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The work of Stefan Zweig enjoyed a welcome renaissance in 2013 after years of neglect in Western art. A prolific artist, Zweig became something of a Dostoevsky figure for early twentieth century writing in Europe – not because of length, but because of acute psychological insight and harrowing themes of passion and obsession within the societal confines of pre- and post-war mores. Writing in the milieu of fin de siècle Vienna, it is small wonder that he was acquainted with Freud and Schnitzler, and it is not difficult to imagine that conversations of psychological repression and expression, mania,  and suffering featured prominently. As a result, Zweig’s work was focussed on the psychological deconstruction of human emotion and fallibility and the universality of such feelings. Two of his works, Journey into the Past (Widerstand der Wirklichkeit) and Maria Stuart were adapted into A Promise and MARY Queen of Scots respectively, and although they may seem superficially dissimilar, their respective filmmakers take veritable cues from Zweig’s oeuvre in remaining true to the verisimilitude of his psychological acuity.

A Promise is illustrated in sharp detail ideally evoking art nouveau Germany. Leconte has extended the already psychologically and emotionally charged novella into a melancholy and bittersweet reflection of an unresolved relationship between an ambitious young man and his employer’s wife. In a Proustian fashion, memory is the fulcrum of action and desire, but it is an idealised memory – where the novella is recounted as a series of reminiscences, the film proceeds nearly linearly, but the lingering sensation of regret is never lost. There is also a lovely nod to Zweig’s own love of music as a keen collector of autographed manuscripts: the pathétique 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 is a recurring theme, always drifting through the melancholy halls of the house as Fritz’s obsession with Lotte grows. Crucially, the sonata is written in C minor, a key which has come to be associated with Beethoven’s most passionate and intense works, both stormy and emotionally-suffused; acting as a fitting parallel to the barely suppressed desires recalling the psychoanalysis movement and which are felt keenly throughout the film.

In contrast to the composed and subdued hues of elegance in A Promise, MARY Queen of Scots has a stark and feral quality to it that brings the psychological turmoil of the young queen to a raw forefront. It is one of the more recent examples of the finest in the European approach to film d’epoque: utterly unpretentious despite the temptation of ostentation given the time period, and masterfully focussed on the inner self of the character. The cinematography is utterly striking, imbued with a lush yet austere magnificence; a gash of red against the Byronic Scottish landscape (of blood, of Mary’s gown in sinister foreshadowing of her fate). Every cinematic choice is thus an echo of Mary’s descent from ingenuity to fear to paranoia; the music is a symphony of discordant organs and distressed violins. It is a bleak and cynical portrait of political and emotional alliances, the centre at which is the swan-like Camille Rutherford,a canvas of poise and regality who eventually crumbles into a bare shadow of a frightened girl and not more than slightly unhinged.

Significantly, both films make masterful use of the psychological lens: instead of bright and opulent ballrooms and garden, there are suffocatingly enclosed spaces and shaky closeups. In A Promise, there are no wide angle shots customary of period films, but trembling close shots and angles, representing Fritz’s barely concealed repression and desire. Similarly, MARY Queen of Scots is stripped of all affectation, instead focussed on realistic scenes of dimly candlelit halls and fluttering close shots of Mary’s face as it stumbles through disintegration. It is a small wonder to witness ‘period films’ not become lost in their own grandeur and substitute opulence for characters, and it is fitting that two Zweig adaptations do so with fidelity and deference.

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