How do chess and madness combine, how does a person gradually move from being hard to a state of complete depression and madness? About all this is the film “The Royal Game”.
The main character – Dr. Josef Bartok – when boarding a ship to America, meets his wife, whom he had not seen for a long time. Josef recalls the last period of his beautiful life.
1938, Austria. He is a notary whose duty it was to certify the opening of accounts of the Austrian aristocracy in the banks of Europe.
One day, his informant advises him to leave the country immediately. Josef sends his wife to Rotterdam, while he hurries to his office. Unknown people find him there. They drive together to the Metropol Hotel, where the Gestapo headquarters is located.
The hero is met by the character of Albrecht Schuch – Franz-Josef Böhm – the head of the secret police. He wants to get the bills he’s been working on from the lawyer. Bartok behaves confidently and narcissistically. To the proposal of a chess game, he replies that this is the pleasure of “bored Prussian generals”, and true Austrians love music and literature. Josef is sent to a room and left all alone, isolated from the outside world. In the absence of entertainment, he gradually begins to fade and go crazy.
Being on the deck, the hero sees a passing chess tournament in which the grandmaster beats all the participants. Only one opponent remains – Rolf Lassgaard’s Owen McConor. He is the owner of the ship. Josef prompts him to move. The result is a draw. Everyone is delighted. The owner is interested in where the ordinary notary learned to play like that and in what competitions he participated. In response, he receives that in front of him is a beginner, who for the first time has taken real pieces in his hands.
Being imprisoned on the verge of insanity, Josef agrees to give out all the bills. One little thing changes everything: he gets a book with a description of the matches of famous chess players. He undertakes the study of an unusual business in order to have fun. A few days later he was summoned for another interrogation, but before the Gestapo he was already a completely different person. The notary refuses to testify and demands to return him to the room.
After checking, the Nazis discover a book and figurines fashioned from bread. Everyone is taken away. Joseph is desperate. The madness that started to go away returns with renewed vigor, developing into schizophrenia.
Continuing his journey to the USA, Bartok realizes that his wife is not on board and was not: his mind invented her.
Owen offers money to the notary for playing Milko Czentovic (Grandmaster). Joseph agrees. A flickering lamp triggers flashbacks. The newly minted player is confused in time and ceases to understand: he is on a ship or in the Gestapo. There comes a moment when the champion knocks over his king and holds out his hand to Josef, recognizing the victory for him. At the same time, depressed and broken, the notary lies on the floor in the Metropol with scribbled papers. Böhm informs him that he won this game: everything written is not a code or a cipher, but a description of the moves made in the confrontation between Max van Louiven and Milko Czentovich. Josef is released, he signs the name Max van Leuven.
The historical drama ends with the hero playing chess in a psychiatric hospital and communicating with Birgit Minichmayr in the role of Anna, whom she no longer recognizes …
The meaning of the film
Josef, after the removal of the book and the destruction of the figures, does not have the opportunity to learn how to play. Therefore, he conducts tournaments virtually, becoming Max van Leuven (the consequences of schizophrenia). He has nothing to do with Josef Bartok and knows nothing about Austrian money. Now the jailers can get one thing from him – a chess game. Due to the uselessness of the prisoner, Franz recognizes his victory: he did not say anything.
The process of transformation into a new personality is smooth and first manifested itself when the hero, leaving the place of captivity, signs the name of the Dutch chess player. On the ship, he still knows Anna and treats her like a wife. Later, realizing that she is a figment of the imagination, Max comes to terms with this, finally losing touch with Josef.
Already in the clinic, communicating with Anna, he does not recognize her at all.
Characteristics of heroes
Dr. Josef Bartok is a self-confident person. Oliver Mazucci, playing the role of a lawyer, creates the image of a sincere believer in the law of a citizen who does not take the warning of a possible arrest by the Nazis seriously enough. Accustomed to a luxurious life and being imprisoned, the character goes crazy, becoming a different person.
Max van Leuven is that other person. He, unlike his former self, is far from arrogant, rather a heartbroken genius, who became such because of schizophrenia.
Franz Josef Böhm is the head of the Vienna secret police. Competent psychologist and well-read person. “Nothing paints a man better than his education,” he says.
Owen McConor is a subject who is used to satisfying his “Wishlist” and does not like everyone who is better than him. It costs nothing for a rich man to pay $20,000 to see a world champion lose and satisfy his own ego.
Time is a movie character just like everyone else. Böhm says: “Space and time are being lost in our hotel,” the audience also notices. They, along with the main character, are in the dark and cannot say what time has passed. Time is also lost along the way when the doctor does not understand where he is: in the past or present. Director Philipp Stölzl paid attention to the clock in the ship’s bar. He showed them “rewinding” twice. The bartender commented that there is a time for every degree of the Earth, and in swimming it changes automatically, which is not worth thinking about: you can go crazy.
References to the era
In the beginning, Josef Bartek discusses with the servants the upcoming referendum in Austria, which was supposed to determine further relations with Germany.
When Bartek burns the documents, a radio plays in the background. Chancellor Schuschnigg’s speech delivered on March 9, 1938 is heard there. It concerned the issue of a plebiscite, which was supposed to decide the actual protectorate on the part of Germany.
The restlessness of those days is also conveyed by the constantly passing Nazi demonstrations and the mood of the protesters who attack Josef’s car.
The film tells about how even a strong person can be broken by loneliness and isolation. The audience is made to understand that genius and madness often go hand in hand. Both of these are a consistent pattern of some events.