Misery Manifested Into Art
Review by Ken Burke
Never Look Away (Florian Henckel
von Donnersmarck, 2018) rated R
von Donnersmarck, 2018) rated R
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): If you've noticed this film as a contender for Oscar’s Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography but had no idea what it was, don’t feel alone because it’s played in very few theaters in North America, not gotten the kind of critical praise I unabashedly believe it deserves, with no opportunity for me to see it until just before the awards were handed out (no, it didn’t get any). In the press notes, the director says the young-artist-protagonist’s “life makes it clear that we as humans have an almost alchemistic ability to make something good out of the difficult things in life that happen to us all […] Gerhard Richter [the inspiration for this story] was asked about the power of art. The gist of what he said was that he believed this was the wrong word. For him art didn’t have any power; rather, it exists to give consolation. I reflected for a long time about what he meant. I believe it means that every great work of art is concrete evidence that trauma can be transformed into something positive.” In this case, the trauma begins in 1937 Germany as a young boy sees firsthand the horrors the Nazi regime imposed upon his family, then as he grows into a young man after the war he’s under Soviet domination where his artistic talent as a painter’s forced to serve Socialist Realism to honor the workers of the state rather than any sense of personal expression, even as he yearns for such with a lover he meets in art school, never knowing a horrid secret about her heritage that would jeopardize their relationship if it ever became clear to him. Beyond that, you’ll either have to find this fine film in any way you can or just plunge into my spoiler-filled-summary right below. However you might access this contemporary near-masterpiece (as long as you can deal with those subtitles during the long-but-engaging-hours of your viewing), I encourage you to find it, see it, to witness how the Oscar voters let yet another deserving nominee escape the room without a merited reward.
Here’s the trailer: (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)
If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who’d like to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify such give-away sentences/sentence-clusters thusly:
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
What Happens: Dresden, Germany, 1937: 6-year-old Kurt Barnert (Cai Cohrs) lives with his aunt and grandmother because his parents have relocated to a somewhat-nearby-rural-town due to his schoolteacher-father refusing to join the National Socialist Party. His 23-year-old Aunt Elisabeth May (Saskia Rosendahl) takes him to see the “Degenerate Art” exhibition of works rejected by the Nazis as not representing the finer aspirations of European culture (the show consists of not only German Expressionism from the WW I/postwar-era which is intentionally troubling in content and style as a statement against the viciousness of that time but also pure abstractions by Mondrian, Kandinsky, etc. whose works were likewise seen as indicative of “madness”). While Kurt is intimidated by the uniformed museum guide denouncing all of these paintings and sculptures, reconsidering his young intentions of becoming an artist (I had similar interests as a child because of a natural drawing ability, largely influenced by comic strips and cartoons; fortunately, I was encouraged by my parents in this, ultimately leading to my BFA in Art Education including a lot of studio work), Elisabeth quietly admits to him she’s fascinated by these so-called “atrocities,” but she’s a free spirit in these repressive times as we see when they return home, exiting their bus where she asks the drivers of 5 parked buses to simultaneously honk their horns which sends her into a state of reverie. Despite her public acceptance as an admirable member of a local Hitler youth group, when at home her verboten private life continues when she plays piano in the nude, dumbfounding her nephew, telling him the note A over middle C is the answer tying the universe together, hoping to instill in him this profound—if highly personal—sense of the joy of life*; as her mother and another older female relative return to find her in this state she furthers her conviction of this transcendental discovery with slamming a glass ashtray onto her forehead until she's bleeding.
*While we’re now a long way from my usual concluding Musical Metaphor, when I saw this scene in the film I couldn’t help but think of the Moody Blues’ pairing of "The Word/OM" (from their 1968 album In Search of the Lost Chord; this video uses the song visualized with meditative images along with the lyrics just below the YouTube screen [if you click SHOW MORE]), a similar-although-a-bit-less-exuberant-than-Elisabeth’s-celebration of “The sounds of color and the light of a sigh […] But it’s all around if we could but perceive […] I know why the skies all cry OM, OM, Heaven, OM.”
Unbeknownst to Elisabeth’s family when they seek medical help for her (yet they should assume something’s not right when she’s forcefully taken away, telling Kurt as she leaves to “Never look away” [from life, because to see clearly what’s there is to know truth, equivalent to beauty]), there’s been a decision from the Nazi high command to sterilize, if not euthanize, Germans whose physical and/or mental conditions deem them as failed members of the so-called “master race,” allowing regional medical directors to insure these “unworthy” citizens won’t perpetuate their flawed genes within the Third Reich populace, so local doctor (who insists on being called “Herr Professor”) Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch) judges her as schizophrenic, sends her away (despite her desperate begging for release) to be sterilized, later gassed in 1945 along with a roomful of others likewise condemned, without the family knowing anything further about her fate nor Seeband’s involvement (a brief scene notes that by 1940 at least 400,000 “weak” Germans had been removed in this manner). Intercut with Elisabeth’s horrific death is the Allied bombing of Dresden, leaving much of the city in rubble, soon followed by the Soviet invasion, with the jailing of any known upper-level-Nazis including Seeband. By 1948 with East Germany under Soviet control teenage Kurt’s (Tom Schilling) in a commercial art school where his father, Johann (Jörg Schüttauf), is a janitor, given only menial duties even though he was forced to join the National Socialist Party to survive during the war. Prof. Seeband’s back in a position of medical authority because he helped the wife of the local Russian commander, Major Murawjow (Evgeniy Sidikhin), successfully deliver her baby—saving the lives of both mother and child—so he’s under the Major’s protection, his willing leadership in the Nazi eugenics program kept secret. Kurt’s sent by his supervisor to the Dresden art academy where his skill at dictated Socialist Realism is praised (although he privately draws more Expressionist works) in a culture also denigrating what was rejected by the Nazis, with Picasso as an example of an artist whose early, more-realistic studies of the poor are praiseworthy before he wandered into the unacceptable realm of abstraction. While attending his classes Kurt meets, quickly falls in love with fashion-design-student Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer)—actually named Elisabeth, but Kurt won’t call her that in memory of his lost aunt—with no knowledge of who Ellie's father is, given Carl’s "renunciation" of his Nazi past in favor of his now-protective-Soviet-ideology.
Kurt and Ellie’s romance soon turns sexual in her elaborate home when her parents are away but their early arrival leads to naked Kurt jumping out the bedroom window, working his way down a huge tree, only to come face-to-face with Mom Martha Seeband (Ina Weisse) before he runs away. The lovebirds then concoct a story allowing Kurt to become a roomer with the Seebands (giving him easy access to Ellie), even though Dad doesn’t want his daughter involved with this “lesser” German (he knows Kurt’s father was a janitor who in despair of his wretched life committed suicide, although he doesn’t initially realize the connection to Elisabeth; Kurt, however, comes upon Dr. Dad one night having sex with the family’s business assistant but has to keep quiet about it). Soon, however, Ellie’s pregnant so the truth of the lovers comes out, with Dr. Seeband seeming to accept his daughter’s now-fiancée, although he lies to Kurt about Ellie having a medical condition that will kill her if she bears a child so he insists on an abortion (really to prevent the birth of this “inferior” baby), which he enhances to prevent future pregnancies. All of them end up fleeing into West Germany by 1961 as Dr. Seeband’s protector is transferred back to Moscow in 1957 leaving the former-Nazi in potential danger, then the young couple makes a quick escape in Berlin, crossing out of the Russian zone with no problem prior to The Wall being built. Kurt and Ellie move to Düsseldorf where he enrolls in another art academy, run by Prof. Antonius van Verten (Oliver Masucci), an eccentric who works only with felt and animal fat, requires all students to attend his lectures, yet doesn’t look at any of their work (“Only you will know if it’s good or not.”). ⇒Here, Kurt can explore any approach (conceptual art seems to be in vogue), but after he intrigues van Verten with a response in class one day the master comes to see his student’s experiments (sharing how a WW I airplane crash left him badly injured, nursed back to health by some locals who healed him with animal-fat-poultices), telling Kurt about Descartes’ discovery of “myself” yet Kurt’s various attempts aren’t a sincere expression of his inner being. Kurt stares at empty canvases while Ellie has a miscarriage, learning how her father sabotaged her body. All becomes resolved, though, as Kurt begin making paintings based on photos, then blurring them slightly, with the accidental juxtaposition one day on his overhead projector of Dr. Seeband with an image of young Kurt and Elisabeth. A painting of this unnerves Seeband who’s since learned the full truth of Kurt’s family, although Kurt never knows Seeband’s connection to him (a plot point I appreciate, keeping appropriate tension between them without leading to a big Hollywood reveal), Ellie gets pregnant after all, Kurt’s round of photo-based-paintings is a big hit in a local gallery in 1966, then Kurt ends this story by chancing upon a group of parked busses, getting the drivers to simultaneously honk as he makes connection with Elisabeth’s long-ago-joy, the film ending on a freeze-frame of his face.⇐
So What? This film’s narrative is inspired by the life and early works of renowned contemporary German artist Gerhard Richter (go here if you like for an extensive exploration of this man), although—despite active collaboration between Richter and von Donnersmarck in preproduction—Richter has completely distanced himself from the resulting film, apparently feeling it’s not fictionalized enough from the specifics of his actual biography (with one notable difference being it was his sister, Marianne, rather than his aunt who was euthanized by the Nazis [starved to death because of mental problems]); in the long interview with von Donnersmarck in the Related Links section below he notes the aesthetic value of fictionalizing biographies on screen so one can produce Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) rather than Citizen Hearst, although it’s clear Richter’s reacted to Never Look Away in a manner similar to William Randolph Hearst’s bitter rejection of … Kane (but at least Richter didn’t try to organize Hollywood studios to destroy the negative as was the case with Hearst vs. RKO back in the day). The critical establishment as a whole seems to lean somewhat toward Richter, with 77% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, an even-less-supportive 69% average score based on the reviews at Metacritic (more details in the Related Links section of this posting). Representative of the naysayers is Ty Burr of the Boston Globe: “Above all, it’s a meditation on art and creativity that’s by turns earnest, troubled, sentimental, and middlebrow. It’s a big, glossy affair that somehow feels rather small. […]The movie’s mantra, repeated by more than one character, is that ‘What is true is beautiful.’ The movie itself proves that what is beautiful isn’t always true,” while I’m more in league with Christopher Orr of The Atlantic: “An immense revelation is hinted at, and then made explicit, but almost no character in the movie seems to comprehend it. […] the film more than earns its commanding title: You will not want to look away.” Oscar nominators didn’t look away either, finalizing Never … for the races in the Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography categories (although it lost to Roma [Alfonso Cuarón, 2018] for both); I’d have gone for Roma as well for the cinematography award but shifted my embrace to Never Look Away for Foreign Film (after finally seeing it last weekend) from Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2018) although I did predict the latter for winning the cinematography prize (another of my several misses). However I may have fared with Oscar predictions, though, I have no hesitation in saying Never Look Away should have won the Foreign Language Film award, given its blend of beauty and atrocity, forcing us to see how they’re intertwined, at least in this manipulated version of Gerhard Richter’s early career (he's emerged since then into a versatile, multi-talented imagemaker).
Bottom Line Final Comments: I certainly can’t promise you would have the same positive reaction to Never Look Away that I did, nor can I even hope you might be able to find it (short of it being available on some video service, always possible in our instant-gratification-society) as it’s playing in only 80 domestic theaters (a drastic increase up from a mere 4 previously) even though it’s been in release for 12 weeks (likely laying in wait, hoping the Oscar noms [and desired-but-not-fulfilled-wins] would position it better for consideration in art theaters during these winter-months-lulls in those non-commercial-venues), having brought in a tiny gross of $469.6 thousand so far (in domestic dollars; I have no info on how it’s done in other markets), making it likely you’ll see it—if at all—on a disc or through some On Demand-type delivery, but I do highly encourage you to seek it out if any descriptions I’ve given you make it seem like something you’d like to invest some (lengthy, I admit) time in. (Also, while the past can’t be held accountable for what happens in the present—even as we must meticulously stay aware of that past so as not to repeat its destructive mistakes—you might be further encouraged to watch this film knowing it’s directed by the same guy who helmed The Lives of Others , an earlier Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Film, a marvelous, somber-yet-engaging story of the secret monitoring of East Berlin citizens by the Stasi [secret police] in those days not long before The Wall finally came down.)
Maybe part of what attracted me to Don’t Look Away is my own earlier-life-connection to the scenes of a painter trying to find his own vision within an art-school-incubator, his unique attempts at inspiration when confronted by authority as Kurt was at one point by indecision, even though I did find my way to creating individual images joining the better ones in my late-‘60s time at UT Austin’s Art Dept., only to be told when I offered my work to a local gallery that I should come back later when I had canvases more specific to me than the teachers I’d studied under (even though my paintings looked nothing like theirs), just as Kurt’s enigmatic headmaster had bluntly rejected his abstractions as not being true to his own insights. I also appreciated how this film showed (just as Cold War does about post-WW II-Soviet-repression in Poland) East Germany trading in the harsh regime of the Nazis for Nazi-hating-but-just-as-repressive-postwar-Soviet-domination, presenting clearly the absurd reality that government-dictated-constructs of how lives should be lived are remarkably similar no matter what the stated ideology may be.* I’d like to able to continue my naïve childhood thinking that such mandated interference in the common good for the benefit of the oligarchs (or worse) who (indirectly [?]) run a country aren’t something I need to be concerned with, but all I have to do is watch Michael Cohen testify before Congress to know Never Look Away’s message isn’t just about finding beauty in all that’s around us (as Aunt Elisabeth professed) but also requires keeping a close eye on our leaders, whomever they may be.** When you put all of this together in such a marvelous exposé of how truth and beauty struggle to liberate themselves from the forces attempting to overwhelm them you end up with insightful, engrossing cinematic activity.
*I’m about to use The Who in my official Musical Metaphor below, so here’s a preview to fit my notes on interchangeable-repressions in Never Look Away with "Won't Get Fooled Again" (on the 1971 album Who’s Next), verified by the bleak ending: “Meet the new boss Same as the old boss.”
**For those not yet repulsed by my frequent left-wing-sentiments (although such readers probably turned away from this blog long ago—which encourages me there’s still so many who are at least conceptually open to looking at it, as evidenced by our healthy international “hit list” of interactors in the image at the very end of this posting) I’ll note the encouragement I find in the intersection between art and commerce at the (close to where I live) Oakland, CA Grand Lake Theater where owner Allen Michaan never hesitates to honor free speech along with his topical movie screenings.
As usual for these Two Guys in the Dark postings, I’ll wrap up my observations with a Musical Metaphor, allowing us one last consideration on this film but now from the perspective of the aural arts to offer us a sense of what it was all about without necessarily being too literal in the process. For Never Look Away what I’m drawn to is The Who’s “I’m Free” (from their 1969 rock-opera-album Tommy) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGa70tVYVKo, using a scene taken from the album-inspired-movie Tommy (Ken Russell, 1975) in which the titular-protagonist (played by The Who’s lead singer, Roger Daltry) is shaken loose from his previously-inner-directed-state of being deaf, mute, and blind where suddenly “freedom tastes of reality,” just as when painter Kurt finally found in his process of re-imaging, blurring photographs (some personal to him, others more removed) his long-sought-sense of artistic freedom, no longer condemned for his interest in various modernist movements, forced to glorify the state with Socialist Realism, lost in his attempts to follow others (such as Pollock, Rauschenberg, even Warhol in Kurt’s initial renderings of the photo-paintings before adding the personalized, defining, blurring brushstrokes), now able “To reach the highest high” with a unique vision as well as be honored for finding this intriguing mode of expression. Never Look Away’s focused at this final point on Kurt’s personal triumph of freedom (embracing Aunt Elisabeth’s passion for the fullness of life, praising the truth which makes anything beautiful), with his celebratory release of multi-honking-bus-horns, his sense of enlightenment that should hopefully encourage all of us to follow his lead, despite any reservations/limitations/explanations that have previously constrained us in our life choices (“You’d laugh and say nothing’s that simple But you’ve been told many times before Messiahs pointed to the door And no one had the guts to leave the temple!”). Hopefully, we can all learn from Tommy and Kurt because, as they say, “I’m waiting for you to follow me” (not as guru but as your companion) to a grand state of enlightenment.
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AND … at least until the Oscars for 2018’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 24, 2019 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2018 films have been nominated for and/or received various awards
and which ones made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists. You may find the diversity among the various awards competitions and the various critics hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competitive-award-winners (which pales when compared to the even-more-noticeable-gap between specific award winners and big box-office-grosses you might want to monitor here)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices for success are as valid as any of these others, especially if you offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).
To save you a little time scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the current Golden Globe nominees and winners for films and TV from 2018 along with the Oscar nominees and winners for 2018 films.
Here’s more information about Never Look Away:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XqIsq7BiL0 (28:08 interviews with [enormously tall] writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, producer Quirin Berg, and actors Paula Beer,
Sebastian Koch, Tom Schilling)
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker. But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
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