Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor in the original, “work without an author”) is the third film by the German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, following the much-admired Stasi drama The Lives of Others (which won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film) and the much-reviled The Tourist of 2010, with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. It is at one and the same time a history film covering 1937 to 1968 in East and West Germany, a romance, and an artist film. Its subject is the self-finding or the development of the fictitious German painter Kurt Barnert, which, to those who know or care, matches at very many points the self-finding and development of the best-known German painter and top-selling living artist worldwide, Gerhard Richter.
As the film begins, the six-year-old Barnert (the adorable Cai Cohrs) is being taken around an exhibition of “Degenerate Art” (Expressionists, Surrealists, Abstracts, and Neue Sachlichkeit) in Dresden by his voluptuous young aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl). A Nazi curator pontificates on the evils of this modern art. They are the first words of the film: “Moderne Kunst,” with a big rasping roll on the “r.” The aunt—who both feels and feeds an erotic attraction in her nephew (he precociously draws her nude), and in denunciatory times is strangely indiscreet in her speech (in the museum, on the bus home, on the street)—suffers a mental breakdown, and quite soon is referred to a clinic run by the gynecologist and eugenicist Professor Seeband (the saturnine Sebastian Koch) to be institutionalized and sterilized and ultimately murdered. “Never look away,” she whispers to him as she is bundled into a van and driven off; it is unclear whether or not he can hear her or read her lips.
A quick self-contained sequence to music—three minutes, almost like a pop video—follows, illustrating some of the disasters of war in February 1945: Dresden is firebombed; Elisabeth is gassed along with her cohort of sterilized women; Kurt’s uncles, both in the Wehrmacht, are shot in the course of some vague action on the Eastern Front; a blameless bus driver is squashed flat by collapsing masonry. It’s not clear whether—as with Elisabeth’s whispered injunction—Kurt perceives or even learns of any of this, but the film propounds a sort of osmosis cum mysticism; its parcels always reach their intended recipient. It is later what he will paint out of, though the relation between loss and creation is not examined or in the least persuasive.
We next see Kurt, by now in his third attractive incarnation (this one is the bland Tom Schilling, a chunky sort of hunk), in 1948, sitting high up in a tree overlooking the kempt countryside. As with many things in the film, it is the type of scene we have seen before, and to better effect (in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, for instance). Kurt experiences some sort of illumination and comes running full tilt across some tousling cornfields to tell his parents about it. The mad enthusiasm of his aunt seems to have struck the family again, but no, we are told, his is a more solid nature. (The artist is mad, but it all goes into his art. Divine furor rules.)
Kurt enrolls in sign-painting school and is put to work drawing Communist banner slogans; he attracts attention because he forms the letters freehand. “Why do you do it?” “Because I can,” he replies, echoing the answer of the pianist Vladimir Horovitz when asked why he played a certain sonata so fast—the answer of genius everywhere. He transfers to art school and is set to painting heroic figures of the proletariat. While there, he meets another Elisabeth. Professor Seeband, the murderer, effectively, of Kurt’s aunt, has slipped through the loosely woven antifascist net, and this is his daughter, Ellie (Paula Beer), a student of fashion, who promptly falls in love with our aspiring painter.
In one of the film’s more bungled scenes, he leaps naked into a tree outside her second-story window to escape detection when her parents unexpectedly return home. It seems odd that he goes to that trouble only to come crawling out some minutes later, still picturesquely naked, at the feet of Ellie’s mother. Also improbably, he is accepted as a lodger at the Seebands’ and is gradually, against the father’s protests—the mother seems to have liked what she saw—incorporated into the family. Nevertheless, when Ellie becomes pregnant, her father, still with his beady eye on the gene pool, performs the abortion himself, in the family home, in the hope that it will destroy her relationship with Kurt. This is one of those irrational films that intermittently trail thick clouds of motivation.
Seeband is promoted, and Kurt paints his official portrait. Then abruptly the older Seebands quit East Germany for the West. Strangely, Kurt and Ellie, now married, seem to suffer no consequences for this. Things with Ellie are going swimmingly, with lots of roly-poly blue-lit sex scenes (what A.O. Scott in The New York Times sweetly and accurately called “movie sex”) speaking for their intimacy; they must have the parents’ Biedermeier villa practically to themselves; he is popular with his fellows, knows how to talk to the party officials who determine everything; his career is beginning to advance (wall paintings of Workers’ Solidarity). Nevertheless, he and Ellie decide to go west also.
Disregarding advice, he makes for Düsseldorf, citadel of conceptual art, where, as he had been warned, no one paints anymore. The vibe in the art school could be out of Fame—all the students are decidedly groovy. But Barnert is accepted by Antonius van Verten, who is Gerhard Richter’s teacher, Joseph Beuys, in everything but name—the rounded hat kept on all the time, the waistcoat with the many pockets that look as though they’re all full of fishhooks, the story of the downed plane, the terrible injuries, the rescue, the work with the sacred materials, felt and fat. This is the man who now looks deep into Kurt’s piercing, if inexpressive, blue eyes and tells him untruthfully: “Your eyes tell me that you’ve seen more than any of us.”
And so Kurt starts trying to make it in the West, imitating all the dated tricks available to a recently arrived Ossi: Pollock spatter-paintings, footprints trailed across lengths of paper, life-size papier-mâché dolls, antlers dunked in white paint, freehand circles, slashed canvases. “You learn fast,” says a friend of Kurt’s: I have no idea if that’s meant to be true or not. Against his usual principle, van Verten visits him in his studio, looks around with his sad, swimmy eyes, and asks him, “But who are you? What are you? This is not you.” When he theatrically doffs his hat to him as he leaves, we see the scabbed burns on his scalp. Oliver Masucci, playing van Verten, playing Beuys, has a more charismatic presence than all the others put together. Which is probably as it should be. Though it still unbalances the film.
By now, Ellie has suffered a miscarriage and believes she won’t be able to have children. “Your pictures have to be our children,” she wails. He, as often, says nothing, shows nothing, looks solemn. At this stage, he doesn’t even have any pictures for her to mother. He goes to the studio with his briefcase and spends many days not raising a paintbrush. There they are, in the highly competitive, gimmicky West, with nothing to show for themselves. It’s all no good. “Painting is dead,” proclaims Kurt’s studio neighbor, Harry Preusser, who makes things with nails, “just like folk dancing and lace-making and silent movies.” Kurt in Düsseldorf is like a cow in a zoo.
Then, quite suddenly, and by blind good fortune—or Destiny—things start to happen. In all innocence—he has never met the man, or heard of him, associates nothing with him—he sees a tabloid with the mugshot of his father-in-law’s Nazi euthanizer boss, Dr. Kroll, who has just been arrested. He makes a painting of the photo, marks it up in a small grid; and paints it in all grays. Then blurs it, in the characteristic Richter way. It looks suddenly hunted, historic. Kurt had suffered for a long time from the perceived superior reality of photography—well, now he has stolen its clothes.
He picks up other snaps of his wife’s and his own, projects them onto a canvas, and overpaints them in the dark. He projects a page of passport photographs of Seeband. Outside a wind gets up—or genius—and the shutters bang in the vast vertical space of his studio, causing the reflection of the Seeland portrait to appear over another photo-canvas now on his easel. Idea taken. Soon the faces of Seeland and Kroll appear in a composite with those of Kurt and his aunt (he doesn’t yet know their connection). He doesn’t know it, but it is his own story, and German history. He paints the chance composition that results. Paints it, and blears it with varnish, all in black and white. His father-in-law, seeing the work on a passing visit, concludes he has been rumbled and (“I have to go. Thanks. Excuse me”) flees in panic.
At long last, Kurt’s career starts to move. Ellie becomes pregnant after all, and he paints her as Nude Descending a Staircase, with the addition of a little peachy color, and the unusual addition of the month as well as the year in the title of the work. May. Someone notices a resemblance to Marilyn Monroe; someone else picks up on the nod to Marcel Duchamp’s title. There’s a turn-up or an upturn, pictures and pregnant. Van Verten, the Beuys figure, silently approves this new work and invisibly pulls a few strings. An art-school pal, formerly a competitor but with the requisite business background, now offers to represent Kurt.
His first show happens, it is 1966, the newspapers and television are present. A wacky press conference in a curious place called Wuppertal. Some chap in a beanie presides. The art journos are happy to talk him up. Dimly, they have some appreciation of what is before them. The artist comes across as a shy hippie. He gives sheepish, evasive, highly satisfactory answers. “It doesn’t really matter to me who I paint,” he says, talking away the biographical connections; “better if I don’t know them.” As a result, his pictures are taken to be random, anonymous, dubbed “work without an author,” when really what they are is “works without a truly declared subject.” Suddenly Barnert is hailed as the leading artist of his generation, a generation with nothing to say. “I don’t make statements,” he says, “I make pictures.” Ellie is there, with beehive and baby. Next, he has it in mind to paint (as the protean Richter in fact did) color charts. “Only reality is consistent…. Everything that’s true is beautiful.” Fade to black.
At over three hours, the film is long (I seem to remember The Lives of Others dragging a little at the finish) and is irreproachably, almost tiresomely handsome to look at. Blue, blue-gray, off-white, and tan dominate, with occasional little accents like single red carnations on white tablecloths in a hall, a pink mohair sweater, yellow rubber gloves hanging over a studio sink. The cast are all pleasant-looking, and everyone except Sebastian Koch seems to have blue eyes. Blue filters are used to cool some of the exteriors and interiors. Dusk at the bus depot. In bed with Kurt and Ellie.
The settings and locations are picturesque: a village house, remote, palatial clinics, and the Seebands’ rambling villa back East; the Düsseldorf art school with its fantastically high vertical space and the Barnerts’ garret in the West. Old buses and cars put on a good show, crossing a bridge over the Elbe. The girls get to wear floaty floral summer frocks (especially Elisabeth in the beginning), and the men show off double-breasted suits and work wear of various kinds: the painters in overalls, the medics and orderlies in white coats, and then the inevitable Nazi chic in brown and black and gray (poor Sebastian Koch plays so many such roles that I imagine he must sleep in swastika-patterned pajamas). It is a lush costume drama and has more in common with Gone with the Wind than not.
For such a good-looking film, it is the cameraman Caleb Deschanel who probably deserves an Oscar (it’s up for one more). The angles poke up and down, the lens runs out rapturously to meet the action, hangs lustfully over the bodies (“tits without women,” said one plaintive German review, parodying the original title), runs up the outside of the art school building to find Kurt’s newest work through the open window. The “painting” that Kurt does is far and away the most persuasive and articulate I have seen performed on film; it is done by a former assistant of Richter’s.
The script by Donnersmarck, though, is frontal, unsubtle, and bluff. It is a pity that to make the Big German Film, the Big German Director (he is reportedly six foot nine, wringing wet, because he also has Big Hair) has made free with the story—the closely guarded story, the one only he has—of the Great Living German Painter, Gerhard Richter, who is reported to have regretted his involvement with the project, and with Donnersmarck, who is evidently (see Dana Goodyear’s on-the-fence profile in The New Yorker*) a hard man to turn down. Reading Richter’s plea to Donnersmarck to maybe make the character “another profession, like a writer or a musician for example” is to feel deeply sorry for a man who at the end of his life has unintentionally exposed himself to the greedy practitioner of a different art. Reisserisch was Richter’s verdict on the trailer, which is all he cared to see of the thing: pop, ingratiating, vulgar—and so it is.
One appreciates that the existence of painting is a sort of unendurable provocation—sometimes literally, a red rag—to the cinema, but I don’t know that any great films have been made about painters. When watchable ones result, it is because the painters come with some scale or eccentricity—as with Timothy Spall playing Turner not long ago. Tom Schilling doesn’t have the magnetism to carry a film—and quite possibly Richter wouldn’t either. (Nor should he have to; he’s a painter.) Just because someone works in what you might call the visual or visible industry and makes marks on paper or cloth (without being inscrutable, small-scale, and delayed, like a writer) doesn’t fit him for an action hero, or the one-man Redemptor-cum–Wirtschaftswunder we see here.
Donnersmarck’s film seems to propose all sorts of equivalences: art and success, sex and art, trauma and success, art and trauma. A painter is an erotomane is a victim is a persistent fellow. Good things come to him who waits. The statements about art—the title (in both languages), some of the others quoted already—are an embarrassment, the view of success at once crass and mystical (the wind in the trees). The first time I saw it, I muttered to myself, “Oberkitsch.” It is nowhere an inward film, nowhere a magical film, only briefly and momentarily a charming film (at the beginning with the aunt; Barnert horsing around with some of his painter friends). In order to give it some semblance of substance, Donnersmarck has helped himself shamelessly to the life and work of Richter, whose anguish one can all too readily imagine.