Vienna 1938. Josef Bartok and his wife Anna are driving to a fancy ball. To be more accurate, they are being driven by their chauffeur. Their car gets stopped in traffic, as a demo goes past. Suddenly Nazi demonstrators start beating on their car. You have a moment of conflict. Should I feel for the Nazi hordes, or the rich parasites who’s feel threatened? Can I want both to be destroyed by a passing meteor?
At the ball, Josef’s liberal friends warn him that Hitler’s troops are due to invade Austria the next day. Best to go now, get the train to Rotterdam and then the ship to the USA. Josef decides to stay and dance. As someone says, “as long as Vienna dances, the world won’t go down”. But the Nazis do arrive and Josef hurriedly burns his financial records in his stove.
You see, Josef is an investment manager and notary, and has access to the bank accounts of various rich clients. The Nazis are after their money, so Gestapo leader Böhm invites Josef in for a little talk. When Josef refuses to give away the bank accounts, he is placed under house arrest in a room of the luxury Hotel Metropol. If he gives up the necessary information, they’ll let him free.
The scenes filmed in “current day” Vienna are mixed with some on which Josef and Anna are in a big boat bound for the US. Josef is obviously traumatized – his hand shakes, and he finds it difficult to speak. And yet, because of a series of incidents to do with Plot, he is drawn into a game of chess with the Grand Master Mirko Czentovic.
Back in the Metropol, Josef is subjected to great psychological torture and starts to lose his mind. One day in Böhm’s office he manages to steal a book of chess problems. He manufactures chess pieces out of what he can find lying around, mainly pieces of bread. He tries to keep his grasp on reality by reproducing the moves on a chess board that he fabricates on his carpet.
It’s a long time since I played chess, but when I did, I relied much more on instinct than technique. I played quickly and made a lot of mistakes, but it was such a low level that I could intimidate my opponent into making more mistakes than me. What I’m trying to say that I spent more time just making a move and seeing what happened that thinking a lot about possible consequences.
Schachnovelle is based on a different understanding of the game. Chess matches are won by learning moves and sets of moves, on finding algorithms which ensure a higher percentage of wins. This may be true, but it is soulless and is one of the reasons that I stopped playing. Training, preparing the moves you want to make is no fun. It is boring. Watching someone train and prepare is a further level of tedium. I get it that some people enjoy this stuff, it just isn’t for me.
What we see in Schachnovelle is a man reacting to a particular form of mental torture by disciplining his mind. This is potentially interesting psychologically, but just doesn’t work on an artistic level – for me at least. I am aware that Josef is able to keep himself – halfway – sane by a manic concentration on chess problems. All I’m saying is that this is not particularly dramatically interesting.
I don’t want to say much here about Schindler’s List – a film about good Nazis with which I have many problems. But just one thing: in comparison, talking about the dreadful torture of being stuck in a hotel room feels slightly offensive. Yes I’m aware of the intended message – you don’t need to die in a Concentration Camp to be a victim of the Nazis, but It still comes over as somehow crass.
Bits of Schachnovelle look spectacular – in particular the shots of the steamship escaping the Nazi Anschluß and heading to New York – but this is, in part, the problem. You get a feeling of all form and no content. It is such a shame that director Philipp Stölzl’s previous film was the gloriously crazy Udo Jürgens musical “Ich war noch niemals in New York”, which had the opposite effect. The superficiality was what made it funny. But Schachnovelle is not looking for laughs.
I do think that this is a film that will reward you if you’re prepared to go along with it. So please do try and give it a go, maybe the problem lies with me. I just couldn’t find any entry point where I could just care about the characters. Yes, they have a tragic history, yes I am suitably disgusted and appalled. But what I am not is moved. It could be my fault, but I just couldn’t get on board.