Schachnovelle [The Royal Game] (2021)

Director: Philipp Stölzl
Writer: Eldar Grigorian
Based on: Stefan Zweig‘s novella
Cast: Oliver Masucci, Albrecht Schuch, Birgit Minichmayr, Samuel Finzi, Andreas Lust, Clemens Berndorff, Moritz von Treuenfels, Rolf Lassgård
Seen on: 14.10.2021

Content Note: torture

Josef Bartok (Oliver Masucci) is a successful lawyer and a rich man. He follows the upcoming popular vote on the annexation of Austria to Germany with a clear distaste for the Nazis, but he is also sure that they cannot succeed. Out one night with his wife Anna (Birgit Minichmayr) he receives word, though: there will be no vote, the Nazis are taking over – and they are coming for him. Bartok takes care to destroy his ledgers, making his clients’ funds inaccessible, but he gets caught and is delivered into the mercy of Franz-Josef Böhm (Albrecht Schuch). In the subsequent months of torture, a booklet on chess is Bartok’s only hope to get through everything.

Schachnovelle is a good, intense film that could have maybe dialled it down a little. But that’s more a matter of taste than anything else – I thought it was very strong.

The film poster showing Josef Bartok (Oliver Masucci) in profile above a cruise ship. Inside his head we can also see Franz-Josef Böhm (Albrecht Schuch), Anna (Birgit Minichmayr) and a crowd surrounding a car.

I read Schachnovelle in school, like pretty much every body else who went to high school in Austria. I remember it vaguely, and that it is probably very good, but I didn’t re-read it before watching this adaptation. (I might read it again now that I watched it.) In any case, I had no real memory of the narrative framing of Bartok’s suffering with his trip on the cruise ship.

That means that the few surprises the film has in store for the audience remained actual surprises for the most part, though I saw some of it coming. Generally speaking, though, the cruise ship narrative was the weaker half of the film. It felt a little overblown, albeit pretty cleverly made. (Arguably, this over-the-top feeling is a very conscious choice that makes narrative sense, but it still pulled me out of the story a little.)

Josef Bartok (Oliver Masucci) studying a chess-board he improvised on the bathroom floor.

Still, it doesn’t reach the height of the scenes in the Hotel Metropol where Bartok is kept prisoner and slowly tortured with loneliness and boredom. And the film makes intensely clear that just because he isn’t beaten or physically abused (for the most part), doesn’t mean that his ordeal isn’t torture. And we get to see the effects of the treatment very clearly.

Masucci is an excellent casting choice. His Bartok is believable and likeable as both the suave hedonist in the beginning, and the stubborn victim desperately clinging to the last shred of his humanity in the form of his knowledge of the ledgers. I was really impressed by his performance.

Altogether the film is definitely worth seeing, and not just for school classes and students (who may want to skip reading the novel by watching the adaptation). It definitely makes its points.

Josef Bartok (Oliver Masucci) standing on the deck of the cruise ship, talking to another man (Samuel Finzi).

Summarizing: very good.

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