Never Look Away

Tom Schilling paints


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.


Buy Never Look Away on Amazon



© Steve Morrissey 2019



The Lives of Others

Ulrich Mühe


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



7 October



Foundation of the German Democratic Republic, 1949

On this day in 1949, the German Democratic Republic (DDR in German) formally came into being. After losing the war, Germany had first had its eastern border shifted considerably to the west, to the Oder-Neisse line (reducing its landmass by about 25%). Germany had then been divided up between the four “victorious” powers, USA, USSR, GB and France (on the winning side if not technically victorious), with the easternmost portion of what was left handed over to the USSR (former German territory further east became part of Poland).

Known sarcastically in the Federal Republic of Germany (aka West Germany) as “the so-called German, so-called Democratic, so-called Republic”, the DDR was a satellite state of the Soviet Union, a key member of the Eastern Bloc. Mimicking, though at a slower pace, the post-war economic miracle wrought by its Western neighbour, East Germany became the most prosperous state in the Soviet sphere, though it still bore many of the hallmarks of the command economy – supermarkets with empty shelves and queues in the street for whatever was available that week. Between 1949 and 1989 it suffered constant emigration to the west by the younger, better educated and more aspirational, resulting in a fall of population from 19 to 16 million. It was the East Germans who finally brought down curtain on the Soviet era, by taking down the Berlin wall, which had separated off the Soviet part of Berlin – the historic capital of Germany, though entirely surrounded by East Germany, had remained divided between the four victorious powers right to the end.



The Lives of Others (2006, dir: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)

The film that brought to an end a spate of “Ostalgia” movies, which look back with a certain degree of wistfulness on the Communist era (see Good Bye Lenin!), The Lives of Others takes a hard look at life in the most invigilated police state in the world, taking at its starting point the assignment handed to a Stasi spook (a sensationally good Ulrich Mühe in one of his last performances) to start eavesdropping on a playwright (Sebastian Koch) and his actress lover (Martina Gedeck).

What he finds is not what he expected – for sure the couple are intelligent, lead a cultured life and have a wide-ranging interest in the world, all of which makes them suspiciously au fait with what’s going on in the West. But they are also committed, sincere socialists. Compare this to the spook’s own life back in the grey building he operates from, where cynical jokes about party officials on the take and the deficiencies of the system are a fact of everyday life. And on top of that there’s the suspicion that as the earwig continues his surveillance operation he is beginning to envy the man his political certainty, or possibly he fancies the man’s woman.

Director Florian Von Donnersmarck’s command of his cast and his ability to conjure the look and mood of a system that no longer exists is astonishing. Doubly so when you consider that this is his feature debut. In another’s hands this could so easily have been a watchable but slabby political tract. But, using spy thrillers such as The Spy Who Came In from the Cold as an inspiration, Von Donnersmarck has created something grim with real bounce. Echoing this juxtaposition, look out for the deliberate grandstanding speeches straight out of the DDR book of socialist realist dramaturgy – a dry satirical joke which the film flips the other way for that deliberately too-convenient Hollywood ending.



Why Watch?


  • In real life Ulrich Mühe was kept under surveillance by the Stasi, and his wife was a Stasi informant
  • The film won the Oscar for best foreign language movie
  • A reminder of the days when surveillance and the curtailment of civil liberty was something the other side did
  • Catches the flavour of a country where 2% of the population were on the Stasi’s payroll


© Steve Morrissey 2013



The Lives of Others – at Amazon