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



Black Book

Carice Van Houten in Black Book


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



23 May


Netherlands declares independence from Spain, 1568

On this day in 1568, the battle of Heligerlee was fought and won by the rebel army of William I of Orange, against the Duke of Alba, representative of the Hapsburg ruling dynasty. It marked the beginning of the 80 Years’ War for the independence of the Protestant Netherlands from Catholic Spanish rule. Though the rebels won the battle, they lost the campaign, due to lack of funds, and the rebellion sputtered out, only to flame up again in 1572. By 1581 the Netherlands were independent, though it took until 1648 for this to be recognised by Spain, who were at various times in the interim fighting a war against France, Turkey and England, all of whom wanted to prevent the Hapsburgs from becoming the dominant family in Europe. At a time when dynasties appeared to be the natural order in Europe, the Netherlands’ fight for independence marked a shift towards a different organising principle: the nation state.




Black Book (2006, dir: Paul Verhoeven)

Paul Verhoeven, born in the Netherlands in 1938, decamped to Hollywood in the 1980s, where he made a run of hugely successful hit movies. Some were powerfully imagined sci-fi numbers (Total Recall, RoboCop), others trashy teases (Showgirls, Basic Instinct), some a bit of both (Starship Troopers, Hollow Man). For his return to his native country he’s gone back to the territory explored in Soldier of Orange – the Second World War – and is using all the tricks he learnt marshalling some of Hollywood’s moodiest actors and biggest budgets to tell a widescreen story of a singer called Rachel who, after seeing her entire family killed and then, in death, turned over for their valuables, infiltrates the Gestapo to pass information back to the Netherlands Resistance. Rachel is a Jew, and the name is a giveaway, so along with dying her hair blonde, she takes a gentile name, Ellis, and dives in. This is a story of clear goodies and baddies. Well it would be if Verhoeven hadn’t made it. Rachel/Ellis is obviously on the side of the angels, but otherwise there are more shades of grey in Black Book (choice of title obviously ironic) than you get in the average war film made by someone who actually remembers the Nazis inhabiting his home country, as Verhoeven does. Disconcertingly, the baddies turn out to have redeeming features. In the case of one appallingly bestial Nazi, he has the most gorgeous singing voice. In the case of local Nazi boss Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), he’s a cultured man, a stamp collector, obeying orders with a great deal of reluctance. The goodies, too, aren’t that great, there being something very dubious going on in the higher echelons of the Dutch Resistance. At one point, in fact, Rachel/Ellis is caught between both parties, accused by each of being a spy. What is a girl to do? Verhoeven also addresses that old saw, of the Jews being in some sense responsible for their fate, in the figure of this brave woman putting her life on the line every day to try and defeat Hitler and his henchmen.
As well as being a cracking wartime thriller, Black Book is a Verhoeven film, so there’s got to be nudity, though watch how it is used. Rachel/Ellis dyes her pubic hair – careful girl – so collar and cuffs will pass even intimate tests. There are a number of scenes in which naked Gestapo men make sexual sport with local Dutch girls. The girls are naked because they are chattels; the men are naked as a sign of their power. Yet in the scenes where Rachel goes to bed with Müntze, intending to do him injury but in fact falling for him, nudity turns into something more familiar – a marker of genuine intimacy. This lack of fear in the face of the naked body has always marked Verhoeven out, and may explain why some of the reviews for this film were a bit lukewarm; payback from the puritans. Though the critical herd mentality could be at play too – Verhoeven just isn’t hot any more. And nor are war films. Black Book is not perfect, there is a terrible squeezing of too much material into too small a space once the war ends and Rachel heads off fairly unnecessarily to a kibbutz, but Carice Van Houten’s performance is nuanced and magnetic and star-making, and Koch is as great as he ever is (you might have seen him as the lead in The Lives of Others). This is a film that deserves to be seen.



Why Watch?


  • A great Verhoeven film
  • Carice Van Houten’s performance
  • Sebastian Koch’s performance
  • The Netherlands’ most expensive movie to date


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Black Book – at Amazon





Black Book

Sebastian Koch and Carice Van Houten in Black Book



In some quarters the director Paul Verhoeven is now eternally infamous for Sharon Stone’s is she/isn’t she leg-crossing moment in Basic Instinct. But he came to prominence with a Second World War movie, Soldier Of Orange, in 1977. Black Book sees Verhoeven return to his native land, his native Dutch tongue and the 1939-45 war in an engrossing drama focusing on one young Jewish woman (played by the remarkable Carice van Houten), a member of the Dutch resistance who finds herself right at the heart of the Nazi war machine. It is a familiar genre but Verhoeven injects fresh elements into it – notably dark humour, lashings of nudity and a fuzzy delineation between goodies and baddies. So he’s not that far off the territory he explored in Basic Instinct. Where Verhoeven does strike out is in his examination of a claim that occasionally rears its head – that the Jews made mass extermination easy by being too passive. Verhoeven gives the lie to that suggestion simply and emphatically – in the shape of Van Houten’s redoubtable Jewish heroine. Black Book is a bold idiosyncratic film and a big return to form by the director. If there’s a quibble, it’s that towards the end the hitherto beautiful pacing is dropped in favour of a gabbled dash for the finish line. For a Dutch film the budget was huge (€16 million) but it looks to me like the money ran out, making this that rarity among films – a long film that really should be even longer.

© Steve Morrissey 2007




Black Book – at