An older white man leans on his desk with an intense
From "The General Case," playing soon at the Berlin & Beyond Film Festival (Courtesy/Berlin & Beyond)

Holocaust looms large in Berlin & Beyond Film Festival

The internationally renowned Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig left his beloved Europe in 1934. Sustained abroad by his reputation and resources, he was shadowed by guilt at his privilege and the responsibility of helping those he could.

Above all, perhaps, he missed the stimulation and satisfaction of belonging to a community of intellectuals.

Actress-cum-director Maria Schrader’s beautifully conceived film of ideas, “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe,” distills the author’s productive yet burdened years in exile into five morally resonant and quirkily fascinating episodes.

The 106-minute drama, Austria’s submission to the Academy Awards for best foreign language film, will screen at 7:45 p.m. Feb. 4 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco as the centerpiece film of the annual Berlin & Beyond Film Festival. The dialogue is in several European languages, with English subtitles.

The 21st edition of the Berlin & Beyond festival includes two other films of Jewish interest based on real events.

Hanna’s Sleeping Dogs,” a coming-of-age drama set in 1960s Austria, will screen at 12:15 p.m. Feb. 3 at the Castro. The 124-minute drama, in German with English subtitles, is being co-presented by the S.F.-based Jewish Film Institute.

The General Case” will screen at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 6 at the Goethe-Institut, the sponsor of the festival. The 89-minute drama, in German with English subtitles, is a TV movie about Solicitor General Fritz Bauer’s 1950s crusade to locate Nazi war criminals.

“Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” establishes the moral stakes via an interview with a group of journalists at a Buenos Aires writers’ conference in 1936. Zweig (portrayed by Josef Hader with an aura of Old World dignity) resists their entreaties to criticize Hitler, citing his distance from Germany and lack of firsthand knowledge and then falling back on his idealistic vision of a free Europe.

As the years advance, and the movie follows Zweig to a steamy Brazilian sugar-cane field and then to frigidly inhospitable New York, the writer relinquishes high-minded philosophy for action with real consequences. He uses his influence, contacts and money to obtain visas and affidavits for Jews trying to flee Europe, frustrated that he can’t possibly keep up with the torrent of requests.

“Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” is underpinned by overlapping languages and an appreciation for foreign countries and cultures. Arriving when European alliances are more tenuous than they’ve been in decades, the movie intelligently evokes historical echoes without being too on the nose, and also shows how a person can struggle to respond meaningfully and effectively to a great crisis.

In contrast, “Hanna’s Sleeping Dogs” is rife with bullies, cowards and innocent people paralyzed by fear. The problem isn’t the schematic arrangement of villains and victims, but rather repetitive, clunky storytelling that mars a potentially gripping saga.

Johanna is a typical 9-year-old to whom the world is sometimes straightforward — her Catholic school lessons, for example — and sometimes an unfathomable code. Why are other children sometimes cruel to her? What strange, secret past do her mother and grandmother share?

The viewer, however, is quite conversant with the surfeit of metaphors (trains and gas, notably) that writer-director Andreas Gruber drops into his adaptation of Elisabeth Escher’s autobiographical novel about growing up in small-town Austria in the late 1960s. That viewer gets fidgety waiting nearly an hour for Hanna to finally be told she’s Jewish.

To be fair, “Hanna’s Sleeping Dogs” probably plays pretty well for adolescents. But even they might notice how often the filmmaker clumsily contrives situations so Hanna witnesses or overhears something that’s intended for us.

While kids will identify with Hanna, even if she is too perfect for words, adults are encouraged to feel her mother’s pain and suffering. The source of her trauma, though, seems related not to the Holocaust, but rather to a smugly debonair retired bank executive she can’t avoid.

The moral of the story for children is that the truth shall set you free. Some parents may be inclined to temper that lesson with caveats and conditions.

Meanwhile, “The General Case” is Europe’s third film in three years about Fritz Bauer’s courageous efforts to bring his own nation’s war criminals to justice, and to expose the Nazis who smoothly assimilated themselves into German government positions in the 1950s.

Following on the heels of “Labyrinth of Lies” and “The People vs. Fritz Bauer,” “The General Case” is a nervy, inspiring tale of a man who refused to go along when so many in West Germany were happy to sweep the Third Reich under the rug.

If you don’t know much about Bauer, this film is an excellent way to acquaint yourself.

Berlin & Beyond Film Festival runs Feb. 3 to 8 in San Francisco and Oakland.

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Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.