Philipp Stölzl on the Mind Games of “Chess Story”

When Philipp Stölzl signed on to direct “Chess Story,” he knew an adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s novella “The Royal Game” was going to be timely when the surreal tale of Dr. Josef Bartok reflects a society unaware that fascism is upon them until after it’s happened as the Austrian lawyer who is apprehended by Nazis looking to learn more about his clients’ financial information in after the country falls under their occupation. However, he couldn’t know that like the barrister who is sequestered to a hotel room, gradually losing his mind in isolation when he won’t reveal what he knows, he’d really know the feeling when the film ended production mere days before the COVID-19 lockdown.

“We realized the lockdown was coming like ten days before, so we shot on the weekends to make it in time and then I was editing, almost locked in my apartment, which is an interesting analogy to the character,” says Stölzl. “That’s a bit of a drag, but in filmmaking there’s always coincidences and challenges and hurdles.”

After coming to international prominence with the harrowing “North Face” set in the Alps, Stölzl knows how to scale a mountain and in “Chess Story,” he’s called upon to steer a ship as Dr. Bartok believes he’s escaped captivity, traveling by boat to sanctuary only to be reminded of how he survived the ordeal when he learns that a world chess champion is onboard. Not a fan of the game himself, dismissing it as a pastime for Prussian generals when asked if he plays by his Nazi interlocutor (Dieter Bernhardt), but it becomes a lifeline when his only reading material in solitary confinement is a guide to the game, activating Dr. Bartok to start thinking four moves ahead and take it off his present conditions. Or perhaps not when Stölzl is thinking a few steps ahead as well in terms of his audience, observing Dr. Bartok wrestle internally with disillusionment that comes with getting up each morning being entirely alone and only able to wander in his mind where he imagines a world when he can’t step back into it himself.

When Dr. Bartok places himself on a lavish cruise, “Chess Story” becomes a welcoming ride into the heart of darkness, exploring psychologically where one is willing to go to preserve their sanity under great stress and as a brain teaser, it’s been intriguing audiences the world over. Now arriving in the U.S., Stölzl took time away from one of his frequent forays into working on an opera to talk about his most recent film, the challenge of working within limited settings and adapting a story that’s been living in his own mind since his youth.

What excited you about bringing this story to the screen?

The novel is not too long and it’s common knowledge in Germany because some pupils would actually read it in school. I didn’t have it in school, but I read it anyway at 15 or 16, and the whole culture in Germany is very focused on [the idea of] Never Forget. We have this really, really dark history and there’s so much guilt on our shoulders in the early generations. When we grow up, you’d go to the concentration camps. This story is very present and it was like a dark metaphor for the Third Reich — even without showing physical torture, without seeing the concentration camps, you would still feel the weight of these horrible days, so I was deeply touched by it when I read it for the first time.

There’s an old movie about it from the ‘60s, but when the producers come along and said we want to revive it and make a new version, they had a really good script already and I felt the take that the producers had on it [where] you have this main character that is sliding into madness into a world where he doesn’t know what’s real and what isn’t, that felt very cinematic to me, so I was in. It was quite a tough movie to make — I had a great crew and actors — but it was a long process — to write it, to shoot it and you spend a lot of time with a pretty painful topic, which as an artist, you’re always so close to the stories you tell, it’s something that will affect your life.

You mention coming on because of the script, but given how much it involves the subconscious, was figuring out the structure of it difficult?

Yeah, there was a lot of development work to do because once you deal with a world where nothing is real, you have no rules, so reading it and writing it, you always wonder what type of information do you give to the audience at which point. In my experience in this movie, there’s many ways of reading it, some people after 20 minutes know the ship is not real and some other people never realize it or only at the end and it was interesting that people would read the signs of our surreal, dreamlike construction of a movie like this in a very different way. Some people don’t even know the gestapo man and the Russian chess player are the same actor. It’s a role that is the essence that you feel like he’s overriding his torturer with the character of this chess player in his dreams.

What was a bit of a drag was that we finished shooting the movie just one day before the first lockdown in Germany and when we finished editing on it, we couldn’t make test screenings because the movie theaters were all closed, so we couldn’t really find out how an audience would [react] and it was a guess how to structure it, but with this type of dream narrative, everything is possible, so the classic rules of storytelling won’t help you too much.

Oliver Masucci keeps it grounded – what sold you on him?

I know him from the theater when he was still quite unknown and I had shot with him before in a smaller part and then he made his way up, so we have quite a long relationship that goes back and we had a closeness before. In the beginning with the casting process, I actually tried to find an Austrian actor because it’s a very Austrian/Viennese story and you want to cast someone who is from there and the Austrians very much regard this as an Austrian story. So we tried a lot of other actors to try to find somebody who was Austrian, but our Austrian producers saw Oliver and said, “Okay, okay…” and I feel with Oliver, it’s so interesting because he has quite a tough face and because he’s such a great actor, he can also be very vulnerable.

For this story, I feel if you have an actor who is not just a victim — I mean, he did some pretty sleazy stuff like dealing with the black money of the aristocrats, so you want a guy that you don’t necessarily entirely like, but then once he’s going and once you go with him in madness and torture, you start to bond with him more and more. That’s quite nice that he offers that, and still in all his pain, he has a certain sexiness about him, which I think is important because if you have someone who is just a victim and you feel pity with him all through the movie, it’s not interesting. You want to see him going down and you want to see him, even if in a way he’s keeping up with his enemy, that the chess allows him to stand up and still resist. If it’s just mean guys in a room just torturing [him], it’s not interesting. It’s interesting if this play between the two opponents is level and you feel the one who is locked in has a lot of strength and he does definitely offer that.

The staging is really fascinating as this hotel room becomes a prison and it’s not at all stagey, but given your experience in theater, is there any crossover in how you create those dynamics on set?

Yeah, in theater and opera — I do both, and I do stage design, so my whole narrative thinking involves rooms and spaces and colors. That’s part of how I develop stories is always [to] think about characters and narrative arcs and beats, etc, and there’s a lot of great movies that don’t give a fuck about the visual side, but the movies I like, the camera, the light, the room, the colors — they play a big role. It’s like an orchestra and you have the actor, but all the other instruments are of importance. What I do is spend a lot of time before [the shoot] in storyboarding, and when I’m on a set, I don’t stick to it entirely, but I like that you would spend days or weeks or even months storyboarding, making your way through a lot of visual thoughts and you try to bring it to paper. Another guy comes and draws with me and you think about spaces, in this case the hotel room – how big is it, what do you see outside the hotel window and what’s the ground plan? What about the bathroom? What about the corridor? These are elements that are so important for the story.

I like that you work your way in a very thoughtful way in bringing all the elements together and just expressing it so carefully because sometimes you feel you see movies that are just visual, that “ah, he’s a very visual director and he’s not taking care of acting or narrative or the emotions” and that’s not the case. It’s all tied into each other, and I’m very collaborative mode with my production designer — he knows that I come already with the quite precise ideas about the rooms.

You’ve referenced Max Ernst and Magritte in relation to their art as an inspiration, but formally did you look to them in terms of color palette or composition?

Yeah, when you make a movie about madness or an inner world, the whole surrealist movement started [with] Freud, who discovered the dreams as a world and started to read dreams, but then the whole surrealist movement is [based around] how to translate the subconsciousness and dreams into art — how do dreams sound and look? Obviously Max Ernst is one of the most famous artists of the movement and in the world of Max Ernst, you would feel like there’s a room but the window is walled up and there’s water on the floor. It’s this whole overriding [sensation] in dreams where you feel your subconsciousness. You have a trauma and then you would say I dreamt of a line, but the line is your teacher or your life and you deal with it by creating surreal images. That’s how can the arts fire up your movie. The reference I had a lot was Kafka because I think there’s no other writer that would explore the claustrophobic maze the hero is going in [where] it makes you even anxious looking at it, so as you were mentioning it, I think all arts are in a way connected. If you look at the big filmmakers, you know these are people who are able to harvest the riches of art from wherever it comes from.

“Chess Story” opens on January 13th in New York at the Quad Cinema and January 20th in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center and Sedona at the Mary D. Fisher Theatre.

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