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True to the spirit if not the letter of Stefan Zweig's neglected masterpiece
on 8 August 2014
Stefan Zweig’s novella, Journey into the past, is remarkably cinematic in its form. It begins at the very end, then flashes back to the beginning, and then flashes back and forward in time until we are back at the beginning – which is also the happy ending of this bitter-sweet romance. In fact, it is actually more cinematic than this film.
Though director Patrice Leconte and his fellow-screenwriter Jérôme Tonnerre have given the narrative a more conventional linear form in A Promise, postponing Zweig’s opening disclosure of the ultimate triumph of true love over circumstance to the very end of the movie, and have made some significant changes and additions, their movie is nevertheless true to Zweig’s typically Viennese schadenfreude.
The story was not published until 30 years after the author’s suicide in 1942, but Zweig actually started work on it in the mid-1920s, which is exactly when it ends, with the lovers about to consummate their relationship as the ultra-nationalist Freikorps chant their fascistic slogans in the streets of Heidelberg.
Some of the screenplay changes are insignificant, and a bit hard to understand. Why, for instance, change the name of the Richard Madden character from Ludwig to Friedrich? And while he confesses to Lotte (Rebecca Hall) that he has had other women during his nine-year stay in Mexico, in the book he actually has acquired a wife and family there, which presumably he is willing to abandon for his true love back in Austria.
Lotte’s husband, who dies quite early in the book, plays a much larger role in the film – a superb performance from Alan Rickman. He is very much the complaisant husband in the movie, confessing on his deathbed that he always expected Lotte and Fritz to fall in love, and brought them together in his home for that very purpose.
While it is unlikely to rank alongside the great Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) or even Maurice Elvey’s neglected Beware of Pity (1946), A Promise is true to the spirit if not the letter of Stefan Zweig’s neglected masterpiece.
This review has also been posted on the Movietime blog: http://wp.me/p4LSXI-9.