German filmmaker Phillip Stölzl set himself the not-so-simple task of adapting the novel of the same name by the famous Austrian writer Stefen Zweig. This writer and dissident, who escaped from Austria in the mid-thirties because he apparently realized what he was up to, wrote the “Chess Novel” in Brazil in 1941, a year before he took his own life. It is an allegorical story, so the main character of the film, the distinguished Viennese lawyer Josef Bartok (Oliver Masucci, who is still best remembered as the policeman from the Dark series) can be seen as the writer’s personification.
On the night before the Anschluss of Austria, a big ball was organized in Vienna. Although the Nazis are getting stronger, none of the city’s elite still seriously thinks that these primitive idiots could really seize power. But it will happen before anyone can think, and Bartok is one of the main targets of the Gestapo since he kept the accounts and managed the assets of the Viennese aristocracy. Of course, it is in the Nazis’ interest to get hold of these accounts and the riches on them, and since Bartok does not want to sing, the Gestapo will subject him to horrific psychophysical torture. And it will last for weeks, months, who knows how long, and he will try to preserve his sanity by stealing a chess book and learning all the moves from it by heart.
Very soon, reality and fantasy, or rather the nightmares of a tortured mind, will be completely mixed there, so in parallel with the main narrative line, we will also follow his journey by ship after the end of the war. Or at least it seems so at first, but we will slowly discover what is actually reality and what is the escapist attempt of a tortured mind only towards the end. It is obvious that “Schachnovelle” is one of those literary templates that are very difficult to translate to the film medium, but Stölzl managed to do a solid job. As this mysterious combination of drama and thriller was filmed in an Austrian-German co-production, “Schacnovelle” or “The Royal Game” had several nominations for the best film in both countries.