understood the pain of involuntary exile as acutely as Stefan Zweig. In his
day, the Jewish Austrian was the world’s most translated author, but he took
his own life while living as a political émigré in Brazil. In his posthumous
novella, Journey into the Past, Zweig’s
protagonist is also stranded in Latin America, separated from his love and
homeland. For his first English language film, French director Patrice Leconte
adapted Zweig’s wistful German tale with a British cast. Whether you consider
it reserved or repressed, it is most definitely “Old” Europe that dictates
social expectations for the characters of Leconte’s A Promise (trailer
opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.
Zeitz has done the near impossible. Like a German Horatio Alger hero, the poor
orphan worked his way through university as a scholarship student, eventually
finding employment in the offices of the steelworks owned and operated by the
dreaded Herr Karl Hoffmeister. At least, Zeitz is told to fear his aristocratic
boss. However, when Herr Hoffmeister notices the young man’s keen grasp of metallurgy
and relentless work ethic, he takes a shine to his new clerk.
his health slowly declining, the increasingly home-bound Herr Hoffmeister
promotes Zeitz to serve as his private secretary and liaison to the corporate
office. Of course, that home is more of a castle. As soon as he is admitted
into the Hoffmeister estate, Zeitz promptly falls head over heels for his boss’s
younger wife, Charlotte (who goes by Lotte, echoing Zweig’s wife and secretary,
Hoffmeister is unfailingly gracious and welcoming to Zeitz, but she initially
seems oblivious to his attraction, despite the way his eyes bug out of his head
like a cartoon character whenever she is around. Still, maybe someone notices
his torch-carrying. Just as Zeitz is transferred to Hoffmeister’s embryonic
mining operation in Mexico, Lotte Hoffmeister confesses Zeitz’s ardor is reciprocated.
They vow (or promise, if you will) to do something about it, once he returns
from his two year stint abroad. Then World War I breaks out.
of the ironies Leconte and co-adaptor Jérôme Tonnere clearly make without
excessively belaboring is the extent highly intelligent people can lose sight
of the critically important macro events swirling around them because they are
caught up in their own personal dramas. Despite working in the steel industry,
Zeitz and Herr Hoffmeister are caught completely flat-footed by the onset of
the first World War (you think they might have noticed a slight uptick in
government orders). Likewise, the climatic reunion commences just as the
growing ranks of National Socialists launch another street protest-riot.
passionate feelings of Zeitz and Frau Hoffmeister are so chaste and restrained A Promise is likely to frustrate most
viewers more accustomed to instant gratification. Yet, the yearn and burn of
their thwarted love is quite powerful for those who can appreciate it. Unfortunately,
Rebecca Hall and Richard (Game of Thrones)
Madden must make the most vanilla couple you will ever see as Zeitz and Frau
Hoffmeister. In contrast, Alan Rickman outshines everyone as the sly but not
villainous Herr Hoffmeister, showing the sort of erudite charisma he brought to
bear in overlooked films like Bottle Shock
and Song of Lunch.
Handsomely mounted, A Promise’s period details are elegant but convincingly Teutonic in
their chilly austerity, while superstar cinematographer Eduardo Serra gives it
all a sensitive sheen superior to the look of your average BBC historical. A
mature and emotionally sophisticated literary drama largely waterlogged by its
two cold fish romantic leads, A Promise is
flawed but still oddly enticing for those who share its Old European sensibilities.
It opens this Friday (4/18) at the IFC Center.
Labels: Alan Rickman, Patrice Leconte, Rebecca Hall, Stefan Zweig