A new norm was validated for German Cinema upon completion of the first decade of the new millennium, in 2010. An Oscar nomination at least, for foreign-language-film was to be expected on an annual basis, alongside multiple victories in international A-list film festivals, critical acclaim by media and potential analysis in prestigious academic journals. A stark contrast to the previous era of more esoteric films produced in the country, the works created between 2000-2010, didn’t just influence German film and culture but also informed artistic, multi-disciplinary and scholarly discourse, internationally.
The seminal film The Lives of Others (2006), the first feature film by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is a prime example of this epoch of re-invigorated contemporary cinema. The academy award winning director’s mastery in cinematic storytelling, the delivery of series of stunning mise-en-scène, has been commended upon. He was also the focus of academic and scholarly research for the depth in which he explores his subject and the broader socio-historical context, alongside the psychological journey of his characters. The accurate reconstruction of an entire era in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), ranging from the interiors and popular objects to the compelling representation of behaviours, attitudes and reactions delivered by an outstanding cast, comprise the authentic feel which elevates the film to its masterpiece status.
Drawing on the same principles of integrity and authenticity in representation of his artistic vision Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck returns 12 years after The Lives of Others with a poignant exploration of the personal journey of an artist trying to find his own voice, at the backdrop of the most critical socio-political transitions in the modern history of Germany. Never Look Away is a fictionalised homage to the life and work of the great artist Gerhard Richter, played by Tom Schilling, star of Oh Boy! (Jan Ole Gerster, 2012). The film, inspired by real events, is spanning three distinct periods in the artist's life and art: a) Childhood in Nazi Germany and early influences from the "Degenerate Art", b) Art School – Socialist Realism and life in the German Democratic Republic, c) Move to the West and influences from contemporary movements. Having conducted extensive research into the life and work of one of the highest selling contemporary artists, namely by spending extended periods of time speaking to Richter himself and exploring his entire oeuvre, the filmmaker succeeded in delving into the artist’s psyche and delivering a compelling portrait of Richter, whose style and work has been subject to various definitions expressed by different authority structures during different eras. Rather than a kaleidoscope of verbose definitions however the film, which was nominated for two Oscars in 2019, offers an honest, moving and deeply humanistic account of all the possible ways in which we can understand and experience art. In that sense, it is an important installment in the exploration of painting and contemporary art, through cinema.
Interestingly enough, Richter was reportedly discontent about the film and refused to watch it, despite having contributed significantly to the development stage. Adding to the elusive persona he has championed all these years, this particular stance of his makes the attempt to depict his life, art and style even more intriguing to watch.
Just before the film’s theatrical release in the UK, on Friday 5 July, we had a stimulating conversation with Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck about his personal connection to the work of Gerhard Richter which inspired his third feature film, creativity, art and the most authentic way to represent it on screen.
F!: You previously talked about the inspiration of the film having been the paintings of Gerhard Richter, the work itself. Is there a particular connection you felt to his work?
FHvD: I don’t know. Maybe he is one of the few people I can think of who is even more German than I am (laughs)! I encountered his work in important moments in my life. As a child I heard about the fact that he painted a painting of his mothers’ younger sister, his aunt, holding him as a little boy out of a photo he had found in a family album. His aunt was later killed by the Nazis. She was schizophrenic. That story was something that moved me as a child, as an adolescent. Then he dropped off my radar and later I encountered him again when I was trying to convince Ulrich Mühe, the lead actor of The Lives Of Others, who played the Stasi agent, to play the part. Above his sofa in his living room hung a print of a very famous painting by Gerhard Richter. I remember him being a little bit surprised and taken aback that I wouldn’t have been able to say who it was by, and I knew that this was a really important point of artistic orientation to him. Then, when I came to Los Angeles I remember that my agent had actually just bought a painting of Gerhard Richter’s, which was a double portrait of the English artists Gilbert and George. It was a very haunting portrait. I thought it was a very interesting thing of doing this overlay of paintings. So, he was in my mind again and again and I realised that people had a very special connection to his paintings. So, I’d say it was that plus the fact that through a journalist that I met I found out that there was more to this story than the painting of his aunt. Namely, that the woman that he married after the war was the daughter of a man who was a high ranking SS doctor and responsible for the death or the forced sterilisation of many women. And I thought that was interesting. These creepy pictures that keep coming up everywhere in my life that have such meaning to people and the fact that here I have the story of a perpetrator and a victim living under the same roof. That was what it inspired it.
F!: And how about the timing of the film? Was there a particular moment in which you thought that now is the right time for this story to be told and dedicate your third feature to this story?
FHvD: I found myself thinking about that story a lot. When you decide to embark on something it has to be a little bit like falling in love. When you fall asleep and you think about that story and then you wake up in the morning and you are still thinking about it, then you know it’s time to pursue it. I found that often, when I told my children about art history, that this is really interesting to me. The personal stories of these artists and how they use their traumatic experiences in life to create art. I realised it was inspiring to my children to hear that and I thought maybe it will also be inspiring to others if I put it on film.
F!: What is really impressing is the fact that the film features three distinct periods in German and European history which also reflect Kurt, the protagonist’s evolution as an artist. Interestingly though I felt that it was not the lead actor’s pathos driving the story, it was rather his life experiences manifested through his hands and fingers onto the canvas. Was this a conscious choice to remove the artist from the work in order to reflect the concept of “Work Without An Author”?
FHvD: This is a good observation. I think that the artist is not a creator, not a generator of something. The artist, when he or she does it right, I think is more of the midwife for something that I think nature or the universe, or whatever you want to call it, wants. More like someone who discovers something than someone who creates something. There is that old cliché anecdote about Michelangelo and a child who hears that he had sculpted David from a block of marble. And the child asks him “How did you know he was in there?”. It’s a little like that. I think when you are really submitting yourself to doing it right, and trusting your senses, there is not a million different ways you can do something. There is I think a right way.
F!: What was the process of directing Tom Schilling, the protagonist, in such a way?
FHvD: I think the mistake that is often made in films about art is that the creation of art is described as incredibly passionate. The passion happens sometime in the past. Art is almost sober of working through past experiences. It’s not cutting off your ear and painting with your blood. That is not really, at least from what I have observed from the artists that I admire, how it works. So I wanted this person to be like a medium, like an observer. Even when I was casting him I was really looking for an actor whom we’d like to watch watching other people. And I think Tom has that quality. You can see his thoughts a little bit. In that way I find him a little bit similar to someone like Ulrich Mühe, who also had that. It was interesting to watch him. He has very little dialogue in the film. Tom has very few lines. And yet I think that it is always interesting to watch him because we know there is something going on and in the end we see what it is. He is not a man of word. If you sat the character Kurt Barnert to take an intelligence test he probably wouldn’t get an incredibly high score. But he’s still the greatest genius, because he has other tools, other powers. He can transform what he’s observed into great art that speaks to us all.
F!: It seems that there are many parallels that one can draw between this film and The Lives of Others. Did you intend to have links between the two films?
FHvD: Certainly not intentionally. I am always interested in the triumph of the individual, in a way, rather than the collective. I am always interested in personal experience rather than ideology or group-think, or something like that. Overcoming the group and finding yourself, finding your own, finding your individuality. Those are probably themes. One of my producers actually said it pretty well when he said “While The Lives Of Others was about the effect of art on people’s lives, Never Look Away is about the effect of people’s lives on their art”. I thought that was quite clever. I suppose there are parallels just because they went through the filter of my interests.
F!: And I guess because we saw another dimension in German and European history post-WWII which is through the lens of the art again. Potentially through “culturecide” too, as in the physical destruction of the artifact, which we actually see in Never Look Away first with the “Degenerate Art” exhibition and later when Kurt’s fresco decorating the new History Museum in the GDR, is destroyed after he has defected to the West. So, is art a means to explore that individual journey you described just earlier?
FHvD: Yes, I think that in its ideal form it is something that perhaps enables the artist and hopefully the people who consume that artwork to overcome their own trauma and problems. Sometimes I wonder why we feel so empowered by a work of art. If you see a picture of Gerhard Richter for example making a beautiful painting of bomber planes all over his city of Dresden, then you know that somewhat the painting itself is proof that he has overcome this. He even once did a painting, which I think he destroyed afterwards but it is still in his catalogue raisonné, of Hitler. A really grotesque painting of Hitler. And I think it was an attempted triumph over Hitler, by painting him the way that he wants him to be and in all ridiculousness that he sees in him. I think that’s probably too big a task to chew off, but it’s a worthy attempt.
F!: So, do you think that Gerhard Richter is one of the greatest living artists today?
FHvD: I think he is one of the most interesting. I think he has led one of the most interesting lives and I think that he searches for truth in his art. He is very honest in his art. And I think what is also very interesting, and he has often said that himself, how he presents himself to the world; his really complex public relations. But what he shows in his art is completely true. And I thought that was an interesting dichotomy there. It was interesting that two souls can live in one man; and I found that fascinating. Some retro paintings I really like a lot. He did these beautiful seascapes. There were just fantastic. He would paint a calm see and a very turbulent sky, or the other way round. Or he’d do the sea and then he’d do another sea to the horizon as sky. Those are really fascinating paintings. And that was one of my favourites of his. I like the fact that his art is not polite. I like the fact that he will take pictures of people who killed themselves and paint them. I like the fact that he does a close up of Jacqueline Kennedy’s face crying at her husband’s funeral, because I think the politeness in art is the death of art. And that’s why I think that art and even the mildest sense of censorship cannot coexist because if you are preempting the censor you are being polite and that means there are certain expressions you won’t be able to make. And I think he is impressively impolite. Sometimes he goes very far. There is a series of his called “Tourist”, where you see a tourist being torn shreds by a lion. There are some photographs that he had found in some terrible magazine. That’s pretty dire but he felt like doing it, so he should. I bet that that’s upsetting to that tourist’s family, but he still did it. So I like his ruthlessness in that way in his art.
F!: Truth, truthfulness and truthiness or post-truth, as one might describe it today, and the distinction between these three concepts seems to be permeating all narrative levels of Never Look Away. Truth communicated through art, truthfulness in the intention of the artist to communicate with audiences and truthiness, or the various interpretations of art by socio-political structures, which appear true and aim to promote their agendas. How do you think this distinction resonates with today’s art-world and cinema?
FHvD: Art serves a different function to investigative sciences. The artist has to be governed by his intuition which is like his artistic conscience in establishing what is true and what isn’t. But he or she has to be very careful not to spoil that artistic conscience. That way is freer of having to analyse input the way that someone establishing it in a history book or an article is. If something feels completely right to an artist then that is what he or she has to do. But it’s tricky. Interestingly, with a lot of the great artists that I admire they’ve almost developed something like religious scruples, where it’s so important to be moral for the super-Christian person that they fear that everything they do could lead them to sin. That is how incredibly importantly these great artists take their work. Just like the saint in Christian morality has only conscience to go by, the artist has only the artistic feeling for what eventually will lead them to truth. That’s one thing that I really like about contemporary art. That you have nothing else to go by, except your intuition. You can’t say “Oh, this is really well-drawn technically, so this person is probably very serious about his art and the content also”. If you don’t even have that, you have no solace. You have to think “Is this animal fat in the corner of the room charlatanerie or is it real art?” That’s a very difficult question to resolve. You have to look deep inside yourself. And that’s an important factor. I have established for myself a definition of art, which is “A Work Of Art Is Something That Will Change The Way You Look At Things”. That’s it. I don’t think much more can be said about art in general and I don’t think much more can be asked of art, but it has to slightly change your perspective.