"Review of Florian von Donnersmarck's "Never Look Away," a pseudo-biopic of Gerhard Richter (originally published inVisualArtSource.com)


Never Look Away (Work without Author)

A month ago, I listed a number of films about art and artists that I thought worthwhile. Naturally, I forgot or missed some. Recently I watched Maurice Pialat’s 1991 film, ”Van Gogh,” with Jacques Dutronc  in a mesmerizing performance as the artist: quiet and observant—internalized—and very different from Kirk Douglas’s energetic interpretation in Lust for Life (which Dutronc said in an later interview that he liked, as I do). It’s a naturalistic film, verging on cinema verité, unbound by Hollywood script mechanics, and a wonderful recreation of 1880s rural France that might almost have sprung from a Renoir or Lautrec painting. It even refuses to hit the usual hagiographic high notes of Vincent’s wounding or death, which take place offscreen, but is no less affecting for that reticence.

A few days ago, I finally saw Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s new film (only his third), Never Look Away, loosely based on the life of the painter Gerhard Richter, who has intriguingly disavowed the film, as was recounted in a New Yorker profile a few months ago. The story of a young artist’s development in Nazi Germany in the1940s, in Communist East Germany in the 1950s and then in free West Germany in the 1960s sounded, with its interweaving of biography, history and politics, almost too good to be true. It was, slightly, but I still recommend it. The three-hour-long film’s recreation of the past is faultless, and Caleb Deschanel’s photography is gorgeous; in those respects NLA is similar to Mike Leigh’s 2014 Mr. Turner, another mixed success for me, sumptuous, but suffering from a flawed script.

Von Donnersmarck’s first film, The Lives of Others, from 2007, was an astonishing début, comparable to Orson Welles’ 1941 Citizen Kane, and one of the best movies I have ever seen in its integration of art and politics. In it, a leftist playwright, played by Sebastian Koch, in Communist East Germany, is suspected of subversion by a dedicated Stasi agent, played by the late Ulrich Mühe, who spies upon him—and is gradually converted from rigid conformity to a humanist appreciation for beauty and ambiguity; sitting hour after hour, listening through headphones, he’s humanized. We almost feel humanized, watching him. When he helps save the playwright fro prison, he is discovered, and demoted. Ten years later, the playwright, having discovered the facts, dedicates a memoir to his benefactor, who is now sweeping streets; he sees it in a bookstore window. Fade out. That’s an ending worthy of the best Charles Chaplin: sentimental, moving, and profoundly human.

Unfortunately, Never Look Away, for all its plot contrivances (which I won’t spoil for you), and political melodrama and comedy, does not soar into filmic immortality in the same way. Kurt, the young protagonist is a born observer, but powerless and seemingly unaffected when his young ‘artistic’ aunt, given to spells of madness, is seized by the Nazis for sterilization and exterminaton. Members of his family die in the war, and after the war Kurt tells his father, a former teacher reduced after denazification to scrubbing floors, that everything is connected (echoing his aunt’s delusion) and that he need never worry; later, Kurt discovers that his father has hanged himself, a bit stolen from Philip Guston’s life, but not, to my knowledge, Richter’s. Kurt enters art school in East Berlin and soon becomes a star pupil, charged with an important Socialist Realist mural due to his professor’s efforts. Kurt betrays him when he flees to West Berlin shortly before the wall is completed, with his young wife, who has, shall we say, some issues with her gynecologist father (Sebastian Koch again), a former Nazi who has managed to stay undiscovered. We see the mural—and it’s not that great, for Socialist Realism: a bit too lumpish for officialdom, frankly—being whitewashed after the defection, and we’re supposed to feel—what? Genius is too good for this wicked world?

Given this richly tragic story, we might expect a fittingly triumphant ending, but alas, no. Kurt, faced by the artistic liberties of the west, embodied in the Joseph Beuys figure at Dusseldorf Academy, is reduced to creative paralysis, experimenting with meaningless avant-garde trickery (walking on and slashing canvases, which, according to his teacher, are “not you”) before finally sitting immobile at his easel for entire days. Salvation comes when he seizes upon old photos of himself with his doomed aunt in happier times and of his odious Aryan father-in-law (who might be reasonably expected to approve of Kurt’s blond Siegfried poster-boy looks); he grids the photographs and paints them in grisaille, then takes a dry flat brush and smears horizontal streaks across them, simulating the depredations of time and history. When a rich classmate exhibits the work, they are a sensation, and at the end, at the Wuppertal Kunsthalle, Kurt answers questions from the arty audience about his imagery—and lies: they’re nobody in particular, he says; it’s easier when I don’t know the people. As for doing more gray snapshots, no: I am interested in color charts now. It’s an oddly antiheroic, banal conclusion—no matter that it follows Richter’s career, but trivializes it— to what we might have expected; it’s as if there had been no discovery of Rosebud’s identity at the end of Citizen Kane. (There are, however, metaphoric choruses of bus horns, resoundingly linking the 1940s and the 1960s.)

Mine is a minority opinion, so see it for yourself. A lot of it is memorable, even astounding—particularly the recreation of the 1937 Degenerate Art show in Berlin, for which duplicates of lost paintings were made—and I look forward to the director’s next effort, even if, like Welles, or Shyamalan, he should turn out to be a one-hit wonder, which is not such a bad thing, in the big picture. As for including a Monkees-style montage of art-student hijinks, set to Francoise Hardy’s “Le Temps de L’Amour” (I had the album during my francophile phase), well, it was the Sixties, everywhere, and everything is connected.Never Look Away (Work without Author)

A month ago, I listed a number of films about art and artists that I thought worthwhile. Naturally, I forgot or missed some. Recently I watched Maurice Pialat’s 1991 film, ”Van Gogh,” with Jacques Dutronc  in a mesmerizing performance as the artist: quiet and observant—internalized—and very different from Kirk Douglas’s energetic interpretation in Lust for Life (which Dutronc said in an later interview that he liked, as I do). It’s a naturalistic film, verging on cinema verité, unbound by Hollywood script mechanics, and a wonderful recreation of 1880s rural France that might almost have sprung from a Renoir or Lautrec painting. It even refuses to hit the usual hagiographic high notes of Vincent’s wounding or death, which take place offscreen, but is no less affecting for that reticence.

A few days ago, I finally saw Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s new film (only his third), Never Look Away, loosely based on the life of the painter Gerhard Richter, who has intriguingly disavowed the film, as was recounted in a New Yorker profile a few months ago. The story of a young artist’s development in Nazi Germany in the1940s, in Communist East Germany in the 1950s and then in free West Germany in the 1960s sounded, with its interweaving of biography, history and politics, almost too good to be true. It was, slightly, but I still recommend it. The three-hour-long film’s recreation of the past is faultless, and Caleb Deschanel’s photography is gorgeous; in those respects NLA is similar to Mike Leigh’s 2014 Mr. Turner, another mixed success for me, sumptuous, but suffering from a flawed script.

Von Donnersmarck’s first film, The Lives of Others, from 2007, was an astonishing début, comparable to Orson Welles’ 1941 Citizen Kane, and one of the best movies I have ever seen in its integration of art and politics. In it, a leftist playwright, played by Sebastian Koch, in Communist East Germany, is suspected of subversion by a dedicated Stasi agent, played by the late Ulrich Mühe, who spies upon him—and is gradually converted from rigid conformity to a humanist appreciation for beauty and ambiguity; sitting hour after hour, listening through headphones, he’s humanized. We almost feel humanized, watching him. When he helps save the playwright fro prison, he is discovered, and demoted. Ten years later, the playwright, having discovered the facts, dedicates a memoir to his benefactor, who is now sweeping streets; he sees it in a bookstore window. Fade out. That’s an ending worthy of the best Charles Chaplin: sentimental, moving, and profoundly human.

Unfortunately, Never Look Away, for all its plot contrivances (which I won’t spoil for you), and political melodrama and comedy, does not soar into filmic immortality in the same way. Kurt, the young protagonist is a born observer, but powerless and seemingly unaffected when his young ‘artistic’ aunt, given to spells of madness, is seized by the Nazis for sterilization and exterminaton. Members of his family die in the war, and after the war Kurt tells his father, a former teacher reduced after denazification to scrubbing floors, that everything is connected (echoing his aunt’s delusion) and that he need never worry; later, Kurt discovers that his father has hanged himself, a bit stolen from Philip Guston’s life, but not, to my knowledge, Richter’s. Kurt enters art school in East Berlin and soon becomes a star pupil, charged with an important Socialist Realist mural due to his professor’s efforts. Kurt betrays him when he flees to West Berlin shortly before the wall is completed, with his young wife, who has, shall we say, some issues with her gynecologist father (Sebastian Koch again), a former Nazi who has managed to stay undiscovered. We see the mural—and it’s not that great, for Socialist Realism: a bit too lumpish for officialdom, frankly—being whitewashed after the defection, and we’re supposed to feel—what? Genius is too good for this wicked world?

Given this richly tragic story, we might expect a fittingly triumphant ending, but alas, no. Kurt, faced by the artistic liberties of the west, embodied in the Joseph Beuys figure at Dusseldorf Academy, is reduced to creative paralysis, experimenting with meaningless avant-garde trickery (walking on and slashing canvases, which, according to his teacher, are “not you”) before finally sitting immobile at his easel for entire days. Salvation comes when he seizes upon old photos of himself with his doomed aunt in happier times and of his odious Aryan father-in-law (who might be reasonably expected to approve of Kurt’s blond Siegfried poster-boy looks); he grids the photographs and paints them in grisaille, then takes a dry flat brush and smears horizontal streaks across them, simulating the depredations of time and history. When a rich classmate exhibits the work, they are a sensation, and at the end, at the Wuppertal Kunsthalle, Kurt answers questions from the arty audience about his imagery—and lies: they’re nobody in particular, he says; it’s easier when I don’t know the people. As for doing more gray snapshots, no: I am interested in color charts now. It’s an oddly antiheroic, banal conclusion—no matter that it follows Richter’s career, but trivializes it— to what we might have expected; it’s as if there had been no discovery of Rosebud’s identity at the end of Citizen Kane. (There are, however, metaphoric choruses of bus horns, resoundingly linking the 1940s and the 1960s.)

Mine is a minority opinion, so see it for yourself. A lot of it is memorable, even astounding—particularly the recreation of the 1937 Degenerate Art show in Berlin, for which duplicates of lost paintings were made—and I look forward to the director’s next effort, even if, like Welles, or Shyamalan, he should turn out to be a one-hit wonder, which is not such a bad thing, in the big picture. As for including a Monkees-style montage of art-student hijinks, set to Francoise Hardy’s “Le Temps de L’Amour” (I had the album during my francophile phase), well, it was the Sixties, everywhere, and everything is connected.


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