Never Look Away, the latest film by German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, was one of last year’s Best Foreign Picture Oscar nominees. It was a controversial choice for any award nomination, despite Henckel von Donnersmarck’s previous Oscar in 2007 for The Lives of Others.
Dana Goodyear’s New Yorker article of Jan. 14, 2019, about the making of Never Look Away, was particularly revealing. Goodyear presents in detail the complicated relationship between Henckel von Donnersmarck and superstar artist Gerhard Richter, the film’s inspiration. Charmed by and candid with Henckel von Donnersmarck at first, Richter eventually turned against him, and also against the film without ever seeing it, although Henckel von Donnersmarck did read him the screenplay.
Richter is famous for hiding in plain sight in his works—the German title of Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film is Werk ohne Autor, or “Work Without Author.” More than a decade before Never Look Away, journalist Juergen Schreiber wrote a biography of Richter. Schreiber’s experience with Richter was a harbinger of Henckel von Donnersmarck’s—wholehearted cooperation, followed by repudiation. “For an artist like Richter, whose sources are deeply autobiographical, inviting others to collaborate on the story of his life may be both irresistible and highly dangerous,” Goodyear wrote.
The screenplay of Never Look Away tracks Richter’s life story very closely, and Richter came to see the author of that screenplay as his betrayer. “I gave him (Henckel von Donnersmarck) something in writing stating that he was explicitly not allowed to use or publish either my name or any of my paintings,” Richter wrote in a letter to Goodyear. “But in reality, he has done everything to link my name to his movie, and the press was helping him to the best of its ability.”
The art world united behind Richter in its condemnation of Never Look Away; ARTnews dismissed the film as a “smug melodrama.” Yet it received a standing ovation when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Film reviewers were sharply divided. David Edelstein in Vulture said Never Look Away “is a laugh riot if you’re in the right, derisive mood,” but Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post called it “one of the most mesmerizing, compulsively watchable movies in theaters right now.”
While I acknowledge and even to some extent sympathize with Richter’s feelings of betrayal, my own reaction to Never Look Away is much closer to Hornaday’s than to Edelstein’s. I found the film engrossing throughout its three-hour-plus running time. Through the life of one painter—called Kurt Barnert in the movie—Henckel von Donnersmarck presents, to my mind at least, an exciting panorama of history, memory, and esthetics intersecting over three pivotal decades in Germany.
The film begins in 1937, with the boy Kurt (played at this point by Cai Cohrs) attending a “Degenerate Art” exhibit in Dresden with his Aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl). As the Nazi docent denounces the paintings by Kandinsky, Klee and Mondrian, Elisabeth whispers to him that she likes them, and Kurt agrees.
Unfortunately, Elisabeth likes other things as well, such as cutting herself in the head with the sharp edge of a broken glass plate. Diagnosed as schizophrenic, she is soon the ward of the Third Reich, more specifically of Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a cruel gynecologist and disciple of eugenics/euthanasia advocate Burghart Kroll (Rainer Bock). It is Seeband who signs the order for Elisabeth’s sterilization and, soon after, her transfer to a place of extermination. In a horrifying montage, young Kurt loses his aunt (to the gas chambers), his uncles (on the Russian front), and his grandparents (in the bombing of Dresden). Seeband, for his part, is captured by the Russians, but pardoned after his skill saves the life of the Russian commander’s wife and newborn son.
The action skips to the 1950s. Kurt (now played by Tom Schilling) is a student in the Dresden art academy, where his teachers exhort him and his classmates to adhere to the style of Socialist Realism. “Ich, ich, ich” is the bane of decadent Western art, they tell him. At the academy, he meets a fashion design student (Paula Beer) whom he falls for almost immediately. They are fellow skeptics of the Socialist paradise. “So is Socialist Realism your thing?” she asks Kurt. “Just as much as Lotte Ulbricht’s fashions are yours,” he replies.
Ironically, her name is Elisabeth; he secures her permission to call her Ellie, which is her father’s nickname for her. Even more ironically, Ellie’s father is the very same Carl Seeband who murdered his Aunt Elisabeth. Kurt does not even know who signed that order, and Ellie has no conception of her father’s villainy.
Here the contrivance seems to reach into O. Henry territory, except that this, and indeed much of the story of Never Look Away, is accurate as to Richter’s life history. Henckel von Donnersmarck invents some things, but not all that much. The Machiavellian ways Seeband tries to drive Kurt and Ellie apart may be contrived, but not his lionization by three separate governments—the Third Reich, the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic—which parallels the career of Richter’s real father-in-law. Similarly, Kurt and Ellie’s escape to the West, on one of the very last trains before the Wall went up, is much the same as the actual escape of Richter and his then-wife Ema.
The last third of the story concerns Kurt’s experience at the Dusseldorf Art Academy and his final artistic breakthrough. Under the tutelage of Professor Antonius van Verten (Oliver Masucci), students at the Dusseldorf academy reject as “dead” the figurative painting Kurt has had drilled into him the first thirty years of his life. This section of the film, in which Kurt feverishly tries to adopt various types of abstract expressionism, veers a little too close to Art School Confidential. Yet it also gives a brilliant speech to Van Verten—a character closely modeled on the actual teacher and performance artist Joseph Beuys—that finally gets Kurt to consider who and what he is, and what his art should be.
Critics—even those who generally liked the film—have differed on how successfully Henckel von Donnersmarck portrays Kurt’s artistic breakthrough. Personally, I found it very successful. The only possession Kurt took with him to the West was an album of family photographs; that, a newspaper headline, and his father-in-law’s passport photos are the vectors for that final revelation, in which Kurt instinctively grasps the truth about his past, his family, and his nation. Most movies that attempt to show a genius at work make a botch of it, but here it is moving and quietly exciting, enhanced by the glowing camera work of the master cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.
Seeband is, to put it mildly, nonplussed at Kurt’s new paintings. But Kurt becomes the cynosure of the German art world, smiling at the obtuse questions of reporters as he mystifies them with his answers.
Richter may feel that Henckel von Donnersmarck has misinterpreted his art, or trivialized it, or sensationalized it, or simply told more than Richter wanted him to tell. As is typical with Richter, he is not making any specific accusations, beyond that of Henckel von Donnersmarck reneging on a promise. Viewers are free to share Richter’s loathing of Never Look Away, and indeed some do. I was moved by Never Look Away, and I found it a persuasive consideration of an artist finding a way, in the face of many hardships, to articulate his view of the world. Richter, of course, has always disavowed such a purpose. As Goodyear writes, Richter often quotes John Cage: “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.” More tellingly, he has said, “My paintings know more than I do.” For an artist to make art that reverberates beyond himself is the
ultimate goal. Richter has accomplished this, and so, in my opinion, has Henckel von Donnersmarck.