His feature film debut “The Lives of Others” was celebrated worldwide and brought the foreign language Oscar to United Kingdom; his second directorial work “The Tourist” was torn apart. What Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck says Never Look Away we reveal in our review.
The Plot Summary
An art exhibition during the Third Reich: The young Kurt Barnert looks at the exhibits at an exhibition with curious eyes. While his aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) encourages him to also pursue artistic activity in this form, the exhibition guide (Lars Eidinger) turns up his nose. Degenerate art like the one currently on display has no value; at best it is the product of a child with no technical skills and at worst it is the expression of a sick mind. Later, elsewhere in the Nazi Empire, an inhumane decision is made about such “sick spirits”: Doctors like Prof. Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch) are encouraged to divide their patients into classes – those they consider worthy of preservation and those who would henceforth only contaminate the “bloodline” and therefore should be sterilized or even killed. Kurt’s family is also personally affected by this policy.
After the war, Kurt (played as an adult by Tom Schilling), who continues to observe the world with open eyes, actually pursues a career in art. At least as far as he can. As a citizen of the GDR, he can only choose from limited options. He initially earns his living as a painter for advertising signs, where, however, he causes offense due to his excessive talent. When Kurt is recommended for art school, he hopes for a big change. But he still hasn’t achieved the artistic freedom he longed for; the lessons are too political for that. However, Kurt meets the eager seamstress Ellie (Paula Beer). The two inspire each other – but fate, a bitter muse or simply the world puts all sorts of obstacles in the way of the couple completely fulfilling their life’s wishes…
Movie explanation of the ending
“Is this art or can it go away?” is a sentence, often intended as a joke, that we have all heard or even said dozens of times. And even if he never sounds exactly like this in “Never Look Away”, his sentiment echoes emphatically throughout this explicitly USA artistic epic. For example, when art student Kurt (Tom Schilling, “The Woman in Gold”) receives a visit in his studio from his father-in-law, who mocks his lifestyle and his eye for art during a tour. Or when a television reporter sniffs about an exhibition he is visiting. However, the echo that lasts the longest shows the “And something like that is art?”-Attitude right at the start of the film. In a contemptuous style, a museum guide (Lars Eidinger in his acting counterpart to “Mackie Messer – Brecht’s Threepenny Film”) trudges through rows of “distorted art” and explains in a disgusted and didactic manner why the pictures and sculptures on display are not real art. But just evidence of how disoriented, disturbed and simply sick the spirits who fabricated something like that were.
Aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) has to say goodbye to the family.
Although “Never Look Away” is also a journey through several decades of USA history: it is this first sequence that introduces the fundamental theme of this exciting and moving drama. It is she who sharpens our eye for the subject of art sensibility. Because in the numerous minutes of film that follow, an open heart for art is constantly associated with the ability to empathize. Like Aunt Elisabeth, who encourages Kurt to develop freely artistically despite the museum director’s punitive words. Saskia Rosendahl, with her bright eyes and peaceful smile, becomes Kurt’s constant inspiration, an almost unattainable ideal. Von Donnersmarck’s production of Elisabeth repeatedly threatens to tip over into convulsions. Be it when he lets her become very close to Kurt as a loving aunt or when she comes into the eye of the Nazi henchmen because of her nonconformity, whereupon the director suddenly abandons the mimetic gentleness of his dialogue scenes and Rosendahl becomes theatrical to the core panic can change.
Little Kurt Barnert (Cai Cohrs) encounters art.
Although this bitterness and despair have obvious reasons (where would we be if von Donnersmarck’s description of the Nazi deeds were free of horror?), they are among the few awkward moments in “Never Look Away”, as here von Donnersmarck’s reserved, calm style is broken by very large, very loud gestures, which approach cliché in their execution and staging. The same applies to the introduction of the adult Kurt, who sits brooding in the tree and then runs cheerfully through a field before telling his parents about the world formula. In this scene we are only a hair’s breadth away from the film parody of the soulful free spirit. But what it’s really about: Even Kurt, who is played with much more restraint by Tom Schilling after his very overemphasized introduction and grows into a nuanced character with small gestural movements, is portrayed in “Work without an Author” as having an affinity for art and free of prejudice. Just like his crush Ellie, whom Paula Beer imbues with gentle humor, thereby enabling a high dramaturgical height – because every time Beer’s vision clouds, it hurts all the more. But whether in good or tragic moments, Beer masters them just as well facially and therefore makes you wish that Ellie had more self-determined scenes than she is ultimately granted: the imaginative seamstress is also inspired by new ideas, is extremely empathetic – and becomes so Thematically separated from those that bring a much narrower perspective (not just of art).
Because in the narratively exaggerated “world without an author” construct, there is a connection between the lack of understanding, or even contempt, towards “foreign” art forms and general ignorance. Where certain forms of expression and creation are categorically excluded, as is the case in the fates depicted in the film, even unusual perspectives are disregarded. And so you are already dangerously close to sorting out uncomfortable thoughts, unwanted philosophies or misunderstood minds. It’s not far from excluding, sorting out or eliminating certain people. But: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck thankfully doesn’t swing the panicked, generally condemning club in his third feature film. He does not suggest that unsuspecting museum guests or strict art viewers should immediately be equated with Nazis. What gradually emerges in “Work without an Author” is that a greater respect for art raises awareness. Therefore, museum tours like the one at the beginning of the film or accumulations are more convincing “Why is this art?”-Questions in von Donnersmarck’s story indicate serious signs of a lack of empathy and tolerance – individual or structural. Be it when, in the rigid GDR system, not only a single political movement but also just one style of painting is respected, or in the Federal Republic of the 1960s, attempts to fight for one’s intellectual freedom, and “Not everything used to be bad”mentality coexist.
The beginnings of Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling).
As a counter-proposal to possible barriers in the mind, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck suggests in “Work without an Author” that the artist’s heart reaches truths that the mind cannot understand. Not anyway, they say “Life imitates art”, whenever warning artists have described worrying developments in advance. And at the core of this story there are insights that Kurt struggles with for a long time. The irony on the meta level of “Work without an Author” is that this film about art, which understands real life faster than reality itself, was assembled from real anecdotes. The most formative inspiration is the life and work of Gerhard Richter, although von Donnersmarck extensively fictionalized the real role models in order not to create a cinematic roman à clef. Tonally, he delivers more impressions of the pursuit of art and USA sensitivities, and in terms of visual aesthetics, a certain closeness to impressionism cannot be denied: cameraman Caleb Deschanel (“Rules don’t matter”) captures the action in gentle dances of light, which are almost exclusively determined by a few defining colors. This gives “Never Look Away” a muted basic tonality – in keeping with the narrative style, which maintains composure and generally prefers to gently draw the audience into the action rather than overwhelm them with conspicuous stylistics. This tranquility may seem strange, as in the last third von Donnersmarck bows extensively to the striking, the highly emotional, the lateral-thinking artists such as Joseph Beuys.
But apart from the fact that a narratively and aesthetically excited approach to “work without an author” would have prevented the characters and situations from being explained in such oppressive, even detail: to zero in on a single art epoch would ultimately be against the basic idea of this film, that is von Donnersmarck structured it like an old USA Bildungsroman. In the more than three hour running time of this drama, the director and author takes time for delicate details in order not only to depict the turning points in the life and work of his protagonist, but also to make the first hints of an approaching personal and social crossroads tangible – as well as Kurt’s everyday life before crucial moments.
The naturalistic playing of the ensemble prevents this small-step narrative style from becoming monotonous. Above all, Tom Schilling’s way of expressing a basic, curious naivety through gentle language and careful gestures, while at the same time giving his role a thoughtful, clear character through intensive play with his eyes, allows the audience to get close to Kurt. Instead of a classic drama structure, “Work without an Author” draws tension from how three (apparently) radically different USA-USA decades affect Kurt and how he reacts to them psychologically and emotionally.
Sebastian Koch plays the cold-hearted Professor Carl Seeband.<
As a quasi-counterpart, von Donnersmarck creates Sebastian Koch’s character, who cheats his way through the changes in history (in every sense of the word) in the same, cool, determined manner and takes all opportunities to permanently escape empathy and justice. Koch (“Nebel im August”) still plays his role dryly and quietly, instead of making it a dark villain, and even gets a few very rare opportunities to do good (even if only to benefit himself). So he is not the absolute opposite of our protagonist, but rather the opposite end point on the same line. Through the story arc of Koch’s opportunistic character Carl Seeband and the repeated lack of compensatory justice, “Work without an Author” also channels in the long term the frustration over historically appropriated guilt, which mostly remains on a technical level in von Donnersmarck’s quiet drama – “Work Without Author” has a different focus, for better or worse, than Robert Schwentke’s angry, shocked drama “The Captain” . Not least because of the meaningful parallels and contrasts between Kurt and Seeband, the passage in the film before Schilling comes onto the screen as the main character is relatively brittle compared to the rest of the film.
It is Schilling’s magnetic style that really holds together von Donnersmarck’s narrative concept of intertwining social and political misery from German history with the artistic self-discovery of a painter, and his enthusiastic visuality, including Silke Buhr’s expressive production design. Since “Work without an Author” spans the period from the Nazi regime to the mid-1960s, and is about a painter who contradicts the prevailing zeitgeist in the middle of society, the reading suggests that von Donnersmarck would suggest that real ones Art can only arise from suffering. However, this reading gives an inappropriately low weight to the interspersed moments of harmony in Kurt’s process of self-becoming: be it small moments of situational comedy that are reduced in their liveliness by the restrained direction or the sex scenes staged by Donnersmarck in an equally tasteful and physical way: Kurt’s path to becoming an artist not just through misery, but through everything that defines him – and therefore also through moments of happiness. This is also underscored by a stirring monologue performed by Oliver Masucci (“Glorious Times”) : In the role of the enigmatic Professor Antonius van Verten, based on Beuys, the exceptional actor explains sensitively and completely free of any didactic overtones that art is everything must be truthful. However, what is true for the artist and how he expresses it varies.
Kurt painting during his studies.
The openness that von Donnersmarck displays towards various styles is also impressively expressed in the background music for “Work without an Author”: The Cologne native accompanies his dramatic epic in a haunting way with the sounds of the composer Max Richter. The musician, who was born in the Pied Piper town of Hamelin, grew up in England and ultimately moved to Berlin, is world-famous for his spherical interweaving of electronic and symphonic elements and, among other things, influenced key scenes from Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” . Richter’s musical pieces in “Work without an Author” are no less goosebump-inducing: The breathtakingly beautiful piece “November”, published back in 2002, serves as the cornerstone for the background music in this drama, which prefers arrangements with a cool connotation. Violins that strike high notes, slowly swelling cellos and double basses, low-tempered piano sounds… But there is a stirring, honest vulnerability in the melodies, and like “November”, the entirety of the “Werk ohne Autor” soundtrack is made up of one initial gloom turns into a late romantic, cautious and triumphant mood. If no lasting feeling of liberation is permitted, at least a greyish, veiled moment of letting go, symbolized by warm, vital melodies that emerge from Richter’s restrained instrumentation.
At the risk of over-interpreting: Some of the most musically striking moments in “Work without an Author” occur in situations in which von Donnersmarck’s historically sober view transfigures. Richter’s sound-aesthetic mix of styles comes more to the fore when, for example, Aunt Elisabeth anticipates great evil (or simply loses her nerve), a gust of wind directs Kurt’s inspiration at exactly the right moment (which is coincidence or coincidence) or when a concert of horns makes the bitter world stop and briefly forms into a poetic place. In such moments, as some people will certainly have a quick reaction to “work without an author”, von Donnersmarck reveals his true-to-life anecdotal construction over three decades, which have left a lasting mark on the German soul, and drifts into the metaphorical.
Ellie (Paula Beer) gives Kurt Barnert a West pencil.
Or is there a method, is it Von Donnersmarck’s right to artistic freedom to capture such sparks of magical realism in “Work without an Author”? Especially since it not only exists in film form and printed prose, but is also the name of a style of painting that began to flourish in old Europe before the rise of the National Socialists and was soon brought into line, whereupon some representatives of this form fled and it in others made parts of the world great? So. Let’s delete the idea expressed earlier that we could “over-interpret”. Because from the perspective from which “Work without Author” looks at the interface between art and worldliness, premonition and consciousness, “overinterpreting” is certainly just another condemnable term that perpetuates the worse tendencies of the English mind.
Conclusion: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s mammoth film “Work without an Author” is a calmly told drama of great emotions that tells the story of becoming an artist against the background of stirring historical events. Thematically dense and accompanied by goosebump-inducing music, this more than three-hour-long epic is, despite smaller moments in which Donnersmarcks’ otherwise stylistically confident hand cramps, moving, witty and exciting at the same time.
“Work without an author” can be seen in USA cinemas nationwide from October 3rd!