Schachnovelle (1960)

vt Brainwashed; vt Three Moves to Freedom; vt The Royal Game
West Germany / 102 minutes / bw / Roxy, NF Dir: Gerd Oswald Pr: Luggi Waldleitner Scr: Harold Medford, Gerd Oswald, Herbert Reinecker Story: “Schachnovelle” (1941; vt “The Royal Game”) by Stefan Zweig Cine: Günther Senftleben Cast: Curd Jürgens, Claire Bloom, Hansjörg Felmy, Mario Adorf, Hans Söhnker, Albert Bessler, Rudolf Forster, Alan Gifford, Jan Hendriks, Albert Lieven, Harald Maresch, Dietmar Schönherr, Karel Stepánek, Wolfgang Wahl.

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Like Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), this is based on a Stefan Zweig story. It’s a fascinating and distinctly noirish psychological piece, and in most of the important respects it’s surprisingly faithful to the original.

It’s the immediate aftermath of WWII, and the departure of the SS Adria, bound for New York, is being held back to await, as First Officer Nadis (Hendriks) explains to Glasgow blowhard MacIver (Gifford), the arrival of a special passenger. When world chess champion Mirko Czentovic (Adorf) arrives aboard with his manager cum flunkey Baranow (Stepánek), MacIver declares himself honored by the delay; as someone with more than a little experience of the chessboard, he can appreciate a man like Czentovic.

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Czentovic (Mario Adorf) and Baranow (Karel Stepánek) arrive at the dockside.

Which is more than Czentovic can do for the Adria or anyone aboard it. It looks like a refugee ship to him, and if he had his druthers he’d travel to his North American tournament in better company. In short, Czentovic is an obnoxiously arrogant toad, a Backpfeifengesicht, and it’s clear some of the Adria’s crew wouldn’t mind decking him.

Nadis tells MacIver that in fact this isn’t the passenger they’re waiting for. The passenger they’re waiting for is someone really special.

When the mystery passenger arrives, in the company of Bishop Ambross (Söhnker), he proves to be Werner von Basil (Jürgens), a man obviously in a condition of some mental frailty. The crew welcome him aboard with every reverence, but it seems that all he wants to do is cower in his cabin. He’s particularly struck when a steward explains to him that, should he want anything, all he has to do is press the bell.

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Werner (Curd Jürgens) and Bishop Ambross (Hans Söhnker) en route to the ship.

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“Just press the bell.”

That evening, Werner coaxes himself out of his cabin and is prowling the deck when he sees through a window some men gathered around a chessboard in the ship’s bar. The blowhard MacIver has challenged Czentovic to a game of chess and, for a fee of a mere £50, the grandmaster has condescended to play him. Even with the help of chess dabblers The Rabbi (Schönherr) and The Scientist (Bessler), MacIver is well on his way to losing when Werner, conquering his timidity, intervenes to show him how, even from this desperate position, he can still force a draw.

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Werner (Curd Jürgens) spots the chess game in progress.

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MacIver (Alan Gifford), The Scientist (Albert Bessler) and The Rabbi (Dietmar Schönherr).

Czentovic is dumbfounded, and starkly disbelieving when Werner claims never to have played chess before—indeed, never even so much as touched a chessman before . . .

And so we go into flashback for almost the whole of the remaining running time to find out how this claim can be true.

In the run up to the Nazi takeover of Austria, Werner was influential in smuggling artworks and other cultural treasures out of the country—notably those of the Roman Catholic Church—to keep them safe from the greedy fingers of the Reich. The Nazi installed in Vienna with the task of getting them back was Hans Berger (Felmy), an officer in the “cultural wing” of the Gestapo. Unlike his “department head,” Hartmann (Lieven), Berger believes that a far more effective way of worming information out of people than physical torture is, as he explains to Werner, “One must starve them spiritually . . . One must withhold from them every last trace of mental sustenance.”

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Werner’s first sight of Berger (Hansjörg Felmy), as the escort of Irene (Claire Bloom).

“Perhaps you are even more evil because you are intelligent,” Werner tells him by way of response.

And so, in his attempt to make Werner give away the location of all those secreted church treasures, Berger has him confined to Room 523 of Vienna’s swanky Hotel Metropole with no company other than an incessantly dripping tap, a wardrobe door that creaks open at unpredictable moments, and a barred window through whose frosted glass Werner can make out whether it’s day or night, sunny or raining, but very little else. He has no books, no music and no human intercourse except the regular visits of a goon he dubs Moonface (Wahl) bearing a tray with a paltry meal or a razor with which to shave him. However much Werner taunts or cajoles Moonface, the man displays no reaction and says not a word.

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Werner’s torment.

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Werner (Curd Jürgens) reacts to the stolid silence of Moonface (Wolfgang Wahl).

Just so that Werner can loathe him even more, Berger has made a mistress out of the woman Werner loves, prima ballerina Irene Andreny (Bloom).

After weeks the boredom gets to Werner and he attacks Moonface. He’s immediately apologetic, and aghast at what he’s done. When Berger confined him here it was with the instruction that “If ever you want to talk to me, just ring this bell” (we recall the similar instruction the Adria’s steward gave him, and Werner’s reaction); and this is what Werner now does.

Berger is in the process of bragging to Hartmann about the effectiveness of his psychological methods. Left waiting outside Berger’s office, Werner becomes intrigued by the water running off the wet coats on a nearby coat rack—it’s the most mentally stimulating performance he’s seen in weeks—and then spots the corner of a book sticking out of a pocket.

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The book.

Recognizing a life raft when he sees one, he steals the book and fobs Berger off with an excuse. It’s only when he’s back in Room 532 that he discovers to his despair that the book isn’t a book book but 150 Schach Meisterpartien (“150 Chess Masterpieces”). As Werner knows nothing of chess, this is worse than no book at all.

And yet, simply because he’s otherwise completely starved of that “mental sustenance” Berger spoke about, Werner picks the book up and slowly, painfully, teaches himself chess from the grandmaster matches diagrammatically portrayed within. A breakthrough comes when he realizes he can use his checkered bedspread as a board and molded pieces of bread, some dipped in his suppertime black bean soup, as chessmen.

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Chess on the counterpane.

Even after Berger learns about and confiscates the book (as well as the bedspread and even the lightbulb), Werner can continue reliving the chess games, using his imagination for the chessmen and, as his board, the shadows cast on his ceiling by the bars of his window.

Eventually, nonetheless, he goes mad. As he’s led toward Berger’s office he sees from above the tiled floor of the Hotel Metropole’s lobby, where eight prisoners await processing. Believing himself to be in the midst of a lifesized chess problem, he creates a mighty ruckus. When finally Berger sees him he realizes there’s no way he’s going to get any information out of this madman. Hartmann pragmatically decides to see if his methods might have more success and has Werner taken to his torture chamber—the Hotel Metropole’s wine cellar . . .

And so we’re back aboard the Adria, now briefly docked at Venice, where Werner is locked in a titanic chess duel with Czentovic—but he’s also falling apart psychologically, not just because of his tormented memories but because he simply cannot remember if he divulged his secrets to the Nazis.

Which is when Irene arrives on board the Adria to tell him that he divulged nothing, that Berger fell from the Reich’s favor because of it and that she’s now rid of the Gestapo swine . . .

The tale is in itself a clever one, but what really marks out the screenplay of Schachnovelle (“Chess Story”) are the many little ironical nuances contained within it. For example, when Werner is brought into Berger’s presence just after stealing the book, Irene and Hartmann are there too. We’ve already seen how the experience of meeting Hartmann has creeped out Irene, has really brought it home to her that in her dalliance with Berger she’s dallying not just with the man but with the evil that he represents and of which he’s a part. Now she witnesses as Werner, whom everyone thought was going to capitulate and start spilling all those secrets, suddenly instead begins to talk about irrelevancies. She thinks that it must be the sight of her that has steeled Werner’s resolve, and her allegiance immediately switches to him. “I already have another date,” she tells Berger, “even if he is here [in the hotel] and I am not.”

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Irene (Claire Bloom) confronts Berger (Hansjörg Felmy).

But that’s not the only misunderstanding at work. The only reason Berger can think of to explain why Irene’s suddenly rejecting him is that he’s a failure—that he’s made a fool of himself by failing to crack Werner.

Schachnovelle—the US retitling, Brainwashed, is all the explanation you need as to why the movie’s relatively little known in the English-speaking world—is a beautifully, even sumptuously produced piece. Bearing in mind how limited its settings are—the vast majority of the movie is confined to the Hotel Metropole, and the bulk of that to Room 532—it’s all the more remarkable that the cinematography can be so effective: poignant here, dramatic there, and just plain lovely throughout. It’s perhaps this very loveliness that obscures in the minds of cinema historians how very noirish Schachnovelle’s plot is. Or perhaps it’s the wartime setting, even though we see virtually nothing of the appurtenances of Nazidom or the war—no shootings, no jackboots, no uniforms, etc., while the only Heil Hitler salutes given are by a couple of the Hotel Metropole’s lowlier staff on the night of the German takeover of Austria. It’s on that same night that we see all of the movie’s swastikas—daubed on the roadway or on street walls—and, just in shadow form, the movie’s only German soldiers. In other words, the war offers not so much a setting as a prerequisite for the plot; the story could be as well be set in Airstrip One and nearly forty years after the end of the war.

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The performances vary from excellent to merely very good, even in the smallest roles—such as Rudolf Forster as the Hotel Metropole’s manager, Karl, Wolfgang Wahl as Moonface, and Harald Maresch as Pepi, Irene’s ballet master. Bloom is at her most radiant as Irene, able with the merest inclination of an eyelash to convey mirth or disapproval. (Her ballet skills are not quite up to scratch, though; director Oswald mercifully shows us just a few seconds of her quasi-balletic teetering.) Felmy is quite superbly slimy as the “cultural” officer, handsome as hell in a sort of model-Aryan/refugee from the Thunderbirds fashion, yet overwhelmingly repellent. And Jürgens gives a characteristically powerful performance as the profound gentleman who will be neither bent nor broken.

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Irene (Claire Bloom) reassures Werner he gave up no secrets.

Gerd Oswald was nominated for a Golden Lion at the 1960 Venice Film Festival for this, but otherwise the movie was overlooked by the various awards panels.

Other screen adaptations of Zweig’s story include

  • Miroslava Valová (1951 TVM Hungary) dir Zoltán Várkonyi
  • Sach Mat (1964 TVM Czechoslovakia) dir Alfréd Radok
  • The Royal Game (1964 TVM US; part of series Playdate) dir Mervyn Rosenzveig
  • Královská Hra (1980 TVM Czechoslovakia) dir Miroslava Valová

You can catch Schachnovelle occasionally on TV; failing that, Amazon will sell you an imported copy of the German DVD.

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Each month Rich Westwood at the Past Offences blog selects a different year for his “Crimes of the Century” collection, and this month the chosen year is 1960. My account of Schachnovelle is a contribution to that collection.

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20 thoughts on “Schachnovelle (1960)

  1. John, I haven’t seen this, but was expecting a review from you after you had mentioned it on the MMD. Gerd Oswald was a major force behind the original Outer Limits series and he was a stalwart on other classic television like Perry Mason. Your review here is simply stupendous – really flowing, authoritative and fascinating! You had me hooked from the opening sentence. This is always a subject that captivates/disturbs me of course. There is a little bit of narrative kinship to THE TRAIN I think. Anyway this is one I really must see obviously.

    • As I’ve just been saying to Sam Juliano, it’s a while since I’ve enjoyed a movie as much as I did this one. I hope you track it down. Natch, it came from the lamented rarefilmss

  2. This film sounds superb in may different ways, such as the script & cinematography, along with the fact it was made in post-war Germany. It doesn’t appear to be an easy one to track down, but I’m going to try. There is a beautiful copy on YouTube but, sadly, no subtitles.

    • That’s a pity about the lack of subtitles — particularly irking since the TV broadcasts carry subs, so the things are obviously in existence.

      I’ve just spotted that someone’s posted this on the IMDB discussion board:

      There is a professionally translated and subtitled version of this film available on DVD, published by Belle & Blade War Video, one of the largest publishers of war movies in the nation. You can purchase a legal and legitimate copy of this movie at http://warshows.com by searching for “Brainwashed” or by clicking on the link below.

      http://warshows.com/product/brainwashed

      I have a DVD copy and can confirm that the film is in the original German language with excellent English subtitles.

      Hope this helps!

      And this is one of the finest films ever made so it is well worth every penny!

  3. Pingback: ‘The 60s didn’t really know what to do with hats’: #1960book round up | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

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