In 2007, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck was awarded the Foreign Language Academy Award for The Lives of Others, an excellent study of an East German secret agent who becomes absorbed in the lives of the playwright and the actress he is wiretapping. This earned von Donnersmarck the dubious opportunity to be hired to make a Hollywood film, The Tourist, starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. This one was not so excellent, to put it mildly. Twelve years after his initial success, von Donnersmarck has returned to his German roots with Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor), a sprawling three-hour fusion of art and politics inspired by the life of the German artist Gerhard Richter. The German title translates as Work without Author.
Some of the 2019 Best Picture nominees have sparked controversy because of their distortion of the real stories upon which they were based. The most extreme example is Bohemian Rhapsody for which the bulk of the second half of the film bears no resemblance whatsoever to the lives of Freddie Mercury and the other members of Queen. BlacKkKlansman makes major changes to the story of Ron Stallworth, who, however, seems pleased with the dramatic upgrades. The film that is closest to the situation with Never Look Away is that of Green Book, for which there are competing realities presented by the families of Tony Villalonga and Donald Shirley.
In the case of Never Look Away, the clash has been between director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and Gerhard Richter himself. The details are well-described by Dana Goodyear in her article in The New Yorker. Richter has said of von Donnersmarck, “He managed to abuse and grossly distort my biography.” Meanwhile, Von Donnersmarck has said that when he looked at Richter’s life story, “there wasn’t quite enough in the true story, so I basically built my fictional story on this true story, put into it everything that I feel about modern art and the history of Germany in the 20th century.” Not quite enough in the true story? As von Donnersmarck himself told Goodyear of Richter, “This man has lived through everything imaginable. He’s lived through his mother being raped by the Russians, his father committing suicide, his aunt being euthanized, both of his uncles being killed on the Eastern Front, his childhood classmates being killed in the bombing of Dresden, the experience of incredible impoverishment.” Von Donnersmarck claims that Richter approved the script, which Richter denies.
So, on to the plot. We first meet protagonist Kurt Barnett in 1937 when he is a child visiting an exhibit of art that the Nazi regime considers “degenerate” with his beautiful aunt, Elisabeth, who quietly praises the art to Kurt. Elisabeth is deemed schizophrenic and assigned to gynecologist Carl Seeband (Sebastien Koch, the playwright in The Lives of Others), who orders her to be sterilized and then executed.
Kurt (now played by Tom Shilling) grows up and becomes an art student. By now, the Nazis have been replaced by a communist regime, but the restrictions on what an artist can do are not much different. Kurt meets and marries fashion student Ellie (Paula Beer), who is Dr. Seeband’s daughter. However, Kurt and Ellie do not know the connection between Seeband and the murder of Kurt’s beloved aunt. In fact, Seeband doesn’t know of the connection either. The young couple defects to West Germany, which was not that difficult in the days before the building of the Berlin Wall. They settle in Düsseldorf, where Kurt is accepted into a progressive art academy. If you are a fan of films about artists finding their path, you’ll like the rest of Never Look Away.
No matter how often the film depicts real incidents in Gerhard Richter’s life, there is just too much going on for me, and I found Never Look Away more muddled than inspiring.
Never Look Away received two Oscar nominations for best Foreign Language film and for Best Achievement in Cinematography for Caleb Deschanel, his sixth such nomination, going back to The Right Stuff in 1984.