The Royal Game –
Austrian Checkmate

REVIEW/NATION
This year, the 10th New Austrian Cinema Festival organised by the art association CoolConnections was held in Moscow from 8 to 12 September. The honour of the film screenings' opening on September 8 was granted to the movie The Royal Game ("Schachnovelle", 2021), directed by Philipp Stölzl mostly known for his Goethe! (2010), The Physician (2013), and countless musical works in collaboration with Rammstein.
by Ira Belousenko


14/09/2021
The Royal Game is the adaptation of the novel "Schachnovelle" by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. It is not the first time when filmmakers turn to his literary heritage. For instance, one of the most famous movies based on Zweig's writing is the world-known The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), directed by Wes Anderson.

However, while in Anderson's story we observe a light adventure-crime comedy (quite typical of him, honestly), The Royal Game, on the other hand, seems to be opening up a more dramatic side of the writer, shifting the focus away from benevolent fiction to the events that are really terrifying in their cruelty.

It becomes clear from the very beginning that the story on the screen will be tense. A mad whisper, rearranging the chess pieces on the board in its owner's mind, and the crackle of a lonely lamp that is about to burst – the first shots the viewer sees and hears after the opening credits. With the story's main character we get acquainted in an equally sinister atmosphere. Josef Bartok (Oliver Masucci) is about to leave Rotterdam on a ferry sailing to New York in order to escape the consequences in Austrian Anschluss in 1938. Suddenly, both for the audience and Josef himself, he notices his wife (Birgit Minichmayr) in line for the same voyage. At that time, the audience is not familiar with any of the characters' stories but it is from this exact scene that Philipp Stölzl carefully begins the narration about the chain of events that led to the touching spouses' reunion on the same pier.
We meet our main character once again but in very different conditions this time. From a dirty and noisy port, the viewer is moved to a luxurious apartment of an Austrian bourgeois of the 30s.

Philipp Stölzl, in general, uses antitheses throughout the whole movie with great pleasure – such as the crackle of headlights broken by pro-Nazis on Mr. Bartok and his wife's way to a dinner party that is instantly replaced with the clink of champagne glasses at a fancy evening. Josef Bartok's desire to take his wife to the "Swan Lake" ballet at the Vienna State Opera also gets twisted, as by the sound of the "Dance of the Little Swans" he is convulsively burning documents that have become the target of the fascist headquarters. The director juggles images and symbols in the film very skillfully creating an infinite symbolism through the smallest details. The Austrian flag falling from the roof, and the lines of the first Odyssey song, which are terribly similar to the circumstances the main character is living through, are just a small part of those little but significant components of which the film is constituted.

For refusing to share valuable data with the Nazi command, Josef Bartok gets arrested. However, he spends his imprisonment not in a prison cell, but in a Metropol hotel room. All alone.

Josef's only joy now is in a secretly kept book of chess games, which he sneaks into his room after one of the everlasting interrogations. It becomes the last thin thread that does not allow his mind to collapse and keeps Joseph from giving in to the psychological torture of the Gestapo.

Philipp Stölzl does not skimp on the abundant and sometimes unnecessarily graphic scenes of despair of the main character. We see how Josef's charm and arrogance slowly but surely evaporate under the onslaught of the fallen loneliness and what efforts it costs him not to lose himself. Oliver Masucci shows the peak of his acting skills in the movie: in a matter of minutes, he transforms from a gorgeous wealthy man to a lunatic. His portrayal of Josef Bartok evokes respect and pity, admiration for the power of the human spirit, and awe before the image of the martyr. Albrecht Schuch as the chief of the fascist headquarters in Vienna is another proof of the undoubtedly successful casting. He is unrelenting and charming like a psychopath, who corners a chosen victim, and like Oliver Masucci skillfully manages emotions, turning from a reasonable boss to a vicious fury within seconds. There is no doubt that the selection of actors was approached with great responsibility and it definitely deserves certain praise.
SPOILER ALERT!
Special attention should be dedicated to the denouement of the movie. For the well-watched viewers and Shutter Island (2010) fans, the ending may seem quite trivial, but in general, such a move was smooth and captivating. Philipp Stölzl was able to create the illusion of two separate lives of one person in a filigree way. Let there be no first scene with a heartwarming lover's meeting, and the chess game with the grandmaster on the ship Rotterdam-New York also being a figment of a sick fantasy. But the bottom line is that the madness built by the circumstances does not deprive Josef Bartok of his humanity and a sense of duty. Even while losing himself, he does not lose his principles.

The only downfall of the film is, perhaps, a slightly sagging middle, which is ubiquitous even in the superlative movies. At some point, the viewer gets stuck in the Metropol room for too long, watching the loneliness of Bartok, which is being more of an annoyance rather than prompting any deep contemplations.

The rumor announced at the beginning of the festival about its possible Oscar nomination next year does not even seem to be created out of thin air. It has everything that a noteworthy movie needs: an interesting and not hackneyed plot, talented directing and camerawork, actors who are outstanding in their abilities and, like the cherry on top, still not a predictable ending for most of the viewers.
Several times during the film the phrase "The world cannot collapse, while Vienna is dancing," was said. And for me personally, The Royal Game is now the most exquisite and beautiful Austrian dance that I have ever seen on the screen. The world indeed cannot collapse while such films are being released on screens and are warmly received by the audience.
 
The Royal Game – Austrian Checkmate
REVIEW/NATION
This year, the 10th New Austrian Cinema Festival organised by the art association CoolConnections was held in Moscow from 8 to 12 September. The honour of the film screenings' opening on September 8 was granted to the movie The Royal Game ("Schachnovelle", 2021), directed by Philipp Stölzl mostly known for his Goethe! (2010), The Physician (2013), and countless musical works in collaboration with Rammstein.
by Ira Belousenko


14/09/2021
The Royal Game is the adaptation of the novel "Schachnovelle" by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. It is not the first time when filmmakers turn to his literary heritage. For instance, one of the most famous movies based on Zweig's writing is the world-known The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), directed by Wes Anderson.

However, while in Anderson's story we observe a light adventure-crime comedy (quite typical of him, honestly), The Royal Game, on the other hand, seems to be opening up a more dramatic side of the writer, shifting the focus away from benevolent fiction to the events that are really terrifying in their cruelty.

It becomes clear from the very beginning that the story on the screen will be tense. A mad whisper, rearranging the chess pieces on the board in its owner's mind, and the crackle of a lonely lamp that is about to burst – the first shots the viewer sees and hears after the opening credits. With the story's main character we get acquainted in an equally sinister atmosphere. Josef Bartok (Oliver Masucci) is about to leave Rotterdam on a ferry sailing to New York in order to escape the consequences in Austrian Anschluss in 1938. Suddenly, both for the audience and Josef himself, he notices his wife (Birgit Minichmayr) in line for the same voyage. At that time, the audience is not familiar with any of the characters' stories but it is from this exact scene that Philipp Stölzl carefully begins the narration about the chain of events that led to the touching spouses' reunion on the same pier.
We meet our main character once again but in very different conditions this time. From a dirty and noisy port, the viewer is moved to a luxurious apartment of an Austrian bourgeois of the 30s.

Philipp Stölzl, in general, uses antitheses throughout the whole movie with great pleasure – such as the crackle of headlights broken by pro-Nazis on Mr. Bartok and his wife's way to a dinner party that is instantly replaced with the clink of champagne glasses at a fancy evening. Josef Bartok's desire to take his wife to the "Swan Lake" ballet at the Vienna State Opera also gets twisted, as by the sound of the "Dance of the Little Swans" he is convulsively burning documents that have become the target of the fascist headquarters. The director juggles images and symbols in the film very skillfully creating an infinite symbolism through the smallest details. The Austrian flag falling from the roof, and the lines of the first Odyssey song, which are terribly similar to the circumstances the main character is living through, are just a small part of those little but significant components of which the film is constituted.

For refusing to share valuable data with the Nazi command, Josef Bartok gets arrested. However, he spends his imprisonment not in a prison cell, but in a Metropol hotel room. All alone.

Josef's only joy now is in a secretly kept book of chess games, which he sneaks into his room after one of the everlasting interrogations. It becomes the last thin thread that does not allow his mind to collapse and keeps Joseph from giving in to the psychological torture of the Gestapo.

Philipp Stölzl does not skimp on the abundant and sometimes unnecessarily graphic scenes of despair of the main character. We see how Josef's charm and arrogance slowly but surely evaporate under the onslaught of the fallen loneliness and what efforts it costs him not to lose himself. Oliver Masucci shows the peak of his acting skills in the movie: in a matter of minutes, he transforms from a gorgeous wealthy man to a lunatic. His portrayal of Josef Bartok evokes respect and pity, admiration for the power of the human spirit, and awe before the image of the martyr. Albrecht Schuch as the chief of the fascist headquarters in Vienna is another proof of the undoubtedly successful casting. He is unrelenting and charming like a psychopath, who corners a chosen victim, and like Oliver Masucci skillfully manages emotions, turning from a reasonable boss to a vicious fury within seconds. There is no doubt that the selection of actors was approached with great responsibility and it definitely deserves certain praise.
SPOILER ALERT!
Special attention should be dedicated to the denouement of the movie. For the well-watched viewers and Shutter Island (2010) fans, the ending may seem quite trivial, but in general, such a move was smooth and captivating. Philipp Stölzl was able to create the illusion of two separate lives of one person in a filigree way. Let there be no first scene with a heartwarming lover's meeting, and the chess game with the grandmaster on the ship Rotterdam-New York also being a figment of a sick fantasy. But the bottom line is that the madness built by the circumstances does not deprive Josef Bartok of his humanity and a sense of duty. Even while losing himself, he does not lose his principles.

The only downfall of the film is, perhaps, a slightly sagging middle, which is ubiquitous even in the superlative movies. At some point, the viewer gets stuck in the Metropol room for too long, watching the loneliness of Bartok, which is being more of an annoyance rather than prompting any deep contemplations.

The rumor announced at the beginning of the festival about its possible Oscar nomination next year does not even seem to be created out of thin air. It has everything that a noteworthy movie needs: an interesting and not hackneyed plot, talented directing and camerawork, actors who are outstanding in their abilities and, like the cherry on top, still not a predictable ending for most of the viewers.

Several times during the film the phrase "The world cannot collapse, while Vienna is dancing," was said. And for me personally, The Royal Game is now the most exquisite and beautiful Austrian dance that I have ever seen on the screen. The world indeed cannot collapse while such films are being released on screens and are warmly received by the audience.
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