'Never Look Away' ('Werk ohne Auteur'): Film Review | Venice 2018

'The Lives of Artists.'

After 'The Tourist,' director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck returns to Germany for his latest film, which stars Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch and Paula Beer.

After winning an Oscar for The Lives of Others and making the 2010 Johnny Depp-Angelina Jolie vehicle The Tourist, which was nominated for three Golden Globes, German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is now in contention for a Golden Lion with his third feature, Never Look Away (Werk ohne Author). While nominally focused on the life and work of fictional artist Kurt Barnert from Dresden, this is really a thinly veiled biopic of one of Germany’s most popular contemporary painters, Gerhard Richter. 

Spanning roughly three tumultuous decades, from 1937 to 1966, von Donnersmarck, who also penned the screenplay, manages to move from pre-war Nazi Germany to WWII and then postwar East  and West Germany, inviting a reflection on how the different periods and places in the country's recent history are connected through the experiences of Barnert; the woman he loves; and her overbearing father, a hospital director and (former) Nazi. Admirably restrained, this is nonetheless a historical drama on an expansive canvas that, even though it runs over three hours, is always engaging. That said, the work’s considerations of the intimate connection among being, art and life finally feel quite superficial. It has been presold to Sony Pictures Classics, which also shepherded Lives to an Oscar win, and was again chosen by Germany to represent it in the foreign-language Oscar derby.

The film opens with a guided tour of the Nazis’ now-infamous Degenerate Art exhibition, which is visited by little Kurt (Cai Cohrs) and his young Aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) in 1937 Dresden (like elsewhere, the director takes some liberty with the historical record, as only an earlier version of the show made it to Dresden in 1933). “I’m not sure if I still want to be a painter,” says little Kurt, who is an avid drawer, after the Nazi tour guide (Lars Eidinger, in a cameo) has blasted all the works on display. 

Von Donnersmarck takes his time to establish the bond between Kurt and Elizabeth to the extent that all his other family members feel somewhat interchangeable. Elizabeth is also artistically inclined. She tells him that “everything that is true is beautiful” and to “never look away” (hence the English title), even when she’s playing the piano naked. When, still undressed, she starts hitting herself with an ashtray, hoping to sound the same perfect note as the piano, she’s hauled off to an institution. 

A couple of scenes later, Nazi bigwigs tell hospital directors in 1940 to have the mentally unfit sent off to concentration camps so more beds for soldiers will be available. The Dresden hospital director, professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch, from The Lives of Others), is present at that meeting and subsequently receives Elizabeth at his establishment. In what’s quite a feat of editing and filmmaking technique, von Donnersmarck then crosscuts between the 1945 allied bombing of Dresden, Elizabeth’s fate in the gas chambers and the sacrifice of two (otherwise barely introduced) family members on the eastern front, suggesting the overwhelming sensation of mass destruction on all sides that occurred during World War II.  

The end of the war occurs about 45 minutes in, when Kurt has become an adult (now played by Oh Boy’s Tom Schilling). While working at a stencil workshop, he secretly keeps drawing on the side and is finally admitted to the local art academy (Richter was actually refused entry in 1950 before being admitted a year later). While Nazis denounced art that didn’t fit their worldviews, things in communist East Germany aren’t much better, with socialist realism the only acceptable art form and Picasso’s work, for example, derided for being “decadent” and “undemocratic." 

The East-German midsection is the film’s liveliest; occasionally the funniest; and also the most affectionate, especially after Kurt meets a beautiful fashion student (Paula Beer). Not only is she also called Elizabeth but she looks so much like his aunt that Kurt prefers to call her "Ellie," a nickname the new Elizabeth's father gave her. When her parents unexpectedly come home one night, Kurt has to escape from the bedroom on the second floor, just as naked as his aunt when she played the piano. Ellie’s mother (Ina Weisse) sees the young man escape, while her father turns out to be Seeband, who is about to be appointed the head of Dresden hospital again. 

While there are several connections between the Seebands and Kurt’s family, von Donnersmarck doesn’t turn his movie into the kind of drama that’s driven by shocking revelations. On the contrary, the horrifying connection between Seeband and Aunt Elizabeth and the suggested, more tender link between Elizabeth and Ellie are mostly there in the background, like some kind of inescapable cosmic arrangement. It suggests how history has a way of advancing in inscrutably interconnected ways and the full truth can rarely be uncovered or understood.

Though Kurt quickly rose to prominence as a social realist painter, the film’s last 70 minutes take place in West Germany, where the couple arrives as penniless East Germans in 1961, months before the Berlin Wall would go up. (At home, Kurt’s massive commissioned murals immediately disappear behind pristine white paint in a visually striking act of damnatio memoriae.) Admitted to the avant-garde Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, Kurt is taught by the eccentric Antonius Van Werten (Oliver Masucci). The hat-wearing artist is clearly modeled on Joseph Beuys, with even a flashback in which he recounts his rescue by Tartars when his Nazi plane went down in Crimea. (How much Beuys influenced Richter in real life is up for debate.) Free from any kind of official impositions or rules, Kurt will find himself here as an artist, even as his always-present father-in-law, who also escaped to the West, has him scrub hospital floors so Kurt can pay for his own education. 

Never Look Away works best as a historical drama that explores the complexity of 20th century Germany. It’s still refreshing to see a large-scale narrative play out over several decades rather than a story that is set either before, during or after the war, so the continuity between the periods is highlighted as much as the radical changes. Von Donnersmarck thus suggests something about the grand sweep of history as well as the idea that outward changes in society can be deceitful, like when former Nazis take up their jobs again — they might even be protected from above, as this film suggests — or when a limited view of art under one regime is replaced by a different but equally limited view under another. 

As a character drama, however, the film is more of a — excuse the pun — paint-by-numbers job. To make Kurt really pop, an insight into his artistic thinking is necessary but the film seems hesitant to drag us into the heart of the man's creative process. The few times von Donnersmarck tries, like when blinds and a projector help Kurt get new ideas, it feels too literal and clumsy. The suggestion that some kind of trauma is necessary for the creation of great art — like Van Werten’s Tartar episode or Kurt’s necessity to reconnect with the memory of his aunt — also feels overly reductive. 

Schilling, Germany’s go-to actor for sensitive, bookish characters, here certainly has an intense gaze. But his Kurt feels too much like a bystander in his own life, and there’s little sense of the passion and zeal that might accompany artistic creation. His romance feels fresh and exciting in Dresden but is less present and more monotonous in Dusseldorf, where Ellie is relegated to the role of sex-providing wife and (future) mother. That said, Beer (Frantz, Transit), further consolidates her reputation as one of Germany’s brightest young talents and her likeness to the equally good Rosendahl is striking. 

Technically, this is a marvel, with Caleb Deschanel’s classy and always luminous cinematography and Silke Buhr’s grandiose sets both giving the impression that the real story is always larger than just what’s happening to the characters. Max Richter’s score is lustrous and warm, and helps to compensate for the occasional lack of emotional characterization. 

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Pergamon Film, Wiedemann & Berg Film, Beta Cinema, ARD Degeto, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Sky Deutschland, Rai, Cinema Arte
Cast: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Oliver Masucci, Saskia Rosendahl, Ina Weisse, Hanno Koffler, Joerg Schuettauf, Jeannette Hain, Lars Eidinger
Director-writer: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Producers: Jan Mojto, Quirin Berg, Max Wiedemann, Christiane Henckel Von Donnersmarck, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Director of photography: Caleb Deschanel
Production designer: Silke Buhr
Costume designer: Gabriele Binder
Editor: Patricia Rommel
Music: Max Richter
Casting: Simone Baer, Alexandra Montag
Sales: Beta Cinema

In German
No rating, 188 minutes