ROMA won the Oscar. ROMA even had the unusual honor of being nominated for Best Picture as well as Best Foreign-Language Film. I loved ROMA (if you’re a sceptic: it’s best enjoyed on the big screen), but two days before the Academy Awards ceremony, I went to see the recently released German nominee NEVER LOOK AWAY. Not once during its 3 hour 8 minute running time did I ever look away. Not once in all the days since have I ever stop thinking, what a masterpiece!
It’s a masterpiece inspired by the life of 87-year-old German artist Gerhard Richter, often referred to as “The World’s Greatest Living Artist” or, at the very least, “Europe’s Greatest Living Artist.” I regret to say I was unfamiliar with his work before the film, but now I’m beyond grateful for the introduction. The film is not a biopic. It introduces invented and guessed-at incidents in a remarkable life that spans both sides of WWII as well as the Iron Curtain, over an epic 30-year period. On the big screen, we meet an artist named Kurt Barnert.
Dresden, East Germany, 1937. Elisabeth is the young woman leading her nephew Kurt (age 5) through a tour of a special exhibit at the museum: modern paintings by Kandinsky, Otto Dix, Picasso and others deemed “Degenerate Art” by the Nazi regime. The docent makes it clear these are reprehensible paintings that have no place in the pure Fatherland that is Nazi Germany. “Don’t tell anybody, but I like it,” Elisabeth whispers to Kurt. And also, “I find your father very brave for not joining the Nazi Party.” This sensitive, perceptive and beautiful young woman will soon have a mental breakdown after she’s selected to present Hitler with a bouquet as he passes through the city in his motorcade. She is diagnosed with schizophrenia, forcibly removed from her parents’ home and placed in an asylum. Under the new Nazi policy regarding the mentally ill, she is sterilized and later killed. Kurt and his family are not Jewish, but this is only one of many tragedies they will endure during and after the war.
There are three lines of dialogue that reverberate through the film, connecting past to present, making sense of what’s past, and giving the film its power and sense of wonder in spite of all the darkness:
- “Never look away.”
- “Everything is connected.”
- “Everything that is true is beautiful.”
And the film is beautiful. The cinematography. The actors and their performances. The love story. The paintings that ultimately launch Kurt’s career.
Post-war Dresden is controlled by the Russians. In 1951, Kurt is a young man painting signs at a Signage Studio while his father, a former teacher, washes the stairs. After hours he sketches his own drawings, having no art supplies at home. A sympathetic supervisor recognizes his talent and tells him they’re accepting applications at the local Academy of Art. At the Academy, the professors teach Socialist Realism and denigrate artists like Picasso for their self-indulgent art. Kurt is a stand-out student. At graduation, he’s chosen to paint an important Socialist mural. He’d rather not, but by then he’s married to Ellie, a fashion student he met at the Academy. She’s from a well-off family, and her father–Carl Seeband–is a perfectionist who considers Kurt inferior. Carl was a prominent hospital administrator/gynecologist during the Nazi regime. Kurt knows nothing about this, but we the audience know. What Kurt and Carl don’t know about one another creates a simmering tension that drives the story in unexpected directions and ultimately inspires Kurt’s first acclaimed paintings.
The film’s director and screenwriter, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is something of a wunderkind. His first movie out of film school was THE LIVES OF OTHERS, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film in 2006. It, too, was set in East Germany, but in the final years of the German Democratic Republic and the Berlin Wall. If not for WWII, Florian might still be hanging out in the family castles in East Germany. He’s from a noble line that stretched back 600 years, until all that ancestral property was transferred to Poland after the war. His father became a refugee at the age of nine. Today Florian speaks five languages, including Russian. He moved to L.A. with his wife and kids after the success of THE LIVES OF OTHERS, but he’s still a German citizen. “I believe that great art is deeply biographical,” he told The New Yorker in a piece that ran in January. Richter, for example, managed to take all the traumas in his life “and charge them, in his paintings, with this mystical energy that comes from the suffering.”
Ironically, for the longest time, people didn’t think Gerhard Richter’s paintings were biographical. The German title of the film NEVER LOOK AWAY is completely different. Translated, it’s WORK WITHOUT AUTHOR, which is the way art critics in the 70s described Richter’s work, thinking it lacked subjectivity. From the beginning, Richter encouraged that thinking. It turned out it wasn’t true. He began to talk about little biographical truths that he’d hidden in his work, sometimes saying, “My paintings know more than I do.”
Art sometimes imitates life, but life also inspires art. Near the end of the film, at Kurt’s first Gallery Exhibit, a critic sums up Kurt’s blurred photo-realistic paintings. “Like many of his generation, he has no stories to tell.” One of the paintings is of a nude woman descending a staircase. One critic asks Kurt if that’s an homage to Duchamp’s famous painting, Nude Descending a Staircase. He says yes. In fact, the painting is based on a photograph Kurt took of his wife Ellie, after she told him she was pregnant. The significance of that pregnancy is at the heart of the masterpiece that is NEVER LOOK AWAY.