The Royal Game (2021): The Meaning & Plot Of The Film, The Content, Explanation And Essence Of The Ending, Similar Films. Personal demons, Chess, Fortitude
Country: Germany, Austria
Genre: Thriller, Drama, History
Year of production: 2021
Director: Philipp Stölzl
Actors: Oliver Masucci, Birgit Minichmayr, Albrecht Schuch, Rolf Lassgaard and others
tagline: “Every move is a hope for life”
Awards and nominations: 7 German Film Academy Award nominations
The meaning of the film “The Royal Game” (“Schachnovelle”), filmed in 2021 based on the story of the Austrian writer, poet and playwright Stefan Zweig “Chess Novella”, differs significantly from the idea of the original source. The content of the film is more convoluted and is a bizarre mixture of delirium and reality in the best tradition of films such as Shutter Island and Fight Club.
What is the movie The Royal Game about?
A notary from Vienna, Josef Bartok, boards a ship bound for America and meets his wife Anna, whom he has not seen since his arrest. They are placed in a cabin. We see the identity document of the protagonist, but it has a different name: Max Van Leuven.
Oliver Mazucci as Dr. Josef Bartok. Frame from the film.
The heroes have dinner at a restaurant on the ship. Josef doesn’t talk much and clearly feels lost, his hands trembling. The waiter serving the couple accidentally spills wine on the tablecloth. Anna assures her husband that everything will be the way it was before the war, but Josef does not seem to remember anything from the past.
We are transported to 1938. Austria is about to be occupied by the German Nazis, but the heroes are still living in abundance and enjoying the high life. The notary’s friend Gustav warns that Josef is in danger of being arrested and needs to urgently leave the country. At first, not taking the danger seriously, Bartok nevertheless plans an escape. He says goodbye to his wife and heads to the office, where he burns important documents with information about the accounts of members of the imperial family, where he is caught by the secret police, led by Franz-Josef Böhm.
Josef is taken away from his personal belongings, including a wristwatch, and placed in a room at the Metropol Hotel, where he is kept locked up for a long time. Franz-Josef Böhm achieves one thing: he needs the access codes to bank accounts, which Josef memorized before destroying the documents. However, the hero is adamant.
On the first day, talking with his tormentor, he behaved quite cheerfully and confidently. In the conversation, the opponents touched on the topic of chess. Franz-Josef stated that he likes this royal game because it allows him to corner the opponent using his ego. Josef retorted that he preferred books, wine, gourmet food and beautiful women to boring chess.
“Present” tense: the hero is talking to his wife, saying that he does not remember who he was. The ship is stormy. Josef enters the common cabin. There he drinks scotch – exactly the same as Franz Josef treated him to. The hands of the wall clock are moving backwards.
Albrecht Schuch as Franz Josef Böhm. Frame from the film.
Again we observe the hero in the past. He is locked up, suffering from loneliness and idleness. The only person Josef meets with is the warden who brings food. The food is the same – soup. They also bring cigarettes, but there is no lighter to smoke. Behind the wall, the screams of prisoners are heard – they are being tortured.
Trying to cling to the mind at least for something, Joseph quotes Homer’s Odyssey. Franz Josef comes and again tries to find out the cherished codes, promising freedom in return, but the hero writes lines from this poem in response.
We return to the ship, where the hero learns that the world chess champion Mirko Czentovic is on board and is conducting a session of a simultaneous game with several opponents. The action takes place in a cabin, the walls of which are decorated with an illustration to the same Odyssey. Josef prompts the owner of the ship named Owen McConor, who is playing against the grandmaster, as a result of which the game ends in a draw. This makes a big impression on the audience and on McConor himself. He wants an explanation. His surprise grows when he learns that Josef has never participated in such tournaments and in general for the first time touched a real chess piece.
It turns out that the victory was due to the fact that the hero managed to steal a book in captivity with a detailed description of the famous chess games. From their bread crumbs, he blinded figures and began to reproduce the course of these fights.
Josef’s condition on the ship is deteriorating: he is looking for his wife and finds out that she was not on board at all. This fact is confirmed by the waiter who, in the imagination, served the hero of the spouses, but in reality – only him alone.
Josef in the past continues to improve in the king’s game: now he does not just reproduce games, but plays with himself in turn with white and black pieces. During the interrogation, Franz-Josef finds a hiding place with a book and chess, and thus reveals the prisoner’s secret. Before this event, the hero was tortured and almost drowned in the bathtub. This seemed to have already helped in the “future” on the ship to “return” Josef’s wife.
Frame from the film.
Owen McConor offers the hero to play Mirko Czentovic again – this time for a lot of money. The philanthropist utters strange words: “Do you have a choice? You understand: either he or you.
Making another attempt to put pressure on Josef, the Nazis kill his friend Gustav. The hero suffers and blames himself, but does not give up. Before dying, Gustav asks Josef to repeat the phrase: “I’m the damn emperor of the whole of China.”
Continuing to be imprisoned, the hero still plays the royal game with himself, but already in his mind. He repeats feverishly: “This is a game, this is a ship.” The wallpaper in the hotel room depicts a ship. Josef screams, begging to be let out, and ends up on deck. Tam remembers that the time has come for a duel with Mirko Czentovic.
Josef asks the grandmaster to wager a watch allegedly stolen from him. During a chess game, all events finally merge together. Josef plays with the white pieces, “remembering” how he also played with Franz-Josef. The images of the world champion playing black and the head of the secret police are intertwined.
In the midst of the game, Josef hears the cry of a wounded seagull and runs out onto the deck, trying to save her. McConor calls him back to the cabin, calling the notary Mr. Van Leuven. The madness intensifies: the Nazis appear in the crowd of spectators, and the bloody friend Gustav, and his wife Anna.
In response to the call to make a move at the end of the game, Mirko says that there is no point in this, because the duel has already happened a thousand times and Josef won a thousand times. In the past, the hero lies in handcuffs on the floor, surrounded by papers with records of chess moves. Franz Josef, sitting next to the table, opens the very book – it depicts chess players Dutchman Max Van Leuven and Hungarian Mirko Czentovic and their duel is described. The tormentor is forced to admit: Josef escaped without leaving the hotel: all year he hid inside himself with the help of the royal game. Mirko also admits defeat, extending his hand to the hero and returning the watch.
Leaving the hotel after a year of confinement, Josef also receives his watch and signs the release document as Max Van Leuven.
In the end, we see the hero in a psychiatric hospital. He sits next to his wife, who holds Homer’s Odyssey in her hands and reads out an excerpt from it. Josef does not recognize Anna, but he seems to be calm and at peace now.
Film vs book
The story “The Chess Novel” and the film “The Royal Game” have a number of differences. In the book, Josef Bartok is called Dr. B. But the first half of the novel is dedicated to his rival, Mirko Czentovic. He is rude, uneducated, greedy, but is a genius player. Dr. B. is his exact opposite: he is educated, modest, polite, eloquent. Not all of his features correspond to the movie character. In the latter, the director invested several characteristics of the author of the story – Stefan Zweig.
The Chess Novella is one of his most famous and latest works. It was published after the death of Zweig, rather tragic: being in exile and being depressed for a long time, he committed suicide in 1942 with his wife.
There are no intertwining events of reality and delirium in the story: the duel between Dr. B. and Mirko Czentovic takes place in reality. But critics still see a hidden meaning in it, calling the novella an anti-war work and making direct associations between the chess game and the events taking place in Austria. The rude and uneducated Mirko is compared to Hitler, and Dr. B. is compared to the Jewish people who suffered hellish torment, but must come out victorious.
Frame from the film.
Only the characters that were on the ship are present in the book. In the story, Dr. B. has no wife and no friend of Gustav’s. There is no villain Franz Josef either – instead of him, impersonal German Nazis.
The meaning of the novel is not in the strong will of the protagonist. The emphasis there is on the rivalry of the two opposites. The work describes the strength of Dr. B., which is also his weakness. He, just like in the movie, learned to play chess with himself in his head. And just like in the movie, it cost him his sanity. After all, the hero had to split his consciousness in order to play both black and white. This rivalry turned into an obsession. When Dr. B. sits down to play chess with Mirko Czentovic, he associates his opponent with another part of himself. In the movie “King’s Game” it is presented in a completely different way.
The meaning of the film
The meaning of most of the events of the “Royal Game” comes down to the fact that no ship actually existed. Too much its interior and its passengers are intertwined with things and events from the hero’s past. There was also no shown opponent Josef Mirko Czentovic. The real world champion Czentovic is present only on the page of the book describing the chess games. Next to him is Max Van Leuven, also a famous (in the film universe) chess player. Josef assigns this name to himself after his release, unable to bear in his memory the events that happened to him in captivity.
The very imprisonment and torture were. But the reality of the villain Franz Josef is also in doubt. Perhaps this is just a convenient image of the enemy that the main character has created in his mind. The task of this villain was to destroy the ego, that is, Josef’s own “I” (judging by the words at the beginning), which he partially achieved – the hero’s personality really split.
The unreality of Franz Josef is hinted at by his very name. It’s like another alter ego of Josef. And obviously not without references: the most famous Joseph (Joseph) is a biblical character who spent a lot of time in prison, and the most famous Franz Joseph (Frans Joseph) is a contemporary of Stefan Zweig, the emperor of Austria and the king of Bohemia.
There are many references in the film. The most frequent draws attention to the “Odyssey” by Homer, dedicated to the journey of the mythical hero named Odysseus during his return to his homeland and the adventures of his wife, who was expecting her husband in Ithaca. Thus, a parallel is drawn between these heroes and Josef and Anna, who also endured many trials. The ship on which the decisive chess game takes place is like the ship of Odysseus. Only here does the hero meet his own demons.
Gustav’s repeated phrase “I am the goddamn emperor of the whole of China” several times is probably a reference to the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi, who suffered from persecution mania. By the way, the wounded seagull on the deck, most likely, personifies the guilt of the protagonist before Gustav and other prisoners.
Oliver Mazucci as Dr. Bartok. Frame from the film.
The most plausible interpretation of the events of the film is as follows: the hero passed ordeals thanks to the strength of his spirit, but lost his mind. He relives the confrontation with the German Nazis again and again, recreating in his imagination the decisive duel where he fights the villain, imagining himself in the role of Max Van Leuven, and his enemy in the role of Mirko Czentowicz (not without reason both Mirko and Franz-Josef play one and the same actor).
The essence of the film “The Royal Game” is reflected in the quote by Stefan Zweig: “Today it is we who must maintain a firm belief in the invincibility of the spirit.”
The meaning of the ending of the film “The Royal Game” is as follows: Joseph, like a damned Odysseus, returned to his Penelope (Anna) after wandering on a ship through the sea of the subconscious. His former personality is erased, but his spirit is not broken. Perhaps he will again fight the enemy in chess and again win in the final. He will return his sense of reality and time, which is symbolized by his wristwatch.
The explanation for the ending is the invincibility of the human spirit. This is the meaning of the film “The Royal Game”. Compared to the story, he is more optimistic: the struggle with oneself, with one’s inner demons, is not a senseless walking in circles, it matters.
Frame from the film.
- Chess Novella (FRG, 1960): an earlier film adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s work;
- Shutter Island (USA, 2009): a bailiff, overcome by the ghosts of the past, becomes a hostage of a mental hospital;
- Remember (USA, 2000): the hero tries to find his wife’s killer, remembering only the last fifteen minutes of his life;
- Mind Games (USA, 2001): a biographical drama about a brilliant mathematician who was captured by his own hallucinations;
- The Pianist (France, Poland, 2002): the horrors of the Holocaust through the eyes of a Jewish musician;
- Schindler’s List (USA, 1993): Steven Spielberg’s drama about a German industrialist who saved the lives of a thousand Jews;
- The Queen’s Gambit (USA, 2020): mini-series about a chess genius.