By Christopher Sharrett.
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away is a good – but not great – film of this past season that deserves recognition; I wanted to wait to remark on it until a Region 1 Blu-ray arrived, which apparently won’t happen until the fall, so I purchased a superb Region 2 German disc that lacks English subtitles, putting my scant language skills to the test. The film is marketed in Europe under its German title Werk Ohne Autor (Work Without Author), with Sieh Niemals Weg (Never Look Away) as the subtitle. I can’t complain about either title for what is a loose biography of artist Gerhard Richter, whose work was somewhat jokingly deemed “without author” years ago, since Richter has always refused to allow connections between his art and his very painful life; it is a conceit that seems peculiar, but certainly not of the postmodern “under erasure” temperament that has polluted intellectual discourse over the last several decades. The idea of never looking away is an instruction given the young Richter – here named Kurt Barnert, played by Tom Schilling – by his Aunt Marianne – here Aunt Elizabeth, played by the radiant Saskia Rosendahl. Not looking away is the aunt’s assertion that truth resides in ugliness, even horrors, as much as in beauty.
The film has been taken to task by some reviewers for not sticking rigorously to “the facts” of Richter’s life, making some people say the film is evidence of our “post-truth” era. It is hard to respond to such nonsense. First, the “post-truth” era is an invention of the Trump crowd, and those writers who think they need a new catchphrase to toy with, obscuring truth by so doing (a couple of decades of postmodern obscurantist thinking has aided the process). No artist has ever been obligated to stick with “the facts,” whatever they may be, in pursuit of a vision. The exceptions can be deliberate distortion for ideological reasons, or out of vendetta against a person or epoch. Von Donnersmarck interviewed Richter at length as he started the film, although Richter was not willing or able to see it, making the director quip that his film might be suitable for “everyone but him.” It is true that Richter had some hesitations, suggesting to von Donnersmarck that the main character be someone other than a painter, a suggestion the director rejected, causing some friction for a time.
What burdens Never Look Away isn’t inaccuracy, but too many coincidences, even though some of them occur in the subject’s life. Von Donnersmarck expands on some of these moments, straining credulity. The greater problem is labored exposition – shared by the director’s earlier The Lives of Others – that includes repeated and unneeded scenes (Barnert scrubbing the staircase at the art academy). I don’t mind long films (this is over three hours), but not when passages do a disservice to others, some of which have a grand, almost operatic beauty. There is another problem: casting. As Barnert/Richter, Tom Schilling is less than interesting. He is often expressionless as his character goes through major life traumas. His flaccid performance can be annoying, especially when a bit of moral outrage seems indicated. The benefit of the lackluster star is the consequent showcasing of the key female actors, especially Rosendahl and Paula Beer as Barnert’s wife Ellie Seeband. But there are larger problems with the casting.
The handsome Sebastian Koch plays Carl Seeband, an SS doctor and committed Nazi ideologue who, after World War II, finds a place, after some stress, with the Soviet KGB apparatus. (One could say that the film is about the authoritarian personality fitting within any tyranny, regardless of ideology, not a revelation). Koch is so charismatic an actor, and von Donnersmarck too careless as dramaturge, that the monster played by Koch is nearly the star of the film. The film at some moments allows him dignity. Worse, the film’s poster art is dominated by Koch’s frowning but attractive face, with Schilling and Beer tucked behind him, forming a receding visual perspective. The graphics might suggest the dominance of the worst form of patriarchal rule in recent history, and its near-deformation of the young (fittingly, the image is “streaked,” like Richter/Barnert’s famous photo-paintings, conveying the way representation since the last century is almost unbearable to see, or distorted by the artist’s tormented hand, or damaged by our inattention – we tend to “look away”). Still, a sense of imbalance disturbed me.
Complaints registered, Never Look Away is one of those needed films that places life, sex, love, and art in strict and constant opposition to death, represented here by literal death of course, but also by attempts to stifle the artist and destroy art, to interfere with the pursuit of love, to make rules about sexual activity and to horribly punish violators.
I want to cite major moments, some of which occur early in the film, others toward the denouement. The first scene shows Barnert as a little boy, holding the hand of his beloved Aunt Elizabeth as they attend an exhibition in Dresden of what the Nazis deem “degenerate art,” which includes all modernism, except sculptors of gigantic nude Aryan men by Arno Breker – this always needs psychoanalytic comment, but not here. Elizabeth clearly loves the paintings, but smiles politely at the lecture given by the raving Nazi tour guide. She makes little pedagogical remarks to young Kurt, introducing her “never look away” instruction while explaining, in language appropriate for the young boy, how the Cubists, Surrealists, and Expressionists reveal new ways of looking and understanding. Immediately, the film reveals its position: we surely know that devastation approaches, but the establishing sequence affirms humanity, and the film exalts the human subject throughout. But could a film about the Nazi tyranny be otherwise? Certainly, as Son of Saul informs us, cinema can show us that the Holocaust throws into question any assertion about the human better angels, that death is winning or has won.
The bus trip home after the Dresden tour is one of the most affecting scenes I have recently seen in the cinema. Little Kurt leans against his aunt, then sprawls on her lap, as children do when in the company of people whose love they know is unstinting. Elizabeth cuddles her nephew, assuring him her love is indeed secure. A engaging moment happens when Elizabeth shows Kurt an odd hobby. She has arranged with local bus drivers to meet her at their depot at day’s end. They create a loose formation, Elizabeth smiling shyly, her hands together in humble anticipation. The truckers sound their horns simultaneously, the din causing her to tilt slightly backward, her arms raised upward. She has discovered “musique concrete” before the fact, and something transcendent in urban noise. It is a gesture the adult Kurt will repeat in the conclusion, a tribute to the origins of his art.
Elizabeth is assigned a role with the Hitler Maidens, girls in white dresses who great Der Fuehrer during his visit to Dresden. She is pulled forward by an SS man in a white uniform (an anomaly matching the perversity of the moment) and given a bouquet to hand Hitler. Hitler’s motorcade passes by quickly, the back of his head facing us. Afterward, the other Maidens rush forward to encircle Elizabeth, asking all sorts of silly questions about her experience of the minute event. One can’t help but think of youth reaction to Elvis Presley when he appeared, or the Beatles, or David Bowie’s remark that Hitler was the first rock star. The real concern here is the human abrogation of intellect and judgment, a constant in history. Elizabeth stands with a smile suggesting bewilderment – or shock – far more than joy.
Kurt awakens from a nap to hear a piano. He goes downstairs to see his aunt’s clothing, along with a swastika flag given her, strewn about the main room. Clearly Elizabeth couldn’t get her clothes off fast enough and place the Nazi event behind her. She sits naked at the piano playing Handel; she strikes a note that doesn’t seem to resound properly, or has “vanished” (a fixation of a few composers). She stands and offers her usual comforts to her nephew, but something is wrong. She takes a plate from a table and starts to strike her head with its edge. There is the sense that the deluge is upon us, and that the fragile sensibility of the young woman has been torn apart by the arrival of fascism. But the family, some of whom support Hitler, essentially betrays her. She is diagnosed as “schizophrenic” by a Nazi doctor and sent to a sanitarium (one should recall that schizophrenia was the one-size-fits-all psychoanalytic diagnosis of women long after World War II, much like bi-polarity is today). The film raises Robin Wood’s question relative to the representation of “mentally ill” women in cinema: isn’t mental illness, and what has been called “hysteria,” a logical and lawful response to oppression, especially when patriarchy shows women that there are no exits in front of them? (1)
One of the film’s most affecting moments is Elizabeth screaming and struggling as she is taken away to the Nazi hospital, her family doing nothing but watch. Little Kurt has developed the habit of placing his hand in front of his face, then letting it drop, a bit like a child hiding his/her eyes from a horror movie, except that Kurt doesn’t hide. He has internalized his aunt’s instruction even at this horrible moment; his gesture will translate into an artistic technique in adult life.
Elizabeth is sterilized, then murdered, by SS Dr. Seeband (Koch) as part of the Nazis’ extermination of the unfit. This Botticelli figure kneels at the feet of the devil, assuming that she might be able to appeal to some vestige of human empathy. This moment, and her later murder in a gas chamber with other innocents, are part of a World War II “collage” that covers too much too fast, and demeans the moments of true artistic power.
Kurt grows up and becomes an artist, first as a servant of Socialist Realism, then an aspiring genius trying to find his place after the Cold War. A parallel narrative shows Seeband transferring his allegiance to the Soviet state, then to the capitalist power structure. This material becomes labored and predictable, but each phase is imposed on us as if by obligation. The film would have profited by staying with the psychological, the joys and terrors that formed Richter’s life without filling in space that the uninspired screenplay trudges through.
Barnert tries to win the approval of art professor Antonius van Verten (Oliver Masucci – the character is meant to be Joseph Beuys, and the film spends time on myths Beuys created about himself). While van Verten is meant to be a cutting-edge modernist (why?) he is still an authoritarian German type who could fit in The Blue Angel. Is Barnert supposed to venerate him? Clearly he does, to the point of giving him his most impressive painting once he achieves his photorealist style of painting, large representations of black-and-white photos.
Seeband comes into Barnert’s life again once Barnert courts his daughter Ellie (Paula Beer), who has some resemblance to his late aunt. Barnert paints the pregnant Ellie nude, “descending a staircase,” as if to rebuke Duchamp. Indeed, Richter is said to be the painter who saved representational art as postmodernism set in – patently untrue, since Richter spent much of his career on mostly undistinguished abstract paintings.
The film’s last reel is heavily accompanied by Max Richter’s orchestral score, which underlines Barnert’s epiphanies, first his discovery of a newspaper photo of a top Nazi under arrest, then his incorporation of the image into a painted collage featuring an image of Elizabeth holding young Kurt, then a Warhol-like photo of a glowering Seeband, then his dragging of a dry brush through his paintings, making them a bit out of focus, emphasizing the image’s inadequacies. Seeband visits Barnert’s studio and is aghast, seeming about to vomit as he staggers out – but Barnert seems not to apprehend what’s going on. While the Seeband character, in the manner of Raskolnikov, seems to scream out “I’m a Nazi murderer,” nothing flusters Barnert. Isn’t he for a moment prompted to say “what the hell is wrong with you?” The Schilling character remains inert.
It seems true that at the time Richter painted these images (one can argue that the paintings created for the film are better than Richter’s own), he was unaware of family connections to his aunt’s actual murder, but we are concerned here with drama, and the film takes plenty of liberties.
The film ends with Barnert visiting a bus depot, apparently after prearranging a moment like his aunt enjoyed decades earlier. Horns honk as he raises his hands in ecstasy while the camera flies around him, then stops as Barnert smiles at us. The moment is unneeded. Surely a more creative mind could have found a moment that might gracefully suggest his aunt, instead of re-orchestrating something that insults our intelligence.
I am ending this piece on a sour note since, on reflection, the film might have made better use of its key concepts, most of which flow from melodrama. Barnert’s loss of his aunt, and her reincarnation if the woman he marries, are absolutely central to the film. Not only could they have been further exploited, but their centrality might have been shown as crucial to the artist’s ultimate self-awareness. There are exultant moments (forced out by Max Richter’s soaring score) as Barnert paints the image of his dead aunt, realizing, I think, that some of the indulgences of modernism – which every one of his fellow art students think must be venerated – must be jettisoned for the sake of emotional authenticity. But the power of these moments is mostly lost, due to an inadequate thinking-through of the narrative, and weaknesses in the work of the leading man.
- While Wood discusses the topic in several of his writings, Sexual Politics and Narrative Film [Columbia, 1998] covers it extensively.
Christopher Sharrett has taught film for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor at Film International.