Films about World War II and Nazism are hard for me to watch. No matter how well-intentioned they may be, I can barely make it through Schindler’s List or Dunkirk or even something like Inglorious Bastards (I do, however, find The Producers to be hilarious). Most of the time, it hits a little too close to home. For you see, my Polish grandfather (may he rest in peace), his parents were taken away to a concentration camp. So anytime I watch a film set in that time period, I think, well, what if he had been taken away. It’s not like those horrible people showed any sort of restraint on children, and then where would my grandfather be? Or my mother? Or myself? Anyway, I got lured into Chess Story by the promise of a thriller with the game of chess as the backdrop. Unfortunately, by the end I was reminded of the horror, but also that there is still great modern moviemaking even with Nazis. Let’s take a look.
We hear whispers all around from every direction, and there is a light crackling overheard. It continues until it fades to black.
1939, the Rotterdam border between the Netherlands and Austria. Dr. Josef Bartok (played by Oliver Masucci) is handed a fake passport by the driver and told good luck. He gets out of the car and looks around him before he proceeds to the border crossing. Josef is able to pass through without any incident and is advised a safe journey. A red-haired woman out of the shadows call him by his real name; it is his wife, Anna (played by Birgit Minichmayr). He turns in an instant and embraces her. They get on a boat that is leaving for America.
They enter their sleeping quarters together and get dressed for dinner. Later on that night, Anna talks to Josef about how glad she is to have him back. She asks about the experience, but Josef is struggling to find the words to speak about it. He is visibly shaking, but he gathers himself to make a toast to his wife. The doctor then asks, how was it back then? Anna answers, “It was lovely.”
1938, Vienna Austria. There is a referendum currently out for the voters to decide whether they want to become part of Germany. Dr. Josef Bartok (now with mustache) doesn’t want to become German as he reads the paper in bed at a fancy hotel. His wife Anna enters, and the two engage in a little lovemaking. They are full of joy and make their way to a party later that night. As they make their way through the noisy streets, supporters of the German cause are engaging in protests and goose-stepping their way while screaming, “Heil Hitler!” around the vehicle. Despite the difficulty, the car eventually makes its way through.
Josef and Anna are dancing the night away at the party. Suddenly, he is whisked away to a private meeting with Gustav (played by Lukas Miko), who tells him the referendum is off; the German troops are invading tonight and taking over the country of Austria. Josef should leave the country because there are eyes everywhere, and they know exactly what he has been doing. At first, the good doctor blows it off, until Gustav pleads with him that the worst is indeed coming true. The realization finally comes full circle for Josef, and he runs off to tell his wife that she needs to pack up and flee immediately. He will join her, but there is something he has to do first.
Dr. Joseph Bartok is actually a notary. But he’s not just any notary; he handles some very lucrative accounts of the Austrian rich and the government as well. He has access to passcodes that any overthrowing force would benefit greatly from. Josef runs back to his office and lights a fire. He then starts to memorize and subsequently burn important documents. Then a doorbell sounds, and three men with guns barge in. They eventually find Josef on the balcony and haul him away. As he leaves in the company of these three men, the doctor finds out that he was given up by members of his own staff as to the secrets that he so closely held.
Josef soon lands at one of the premier hotels in Vienna, where he is formally arrested. However, it has been taken over by the Nazi forces and turned into a prison to extract important information. There Dr. Bartok meets Frances Josef Bohm (played by Albrecht Schuch), who is presiding warden over the hotel. They briefly talk about the subject of chess, and Josef dismisses the game, referring to the only people that play that sort of game being Prussian generals and other elitists. Little does Josef know at the time that the game of kings and queens would soon become his obsession as he tries to find a way out of this makeshift prison.
Chess Story is a wonderful movie based on a book called The Royal Game by Stefan Zweig from 1943 and has been adapted into a TV movie and also a film adaptation in 1960 called Brainwashed. There are strong performances all around, but certainly Oliver Masucci’s portrayal of Joseph Bartok as he slides in and out of sanity tops the list. It’s quite fitting that the game of chess, which often has various personalities who struggle with depression and sanity, as the backdrop for this film. The intricacies of the chess notation should also be commended here, as often they are depicted in modern pictures with carelessness.
I also loved the costume design and cinematography of the film. It constantly goes back and forth from 1938 to 1939, primarily from the ship to the hotel prison with such relative ease. However, the subtle differences and blending of the scenery is something to behold. It’s unnerving, thrilling, and scary all at the same time. When someone is presented with the same four walls everyday regardless of the location, how long does it take him to blend what’s real with what’s not? When time is misrepresented, it’s hard to say.
However, in the same breath it is hard to say whether I would watch this film again. It’s a great movie, but at times it is painful to watch, especially considering my family tree. Psychological thrillers such as this one also hit hard and leave you emotionally winded after nearly two hours of watching the psyche break down until it is nothing. Not to mention how much of my time I spent studying chess personally only to find very limited success. It’s why I will probably only play chess when it involves a computer or my son ever again. It’s hard to explain unless you have played competitively for an extended period of time. (I played competitively from about age 9 to 16.)
As you will notice, Film Movement has released this in a DVD format. There is a German Blu-ray release; however, it has no English Subtitles. It’s a shame; the intensity and the surrounds would have lent itself to the high-definition format. Aside from that, Film Movement also included on this disc a short film by Christoph Daniel and Marc Schmidheiny called Der Tunnel. It’s runs 10:22 and is in German w/burned in English subtitles. Essentially, it’s about a student on a train who finds himself in an existential dilemma when the tunnel they are traveling through never seems to end. It’s actually only about eight minutes long (with two minutes of credits), and honestly, it didn’t make much sense at all. There were some trailers included on this disc as well including Chess Story (naturally), Bye Bye Germany, Amour Fou, and Free Men.
Chess Story or Schachnovelle (as its called in Germany) is a gripping tale of how feeble sanity can be and how solace can be found in items or activities that we would never considered before. This film did extremely well at the Austrian and German film awards, winning costume design in both cases and being nominated for various Best Actress, Cinematography, and Supporting Actor awards. The work done here was fantastic, and while it might be very hard to watch this film a second time, it does not take away from the amazing performances by all who were involved in this movie. Very much recommended, and a film that anyone who likes psychological thrillers should seek out. Enjoy.
Chess Story (DVD) Review
05/08/2023 @ 3:08 pm
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