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Brainwashed

German, 1960

Directed by Gerd Oswald


Starring: Curt Jurgens, Claire Bloom


103 minutes

Reviewed by Jeremy Silman

Rating (a 1 Ė 6 scale): 4.5



Brainwashed (in German with English subtitles), originally titled Die Schachnovelle, is based on Stefan Zweigís novella The Royal Game (published posthumously in 1944, after the author and his wife committed suicide in 1942). Considered by many to be the finest work of fiction ever written about chess, the story translates very well to the big screen due to its depiction of Nazi-occupied Vienna, and to its vivid portrayal of a manís slow descent into madness due to imprisonment and prolonged torture.



The movie starts with a middle-aged, aristocratic Austrian man (Werner Von Basil, played by the great Curt Jurgens) being helped on board a ship (it was delayed due to his late arrival, much to the dismay of the other passengers) thatís packed with men and women trying to get out of war torn Europe. Once on board, he spies an exhibition where an egotistical, boorish Yugoslav man named Czentovic (who happens to be the World Chess Champion!) is playing one game against several opponents at once, all of them being able to discuss possible moves at length and leisure.

After watching a bit of this contest (won by the champion), Werner von Basil retires to his room in a state of turmoil. Itís clear that chess was the catalyst, but why? Later he takes a walk and finds the champion involved in a second game against the same, overmatched, group. Seeing that a blunder is about to be played which will result in a quick victory for Czentovic, Werner intrudes and shows the group a way to force a draw. Impressed, they go along with his recommendation and, as promised, save the game.



Unhappy that a second victory was ripped from his grasp, Czentovic challenges the mysterious stranger to a game and, as it starts, weíre taken via flashback to where the ruin of his life began. This part of the tale shows us how Werner helps a Bishop hide a Church art collection, his arrest by the dreaded Gestapo (who want to find out where itís stashed), and how one high-ranking Gestapo agent (who fancies himself an intellectual) decides to break Werner without any physical violence.

Days, weeks, and months go by with endless questioning, total isolation in a small, drab room, and no reading material or mental stimulation of any kind allowed. Disoriented and losing his grip on reality, Werner manages to steal a book from a guardís coat. Later, alone in his room, he ecstatically opens up its pages only to discover no words whatsoever (other than the occasional odd name of a chess player). Instead, itís filled with strange notations and pictures of chess pieces on chessboards. Having never played chess, he teaches himself the gameís rules by logical deduction and, over time, memorizes every game in the collection. With no human contact, his only friends become Alekhine, Bogoljubov, Lasker, Capablanca, and others of their kind.



Back on the ship, we now understand that heís escaped from a mental hospital, and that heís never played a real game of chess against a real person in his life. How does he fare in his contest against the World Champion? The movieís answer gives us real food for thought.

The director, Gerd Oswald, was the son of celebrated German stage and film director Richard Oswald. Gerd ultimately helmed many movies, did the first season Star Trek episode The Conscience Of The King, and directed several episodes of The Outer Limits from 1963 to 1964. However, Brainwashed stands out as his most compelling work.