Never Look Away

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The Lives of Others director atones for The Tourist with an era-straddling epic about about art and love

I was talking to a journalist friend of mine a couple of weeks ago, about Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s new film. He recalled interviewing the director around the time of his triumphant debut, The Lives of Others. Von Donnersmarck, he said, was almost hyperventilating with the excitement of having been approached to direct a Hollywood caper with big stars, budgets, etc.

That film turned out to be The Tourist, a vanity project for Angelina Jolie and (to a lesser extent) co-star Johnny Depp, written and re-written so many times (including by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes) that what started as a flyaway whimsical fancy ended up as a shocking piece of nonsense.

Cue Von Donnersmarck’s exit from Hollywood, to lick his wounds and wonder what the fuck just happened. But he’s bounced back with Never Look Away, a film which, like The Lives of Others, tells a political story from a personal angle and somehow doesn’t shortchange either.

The film touches down in three separate eras, making broadly the same point in each. We start in 1937, the Nazis ascendant, at the infamous Entartete Kunst show, where “degenerate” artwork – art not in the obvious service of society – by the likes of Kandinsky, Picasso and Klee was exhibited with the sole purpose of mocking it.

And there we meet the woman we assume is going to be the focus of the film, hot-on-art, cool-on-Hitler Elisabeth May (Saskia Rosendahl), so Aryan in looks that she’s chosen as the schoolgirl who will present the Führer with a posy of flowers when he visits Dresden, their local big city.

But this isn’t her story. It’s the story of her nephew, Kurt, a little boy who is infected by his aunt’s enthusiasm for life and art and is appalled when his joyous aunt is taken away by the Nazis for sterilisation after a nervous breakdown – she clearly has undesirable genes, which need removing from the Aryan pool.

The doctor supervising the process is Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a zealous true believer. It’s Kurt and the Prof who will wind through the rest of the story, which tracks through the war, which both survive, through the post-War reconstruction of the almost-obliterated Dresden, and into the 1960s.

The professor is a survivor, and in the same way that many Fassbinder films of the 1970s were concerned with the enduring and unhealthy influence of the Nazis – actually and ideologically – in post-War West Germany, Von Donnersmarck points out that the same happened on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain: the professor thrives, partly by luck, partly by instinct and partly thanks to the deference of people towards a “Herr Professor”.

The nephew (now played by Tom Schilling) becomes an art student and rises through the academy, where he sucks on the teat of socialist realism, which insists that art must have a political function, just as the Nazis had done.

And on the two go, dancing in separate circles which start to overlap when Kurt falls badly for a girl called Ellie (Paula Beer), unaware that she’s the daughter of the man who took his beloved aunt from him, though bristling whenever he’s in the professor’s company.

This dance takes both men to the West, the Professor having fled when details about his past threatened to destroy him, the politically disabused student and his inamorata having made the journey on the Berlin U-Bahn from East to West, a well worn route that was later to be sealed off with the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

Kurt and Ellie end up in Düsseldorf where Von Donnersmarck has a lot of fun with the latest dogma that Kurt encounters, this being pretty much the birthplace of conceptual art.

It’s a recent history of Germany, in other words, how it worked its way through the war and out of it, then shook itself down and started again, often carrying too much baggage from the past.

And though it looks like I’ve blabbed the plot of the film, in fact those details above are just the backdrop. Von Donnersmarck very cleverly, and in just the same way as he did with The Lives of Others, drapes over the top a personal narrative that is a touch Hollywood Excessive, as the lives of the Professor and Kurt, and to a lesser extent Ellie, are brought into knuckle-grazing proximity. And I’m saying nothing about any of that because gives the film its shocking tug.

Will Kurt continue to tussle with dogma? Will the Professor be nailed for his crimes? Will von Donnersmarck somehow find a way of making these two separate strands come joyously together?

Yes, yes and yes are the answers, but not quite in ways that you might imagine.

Unusually for a film about art, it is actually interested in the artistic process, which puts it up there as a portrait of the artistic temperament (genius, if you like) with John Maybury’s film about Francis Bacon, Love Is the Devil, and Ed Harris’s Pollock, his homage to “Jack the Dripper”. Perhaps that’s because it is closely based on the life of Gerhard Richter, who spent a considerable amount of time being interviewed by Von Donnersmarck only to eventually disown the film, whose plot (falls for the daughter of the man responsible for the death of a loved one) is Richter’s story.

Richter’s absence accounts, at least partly, for the film’s German title (Werk ohne Autor – Work without Author), since the artist has refused to sign off on the film, though Von Donnersmarck’s original title probably also has notions of “authority” and “authorised art” in its sights.

Maybe Richter took against the Hollywood turn of the plot towards the end, when Kurt finds his own voice in what seems suddenly like too much of a theatrical flourish.

This seems to have stuck in the craw of some. Personally, I don’t care too much how films end as long as I’ve had plenty to chew on en route. And I did here – the historical scene-setting in optimistic, Nazi-era Dresden, austere GDR and avant-garde Düsseldorf, plus all of the performances (particularly Koch, as the charismatic yet ice-cold Nazi prof). And there is something quite novel in a film about art which refuses to be an arthouse film.

Von Donnersmarck even manages a happy ending.

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

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