Venice: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck on 'Never Look Away' and Germany's Identity Crisis

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Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

'The Lives of Others' director follows a German family through three generations of recent history in his new epic drama, which premiered in the Venice competition program.

Few filmmakers have experienced as rapid a rise as Germany's Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose 2006 debut, The Lives of Others, won every award going, including the Golden Globe, BAFTA, Ceasar and, of course, the 2007 Oscar for best foreign-language film.

The thriller, set in communist East Germany and starring Sebastian Koch and the late Ulrich Muhe, was universally praised and launched Donnersmarck in Hollywood, where he adapted, together with Christopher McQuarrie and Julian Fellowes, an English version of the French thriller Anthony Zimmer as The Tourist, starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. Critics panned the film, but it delivered at the box office, with a $278 million worldwide gross.

Donnersmarck has taken a long time for his follow-up. Never Look Away, which premiered in competition at the Venice Film Festival this week and will screen as a special presentation in Toronto, sees the 45-year-old filmmaker return to German history, and art, for inspiration.

The film's plot was inspired by the biography of contemporary artist Gerhard Richter and the facts of life under the Nazi and GDR dictatorships. But, as Donnersmarck tells The Hollywood Reporter's European Bureau Chief Scott Roxborough, he combined the real and the invented for his tale of criminals and victims caught together in the same German family, to explore “the scab formed on the wounds of life” of which great art is made.

Beta Cinema has pre-sold Never Look Away worldwide, with Sony Pictures Classics taking rights in North America, Latin America, Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia.

What was the starting point for Never Look Away?

I was looking for some kind of story that allowed me to explore the origin of artistic creativity. There was this line in Elia Kazan's autobiography where he talked about his work with geniuses — he meant Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Marlon Brando— and he said he felt that by working with them – their artist genius – was merely, his expression was, it was the scab that formed on the woulds that life had dealt them. And I thought that was such an interesting concept and I thought where could I find a story to explore that?

First – I looked for a film about opera –so I went through the origin stories of all my favorite operas, but mostly they were pretty boring. It was like: Verdi was in love with Friedrich von Schiller and decided to score all his dramas. I didn't really find something where the personal life of a composer would turn into something dramatic on screen.

And then I found a story, through a journalist actually (Jurgen Schrieber), who'd interviewed me about something else and he told me about a book he had written about the German painter Gerhard Richter. And it was a really interesting story of how both war criminals and victims of these crimes were living together within one family. And all this while a young painter tries to find his artistic path. And I thought this could be an interesting starting point. And then I looked at the actual story – and there wasn't quite enough in the true story – so I basically built my fictional story on this true story – put into it ever thing that I feel about modern art and the history of Germany in the 20th century.

Why did you choose to mix fact and fiction the way you do in the film?

I thought about movies like Citizen Kane. I would find that movie a lot less interesting if it were called Citizen Hearst and Orson Welles compelled to stay to the documented facts. I believe in fiction. Maybe if something is far enough back in time, you can just invent anything – and call the person Queen Elizabeth I or Shakespeare and it'll be fine. But the spark for this came from people who are still living and or recently deceased, and so the fiction would become all too apparent. And I wasn't interested in choosing facts over fiction. If I thought a plot twist, completely invented, is more interesting, then I would always choose that. And if I made a biography, that would be extremely unfair. 

Why did you return to Germany, and German history, for your third film after your Hollywood debut with The Tourist?

Well it wasn't "let's do a film in Germany." This was a story I had been thinking about for last few years – it was something pulling me with considerable force – and I thought about making it in English. That was suggested to me quite strongly. But I always find it a little bit fake those stories. I do believe the language carries more than just information. I felt the film would be a lot more authentic in Germany. Our producer, Jan Mojto, he said he sees the film as a biography of Germany in the 20th century. And a biography at a time where German is struggling with its identity – I felt that is much more authentic in German.

The film's German title, Werk Ohne Autor, translates to "Work Without Author." In English, the film's Never Look Away. What is it we shouldn't look away from?

I meant it more in the way it is said in the film, what the aunt of the artist character tells him: never look away from the facts of the world. Don't believe what you are told. Believe what you can see with your eyes. And even if you do see something with your own eyes, don't be certain you fully understand it. I mean, you can't become a victim of “fake news” if you never look away from the reality of the world.

What did you learn from the experience of making The Tourist?

I always try and choose a movie by asking is there enough in it to keep me excited and engaged and feeling alive during the time it will take to make this. In the case of The Lives of Others and Never Look Away – it took years. For The Tourist – it was little under one year. I really enjoyed making the film, working with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp and Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton and Rufus Sewell. It was a great experience.  For me personally, the main takeaway, apart from the fact that it was lot of fun and I'm happy the film did so well, is that is more satisfying for me to work off my own stories, because there is something about a self exploration that takes place when you don't even know why a story is calling out to you.

It's been 8 years since your last film. Are you, like the artist in Never Look Away, an obsessive perfectionist?

There's this term, that James Cameron invented: rightist. I'm not a perfectionist, I'm a rightist. I do things until they’re right. And that can happen on the first take or sometimes it can take 20 takes. The reason this film took a little longer was also there were a lot of complex elements in the film that maybe would have been easier to make within the American system. It's pretty unusual for a European film to have a visual effect. There is a little attitude of “be happy you have a visual effect at all, why does it have to be just right?” But I absolutely have to have it just right. Especially in a realistic and historical movie. And those things take time. I think the fact that it did take a little longer had more to do with the some of the practical and budget limitations.

There's a line in Never Look Away: “Free yourself as an artist, and you free the world.” Do you believe that?

I completely believe in the transformative power of art – especially of our art, in movies. And I believe that generally art, and storytelling in general, is a form of identity creation, of trying to find our identity. That's what makes it interesting for me. And I do think that art has to be completely free. I don't believe in the art work that has to somehow talk in code in some kind of totalitarian system. I completely believe in artistic freedom of speech.

That is one of the things I admire most about the American constitution and America’s artistic and cultural tradition – that freedom of speech is treasured above everything else. And people are willing to accept a lot of chaos and a lot of hurt to maintain and uphold that freedom. That is not the case in many, many other countries in the world. And that is something I really admire about America.

You have been very active in China, even launching a Chinese production company together with Sam Raimi and CIH, the parent company of  Jackie Chan's shingle Sparkle Roll. Will Never Look Away, which is very critical of the communist dictatorship of East Germany, be shown in China?

It would bother me quite a lot if Never Look Away isn't shown in China. But I'll tell you, when I went to China to present The Tourist – which was a wonderful experience – about half the questions from the audience – in these very public space – was about The Tourist, the other half was about The Lives of Others and especially how critical it was of communism. I asked them, "aren't you afraid of reprisals by asking these questions?" And they obviously weren't. I haven't completely and fully understood how censorship works in that system. I'm still hopeful that we can somehow have the film shown there.

You said recently that your mentor is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Why?

Arnold Schwarzenegger is someone from whom I've learned a lot, about visualizing goals and making yourself attain them. I often think of his methods that he developed for sports and so on. I unfortunately never had the talent to develop pectorals like his – but I do use those same methods – to try and fight through all the impossible obstacles that are always in your way when you try to make a movie that is a little different.

He is someone who was always a source of inspiration for me. He somehow embodies the philosophy of not accepting whatever limitations you think your background and nature have imposed on you. I think that he represents to me something limitless. I just want to give him credit where he truly deserves it.