of deep intrigue, Philipp Stölzl’s “Chess Story” masterfully confounds expectations as a tautly calibrated, intricately constructed Chinese puzzle of a interval drama set throughout Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria.
Smugly dismissive of the darkening political local weather surrounding the nation in 1938, debonair notary Dr. Josef Bartok (Oliver Masucci) assures his spouse, Anna (Birgit Minichmayr), that “as long as Vienna keeps dancing, the world can’t end.”
But Bartok’s world as he is aware of it in a short time involves an abrupt finish, with German troops marching into Austria simply as he and Anna plan to set sail for America.
Separated from his spouse, he’s arrested and dropped at the Hotel Metropol, commandeered as Gestapo headquarters, the place the quietly calculating Böhm (Albrecht Schuch) expects Bartok to offer him with the account entry codes belonging to his aristocratic purchasers in change for his freedom.
Realizing that there’s no assure his life can be spared as soon as he offers up that info, Bartok embarks on a cagey recreation of cat and mouse with Böhm as he continues to be held prisoner in a claustrophobic lodge room the place a smuggled e-book of annotated chess strikes serves as his solely connection to the skin world.
It’s not the primary time that “The Royal Game,” an 80-year-old novella by Stefan Zweig, has captured the creativeness of the worldwide inventive group, having beforehand been filmed in 1960 below the extra sensational moniker “Brainwashed,” adopted by a 1964 TV film referred to as “Checkmate,” in addition to numerous stage productions, together with a 2013 opera.
But right here, director Stölzl and screenwriter Eldar Grigorian, along with including a number of characters not present in earlier variations, seize upon the e-book’s surreal underpinnings and weave them extra prominently into the material of the winding narrative, constructing or spiraling, relying on the way you take a look at it, towards a psychological breaking level of decidedly Kafkaesque proportions.
Masucci, who seems in each scene, potently conveys a mess of unstated feelings along with his remarkably expressive face, each in his solitary lodge confinement and (ostensibly) later, on board that ship en path to America, the place he finds himself outmaneuvering a world chess champion (additionally performed by Schuch).
He’s by no means lower than riveting, expertly tethering his character in place whilst his thoughts regularly begins to lose its moorings in an existence the place days, weeks and months have merged into clouded uncertainty.
While Bartok emerges from his labyrinthine wrestle decidedly damaged however nonetheless, not like the unique textual content, supplied with a glimmer of hope, creator Zweig’s journey was much less encouraging.
As captured by the grimly murky lens that was Europe at the moment, “The Royal Game” was written between September 1941 and February 1942 in Brazil, the place Zweig and his second spouse had been dwelling as Austrian exiles.
The day after he mailed off the manuscripts of his “curious novella,” the Zweigs took their very own lives with a barbiturate overdose.
“I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth,” he wrote, in despair of what might transpire within the months to come back.
Eighty years later, “Chess Story” and all its variations proceed to function a reminder of the significance of remaining within the recreation, irrespective of how seemingly futile, till the final doable transfer.
In German with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: Starts Jan. 20, Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica