The Royal Game Explained: What’s Up With the Ending?

The film The Royal Game (2021) is Philipp Stölzl’s rather free treatment of the literary primary source – The Chess Novella, written by Stefan Zweig in 1942. Explanation of the meaning of the film. The departure from the classic film adaptation is connected with an attempt to reflect in the film version the anguish and autobiography of the last work of the Austrian writer, as well as with the desire to give the tragedy an existential character and eerie relevance. Genre “Royal Game” is a timeless thriller about an intellectual who fell out of the familiar world and did not accept the new reality. The protagonist finds himself in extremely destructive circumstances that completely destroy him – both morally and physically. The film is multi-layered in meaning, harsh and sentimental in essence, and in content it is a tragic story of the collapse of the human psyche.

In short, the movie can be called a drama of 1938 “about the waltz and the swastika” – about the Viennese aristocracy (represented by the respectable notary Josef Bartok) carelessly dancing at the balls and the Nazis who occupied Austria (whose manners and methods are demonstrated by the Gestapo investigator Franz-Josef Behm). And also – about chess, which can have saving and at the same time destructive power. This “game of bored Prussians” Bartok always disliked, preferring reading books, good music, sex with his beautiful wife Anna and brilliant balls in the city hall. But in the course of the story, the main character changes his mind: in fascist captivity, the game turns for him into a means of combating intellectual emptiness and psychological torture. Chess becomes both a disease and a medicine, a salvation from loneliness and an obsession. The meaning of the film is that the human mind is presented to the viewer in the form of a chessboard. The battle is not so much between the white and black pieces of grandmasters, but between the mind and the madness of man.

The plot outline of the picture is built on two time layers:

The game that the “chess genius” Josef Bartok plays with the “retarded” world champion Mirko Czentovic on a ship taking emigrants across the Atlantic Ocean to America. Interrogations by the Gestapo and a terrible time spent in solitary confinement in a room in the fashionable Metropol Hotel, where a Viennese notary was imprisoned for refusing to cooperate with the Nazis.

The scriptwriters violate the concept of the chronotope and deliberately intertwine time streams. Dreams and visions of the protagonist are confused with reality to recreate the painful loss of his mind. Only towards the end does the viewer realize that Bartok succeeded in escaping from the Nazi regime – but not to the ends of the world, but to his own head. The release from captivity, boarding the ship and the chess super-game were only a figment of the protagonist’s imagination, his new way of escaping from reality. In fact, he descended from the universal paradise of pre-war European life into a personal hell of madness.

What is important in the film is that the Viennese notary is apolitical and only needed by the Nazis to get money from the accounts of his wealthy clients. But Bartok cannot deviate from professional principles and lose his dignity – he is silent. Torture by isolation ends tragically for the protagonist, although he struggles in every possible way with the hardships of imprisonment: he tries to train a fly, memorizes a single book, and then finds a way to support himself intellectually. Josef plunges into the world of chess: he plays in his mind various games from the collection, which he managed to steal from the guard during the next interrogation.

But it doesn’t help. From loneliness and anxiety, Bartok goes crazy. Informational, communicative, emotional deprivation turns a balanced representative of the secular nobility and a dandy bon vivant into a broken and demoralized half-dead man, broken by many months of imprisonment. Only this becomes finally clear to the viewer only in the finale, when the white corridors of the psychiatric clinic are shown on the screen. We see the protagonist in two incarnations at the same time: a Gestapo prisoner trying to break free from the clutches of madness, and a half-witted self-taught chess genius who managed to draw a game against the world champion.

The tragedy of the protagonist demonstrates the failure of an idealist who has fallen into the millstones of history and failed to accept the new reality. The main thing in the plot of the film is the theme of the collapse of human consciousness under the onslaught of the dehumanized matter of totalitarianism.

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