For years now, one of the great mysteries in covering the film beat has been why so many viewers feel that an opening title “based on a true story” (or “inspired by real events”) somehow validates a movie, makes it worth the increasingly expensive price of admission, and/or distinguishes it from mere “fiction” (even if the work in question is an openly imaginary take on actual events or personages). Maybe a sizable segment of our population trusts creative vision only when it serves pragmatic goals, preferring “just the facts” (however “facts” are defined) to anything that even suggests art, as if art were the same thing as artifice, or, God forbid, requires a little heavy lifting. Regardless, Never Look Away, the latest drama by German writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others), will be a challenge for viewers who prefer i’s dotted and t’s crossed, because it is, and yet isn’t, about one of the world’s foremost enigmatic living painters, Gerhard Richter.
Richter was born in 1932 in Dresden, survived World War II while other members of his family perished, and then spent his early years as a painter in the German Democratic Republic, defecting in 1961 with his wife to West Germany shortly before the Berlin Wall went up. In Never Look Away—its original German title, Werk Ohne Autor, translates as Work Without Author—Tom Schilling, who at certain camera angles resembles the youthful Richter, stars as fledgling postwar artist Kurt Barnert. As a quiet, observant six-year-old growing up near Dresden in 1937, he adores his aunt, Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl of Lore), a dazzling but mentally unstable pianist who teaches him that “everything true is beautiful.” When she is rounded up by the Nazis to be sterilized and euthanized under Hitler’s new eugenics laws, she urges Kurt to “never look away,” to face reality, an entreaty he only half follows, peering through his fingers to obscure the image of her disappearing into an ambulance. In the movie, Elisabeth is later gassed; in real life, Richter’s aunt Marianne starved to death in a psychiatric facility in 1945.
After the war ends, the 20-year-old Kurt returns to Dresden (as did Richter), then part of the GDR, to study art. On campus he meets and falls in love with Ellie (Paula Beer of Frantz); her father, Carl (Sebastian Koch, Black Book, Bridge of Spies), is a respected obstetrician and gynecologist who opposes their match. To earn a living Kurt paints propaganda murals as Richter did, conforming to the monotonous social realist style favored by the GDR and Carl, who pays Kurt to do his portrait.
It’s at this juncture that Never Look Away flirts with the lurid. Carl is living a lie, hiding his wartime role as the Nazi SS officer who sent hundreds of German women deemed unfit for reproduction to certain death, including Elisabeth. He disapproves of Kurt because he believes the artist’s DNA is contaminated by the same genetic factors as Elisabeth’s— although there are hints that Carl’s preoccupation with Ellie’s sex life goes deeper than his commitment to Aryan purity. In an article last month in the New Yorker, Richter, who made himself available while von Donnersmarck was conducting research, disavowed both the film and the director for the more sensationalist elements of the movie’s trailer. The artist has been very precise about documenting his legacy in his three-volume catalogue raisonne, beginning with works dating back to 1962, the year in which the film’s story line ends, so one can imagine why any plot development about Ellie that Richter’s first wife could perceive as spurious would be a sticking point.
If only von Donnersmarck had been more interested in depicting the growth of an artist as an intellectual. Richter, in Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting—Writings and Interviews, 1962-1993, is quoted thus:
“Strange though this may sound, not knowing where one is going—being lost, being a loser—reveals the greatest possible faith and optimism, as against collective security and collective significance. To believe, one must have lost God; to paint, one must have lost art.”
Understandably, there’s a commercial imperative behind concocting a triangle between Ellie, Kurt, and Carl: it’s so much easier to make a showdown with an evil father-in-law cinematic than it is to enliven a scene where a frustrated young painter stares at a blank canvas while he tries to figure out what his work should be. (Although filmmaker Corinna Belz made Richter’s creative process engrossing in her 2011 documentary Gerhard Richter Painting, even when he was stuck; of course, he was in his late 70s by then, globally acclaimed and a far cry from a struggling young artist, and well on his way to his current net worth, conservatively estimated at $40 million.)
Never Look Away becomes livelier after Kurt and Ellie escape to West Berlin and settle in culturally bustling Düsseldorf. Hoping to break his creative stagnation, Kurt enrolls in the city’s Kunstakademie, where he befriends other young artists searching for the next new thing. In sequences that have energy, economy, and wit, von Donnersmarck sketches the exhilarating ferment of the early 1960s, showing us bits of performance art and happenings, abstract expressionist forms like action painting (Kurt briefly tries to emulate Jackson Pollock) and kinetic nail sculptures, and alludes to the Fluxus movement by introducing a professor named van Verten (Oliver Masucci), dressed much like the seminal artist Joseph Beuys, who taught at the Düsseldorf academy at that time. Those touches, along with a considerable amount of nudity by Schilling, Beer, and Rosendahl, add to the movie’s eye candy—which is why it’s a letdown when the director uses Kurt’s breakthrough to photorealist painting as a means to indict Carl and tidy up a plot point. There just is so much else going on.
Like many a German film about Nazism, Stalinism, and the postwar “economic miracle” funded by the Marshall Plan, Never Look Away can be read as yet another step in contemporary Germans’ coming to terms with their nation’s role in the cataclysmic tragedies and events of the 20th century. Koch, whose career spiked when he appeared in the cold war thriller The Lives of Others, has stated that that film was embraced everywhere but Germany itself. This time around, von Donnersmarck is striving to deliver an epic that’s palatable to wider audiences. But in cosmeticizing the painter’s life, making this more of a love story crossed with wartime intrigue, he has overshot his target. With a little more truth, Never Look Away could have been really beautiful. v