Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck came to the attention of mainstream English-speaking audiences with his 2006 The Lives of Others
, an assured political drama about an East Berlin Stasi agent and his victims. It won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film and was one of the most compulsively watchable films of recent years. Never Look Away
, his second foreign language Oscar contender, is another mesmerising contemplation of the postwar psyche of the director's native Germany. This time, he follows three decades in the life of artist Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) in a lightly fictionalised version of the painter Gerhard Richter whose life and art intersected with the most seismic dislocations of 20th-century Germany.
Details similar to Gerhard Richter's life are faithfully captured in Donnersmarck's film with which Richter initially cooperated but from which he subsequently distanced himself. It may be too close to the bone because the film's plot turns on a revelation made in a 2005 biography of Richter concerning a connection between the relationships he built in post-war East Germany and the fate of an aunt at the hands of Nazi eugenicists.
The three-hour film begins in an art gallery in Dresden, where five-year-old Kurt (a lovely clear-eyed watchful Cai Cohrs) is being led through the notorious 1937 'Degenerate Art' exhibition – the culmination of the Nazi policy to eradicate all modern art – by his free-spirited young aunt, Elisabeth (a luminous Saskia Rosendahl). Kurt's father has lost his teaching job because of refusing to join the Nazi party, and the family now lives in reduced circumstances on the outskirts of the town. She whispers conspiratorially to her nephew that she prefers the forbidden art on display (by Kandinsky, Picasso, Otto Dix, George Grosz, and others) to the sentimental realism endorsed by the Third Reich.
Elisabeth is diagnosed with schizophrenia and locked in a clinic, run by gynaecologist Professor Carl Seeband (chillingly played by Sebastian Koch). She will be sterilised and eventually sent to a distant facility, unbeknown to her family, where she will be gassed in a shower with other 'genetically inferior' women. Her family is deceived about her eventual fate. Only we, and Seeband, are privy to it. Whilst being forcibly removed from home she mouths the words spoken to Kurt earlier: 'Never look away'. Now he holds his hand a few inches in front of his eyes as if to blot out the sight of her abduction. The camera shows us what he sees – the hand coming into focus, leaving what's behind blurred. When the hand drops, the awful truth is again revealed, still faintly blurred – reality perceived at one remove – before again coming into sharp focus.
Kurt's experience of the war is contradictory and confusing: He stares in awe as Dresden is firebombed, seen burning in the distance in a shattering sequence that is intercut with Elisabeth being led to her death – a juxtaposition that in other directorial hands could be gratuitous. He sees members of his family killed by both sides and the others conforming outwardly to the Nazi regime, despite the words 'Heil Hitler' (replaced sometimes by 'drei Liter') sticking in their throats. These losses are followed by the tragic suicide of his father in the first years of the Soviet occupation.
Years later, Kurt arrives at Dresden's Academy of Art where he is drilled in socialist realism, forswearing the bourgeois 'ich, ich, ich' ('me, me, me'), hence the German title of the film, Werk Ohne Autor
(Work Without Author). He meets and falls in love with fellow fashion student Ellie (Paula Beer) who by a terrible coincidence is the daughter of Seeband, the doctor responsible for his aunt's murder. Protected by a grateful Russian officer whose baby he saved, Seeband's career has flourished in the now communist East Germany. His contempt for Kurt's poor genetic heritage is only matched by disdain for his future son-in-law's interest in art.
In Dresden, Kurt progresses from signwriting to mural painting heroic workers, but his heart is not in it. Defection to West Germany promises artistic freedom. The couple elopes to Dusseldorf just before the Berlin Wall goes up, there to discover the burgeoning (neo) avant-garde art scene of Dusseldorf's famous Künstakademie, where Kurt enlists as a mature student. Here in the 1960s, representative painting has ceded to conceptual art, and 'happenings'. In one gloriously designed scene, Professor Antonius van Verten, Kurt's mentor, played by Oliver Masucci, and a spot-on stand-in for Joseph Beuys, sets fire to political posters in front of his bemused class: 'Choose art not parties!' he admonishes.
Kurt, desperate to find direction for his work, struggles. It is in the final half hour or so of the film that von Donnersmarck achieves something truly remarkable. Kurt clears his studio of clutter and failed projects so that he has a blank room and a blank canvas, and he starts painting. While finding the iconoclasm of the current art scene liberating, Kurt is prompted to look for new ways of painting rather than to abandon painting altogether. He thinks, tests an idea, scrubs it out, steps back, goes home, returns next day and starts again. As he tries to get hold of what he (or his subconscious) is trying to do, we begin to grasp just how innovative his idea is and how extraordinary the filmmaker's craft in depicting its emergence. Kurt's discovery of his unique kind of 'photo-realism' or 'photo-painting' is exhilarating to watch. And we come to understand the significance of that 'never look away' early scene.
Thus we see Kurt/Richter heightening the photograph-like quality of selected photographs by imitating the effect of 'blurring' created by insufficient depth of field, as if photography, always already at one step removed from reality, allows him to approach reality once again. And we, as spectators, have to make an effort to fix what we see. It is as if the 'diffusion' or 'blurring' of the image imposes the act of recalling, with all its incompleteness and lack of certainty, inviting us to acknowledge the inadequacy of all attempts at 're-presentation', including our own role in interpreting the past.
Since he no longer has to invent his subject matter (though he must select the photographs) or deal with traditional demands on painters such as perspectival organisation, Kurt is now freed to focus on purely 'painterly' concerns like the handling of paint, tonal values, format and size of the canvas – concerns governing the kind of gestural abstract art to which he has been introduced in Dusseldorf, but without recourse to suspect notions of individual self-expression, since photography places limits on this. (For this reason Richter preferred press and amateur photography to 'art' photography with its own aesthetic conventions). Never Look Away
captures all of this in an extraordinary series of scenes that depict the struggle that produces the painting that is key to the drama. Once the catharsis comes, the effect is thrilling.
There is no satisfying confrontation between Kurt and Seeband but in its place is something much more profound, given the film's preoccupation with ways of seeing. Kurt has been working on a painting based on three family snapshots: one of his aunt, one of his wife as a child with her father on a beach, and a recent newspaper photograph of a newly caught Nazi war criminal. These are placed together on the canvas and reworked in layers of paint dragged across it, recalling Richter's characteristic 'blurring' of photographic images. Dense overworking of areas of black and grey convey a similar sense of opacity. When Seeband enters the studio and sees the painting he reels back in terror. Kurt and his colleagues are bemused. The painted canvas knows more than the artist who painted it. We know why, though.
Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel does terrific work in enabling us to viscerally understand Kurt's progress. As that earlier 'never look away' shot suggests, 'it is only by looking away that we can actually see the truth, using obfuscation to achieve clarity'. The film's deceptive format as a fairly mainstream (but also exactingly precise) movie might be viewed in the same way – a canny way of wresting a moral reckoning from a cruel, confused, and unresolved history.