Nominated seven times for the USA Film Prize, it appears with Philipp Stölzls Chess Story (The Royal Game) There’s a film in cinemas these days that excellently showcases the timelessness of the material with the help of new narrative impulses. Starring Oliver Masucci, who is on the verge of madness. We reveal more about this in our review.
OT: Chess Story (Original – Schachnovelle, US/GB 2021)
The plot summary
Vienna, 1938: Austria is occupied by the Nazi regime. Shortly before the lawyer Josef Bartok (Oliver Masucci) and his wife Anna (Birgit Minichmayr) can flee to the USA, he is arrested and taken to the Hotel Metropol, headquarters of the Gestapo. As an asset manager for the nobility, he is supposed to give the local Gestapo head Böhm access to accounts. Since Bartok refuses to cooperate, he is placed in solitary confinement. Bartok remains steadfast for weeks and months, but becomes increasingly desperate – until he accidentally comes across a chess book…
Admittedly, it’s not the most exotic film setting ever. But it still doesn’t happen very often that filmmakers and screenwriters decide to set their stories on a ship. The fact that Philipp Stölzl, after the stage musical adaptation “I’ve never been to New York”, is now directing a film again that – at least half of the running time – takes place on a luxury liner, almost seems a little like the desired proof of his own variability, because ” “I’ve never been to New York before” was a brightly colored, passionate dance and song dance. The film adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s psychodrama Chess Story, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. For Stölzl, not only is the ship setting not a first time, but also the undertaking of making a literary film. He is also responsible for the international surprise hit “Der Medicus”, which even landed in the top 10 of 2013 in this country. So now Chess Story. Stefan Zweig’s autobiographically colored portrait of a man who, after several months of solitary confinement by the National Socialists, learned to play chess and then fell into what he himself described as “chess fever”. Stölzl’s new edition (and second film adaptation after Gerd Oswald’s Chess Story from 1960) has little to do with the original, especially the novella form. In his feature film debut, screenwriter Eldar Grigorian prepared the material as a chronologically nested journey into the human abyss and (not only) added an ending that deviates greatly from the original. An interesting idea.
The wealthy McConnor (Rolf Lassgård) plays the last game against Centovic (Albrecht Schuch). Then Bartok (Oliver Masucci) takes over.
While the book focuses on three different characters – the asset manager Dr. B, the reigning world chess champion Mirko Czentovic as well as an Austrian immigrant and first-person narrator – Philipp Stölzl’s Chess Story is now entirely based on Oliver Masucci’s (“Enfant terrible”) brilliantly embodied lawyer Josef Bartok. We learn next to nothing about the chess player who challenges Bartok on the ship. And there is no first-person narrator who listens to Bartok’s story. But Chess Story in the form presented here doesn’t need that, because after all we see what’s happening on the screen, so it doesn’t need anyone to ask questions or someone to whom the protagonist could tell his suffering. Instead, the film jumps through the two different time periods without voiceover: This is everything that is happening (here presented as the present) on the ship on which Bartok travels with his wife Anna from Vienna to the USA or escapes, while his time in Nazi solitary confinement is described in detailed flashbacks; The trigger is an invitation to a chess game on the steamer, in which a world chess champion competes against the entire crew. It is the game of chess itself that triggers Bartok’s memories of his past; The film ultimately explains how he is able to force a chess ace to draw and then even defeat him.
“While the book focuses on three different characters, Philipp Stölzl’s Chess Story is now completely tailored to the lawyer Josef Bartok, brilliantly embodied by Oliver Masucci.”
These explanations (= flashbacks) take up not only the larger narrative space, but above all the more intense space. Cameraman Thomas W. Kiennast (“Cortex”) is always very close to Josef Bartok, who is gradually falling into madness, and puts his mental and physical condition to the extreme; of course cheered on by Oliver Masucci’s tour de force. But he also manages to emphasize the claustrophobic confinement of his luxury hotel room, which has been used for solitary confinement, so much that you can actually feel the extreme spatial limitations around Bartok. To achieve this, Kiennast not only uses distorted angles and experimental perspectives, but also applies a certain skill in not presenting the same motif (the imprisoned Bartok playing chess) all the time, just in a modified form. Of course, the scenery changes also counteract any monotony. Although Philipp Stölzl blurs the two levels more and more into one another as the running time progresses. This not only serves the purpose of filling some deliberately placed blank spaces that appear in the first half, but also creates an atmosphere far removed from space and time. It is fitting that during the months of imprisonment and torture, Bartok was denied any information about the duration of his captivity and thus lost his sense of time. In its best moments, Chess Story is even reminiscent of the intoxicating bar sequences from the horror classic “Shining”.
Bartok loses his sense of time and space while in custody.
Speaking of torture: Chess Story is not an overly graphic film. An execution carried out with a pistol is only hinted at, but ultimately takes place offscreen, while otherwise the consequences of the harassment are shown, but not the execution of it. For this purpose, the use of psychological torture is particularly exploited. Just this much: after this film, the 1930s hit “I wish I were a chicken” will no longer provide amusement, but rather goosebumps of disgust. But even without any explicit visuality, Chess Story develops a tremendous sense of oppression. Oliver Masucci carries the film entirely on his shoulders, can be seen in almost every scene and plays his heart out here. From the smug rebel who initially ignores the long-looming threat from the National Socialists to the active action against his mischief-makers (above all Albrecht Schuch, who puts himself entirely at the service of the film in his famously repugnant role), whom he himself has faced for months is still mentally superior after his imprisonment (and shows it whenever possible), right up to the complete mental break when his stolen chess book is taken away from him, Masucci delivers the complete range of emotional exceptionalism, is captivating and oscillating excellently between arousal of pity and the impulse to want to cheer him on – not at chess, but in the attempt to survive imprisonment relatively unscathed, should he ever get out of it.
Chess Story is not an overly graphic film. An execution carried out with a pistol is only hinted at, but ultimately takes place offscreen, while otherwise the consequences of the harassment are shown, but not the execution of it. For this purpose, the use of psychological torture is particularly exploited.”
Chess Story has not become a classic “chess film”. Replaying famous chess games does not require a technical classification component, which ultimately would not be necessary. Instead, the focus is primarily on anticipating the opponent’s moves as the key to success – and exactly what the “Game of Kings” (“The Royale Game” is the international title of the film) does to the main character. This is exactly what leads the creatives to come up with a final twist, which either emphasizes the tragedy of the story again, but can also be considered sensationalism. I guess it depends on which final move you would most like to see in this film.
Conclusion: Philipp Stölzl’s interpretation of the Chess Story is an impressively filmed, outstandingly acted and, thanks to many new impulses, timeless adaptation of a classic that is oppressive and, thanks to its unusual narrative style, a bit surprising – even if you know the original.
Chess Story (The Royal Game) can be seen in USA cinemas from September 23, 2021.