THE ROYAL GAME

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by Philipp Stölzl

grade: 8

The Royal Game is an endless journey between its protagonist’s past and present. The Royal Game is a rollercoaster ride, the meeting point between the outside world and the inner world. An experience that, at times, can really hurt.

Inside the mind of Josef Bartok

The famous writer Stefan Zweig has never concealed a strong fascination with psychoanalysis, the human mind and all the emotions that a human being can experience even in a short period of time. His strongly introspective prose, however, is not always easy to adapt in pictures. Yet, when the right solution is found, the results can be surprising. This is the case, for instance, in the feature film The Royal Game, directed by Philipp Stölzl and based on Chess Story, the last novel written by Zweig before his suicide in 1942.

Can, then, chess save a human being from madness or even death? For Stefan Zweig, who dedicated the last days of his life to this game, this was not enough. Yet, there are those who really did find solace in one of the most complex pastimes that human beings could ever invent. We are talking about Josef Bartok (played by Oliver Masucci), an esteemed notary in Vienna, who, just before the Anschluss, is forced to flee together with his wife (Birgit Minichmayr) to the United States, as he is blacklisted by the National Socialists, since he holds some important information concerning the assets of wealthy Jewish families. While, however, his wife immediately manages to escape, the man, in an attempt to set fire to all the documents in his office, is arrested and locked up in a cramped hotel room, from where he will only be able to get out after providing the police with the necessary information. It will be during this period of his imprisonment that Josef, after having ‘stolen’ a book about chess, will devote himself heart and soul to the study of the game, even making chess pieces out of stale bread.

Captivity, despair, survival instinct. Madness. All this represents the essence of The Royal Game. And Philipp Stölzl, for his part, has masterfully managed all these elements thanks to a skilful use of flashbacks and flash forwards, a crescendo of alternating montage (memorable the scene in which the protagonist tries to beat the world chess champion, while at the same time recalling his last dialogue with the Gestapo officer who is holding him prisoner) and, above all, a good script to which Oliver Masucci’s excellent performance does fully justice. The Royal Game is an endless journey between its protagonist’s past and present. The Royal Game is a rollercoaster ride, the meeting point between the outside world and the inner world. An experience that, at times, can really hurt.

The protagonist’s face is often unrecognisable between one scene and the next. The ship that accompanies him to the United States seems a safe and cosy place. The past is only a vague memory. Or maybe not? In The Royal Game, all our ideas are constantly turned upside down, to the point that we ourselves, like the protagonist, feel hopelessly confused. And slowly, each piece of the puzzle falls into place.

Philipp Stölzl is not afraid to dare, he is not afraid of a difficult text, nor of a big name in literature. On the contrary, he knows exactly what he wants to communicate to the viewer. And he does so with a skilful play of light and shadow, with frequent changes of location and time shifts, which, all together, form a work that almost reminds us of the beautiful Spider, directed by David Cronenberg in 2002. And so his The Royal Game turns out to be one of his best feature films, the perfect culmination of an undoubtedly long and productive career, which, however, has not always lived up to the expectations of audiences and critics alike.

Original title: Schachnovelle
Directed by: Philipp Stölzl
Country/year: Germany, Austria / 2021
Running time: 110’
Genre: drama, thriller
Cast: Oliver Masucci, Birgit Minichmayr, Clemens Berndorff, Samuel Finzi, Gerhard Flödl, Luisa-Céline Gaffron, Rolf Lassgard, Andreas Lust, Paul Matic, Lukas Miko, Maresi Riegner, Julian Rohrmoser, Albrecht Schuch, Moritz von Treuenfels, Johannes Zeiler, Hans Peter Edlmayer, Markus Schleinzer
Screenplay: Eldar Grigorian
Cinematography: Thomas W. Kiennast
Produced by: Dor Film, Walker Worm Film, ARD Degeto Film, Bayerischer Rundfunk

Info: the page of The Royal Game on iMDb; the page of The Royal Game on the website of the Österreichisches Filminstitut; the page of The Royal Game on the website of Dor Film