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Never Look Away Grapples With Germany’s Past

A new film from the director of ‘The Lives of Others’ strives for epic effect as it traces an artist’s development through the twentieth century.

Caleb Deschanel / Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Vergangenheitsbewältigung is one of those quintessential German words: a long, clunky amalgam of syllables and ideas that expresses a concept you never imagined you’d need to name. It refers to the process of coming to terms with the past—the definitive German lexicon Duden defines it as “public debate within a country on a problematic period of its recent history, in Germany especially with National Socialism”—and it’s something of a specialty in Germany.

Since the late 1940s, with greater or lesser success, Germans have made a national pastime of owning up to individual and collective crimes associated with Nazism. It’s what made Berlin, the reunified nation’s capital, a city of memorials, where the wordy, abstract and sculptural Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe takes up central real estate alongside memorials dedicated to the Sinti and the Roma and homosexuals persecuted by the Nazis. There are bronze cobble stones known as “tripping stones” scattered around the city (and other parts of Germany), inscribed with the names of individual Holocaust victims. Then, too, there are memorials to victims of the East German state, from those who were killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall to the political prisoners who were tortured and murdered at Hohenschönhausen. The discourse of Vergangenheitsbewältigung is so developed that German has separate words for memorials that honor (Ehrenmal) and those that warn us away from repeating our mistakes (Mahnmal). Only by looking at what’s happened, by retelling the stories of the victims and the guilty, can a country begin to heal and move forward.

The arts—whether literature, film, theater, fine art, or otherwise—have reliably served as an outlet for this airing and revisiting of the past. Indeed, much post-World War II German art touches in some way on the brutality, sins, and suffering of the recent past, from Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum to Rainer Maria Fassbinder’s Marriage of Maria Braun to the epic canvases of Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys’s enigmatic installations of felt and fat. There are always new angles on German history to attend to, which is why Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film The Lives of Others was received as such a breakthrough.

At the time, precious few German films had represented a serious narrative account of the victims of the East German secret police, the Stasi. The Lives of Others told of a dyed-in-the-wool Stasi spy who realizes he might have been wrong after he becomes entangled in the surveillance of a prominent playwright and his girlfriend. A closely focused, personal story that provided insight into an expansive backdrop of politics, it was celebrated as the best film about the GDR since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007 as well as a bevy of German and European awards. It was, in a sense, a shining example of the art of Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

In his new film, Never Look Away, Donnersmarck presents another period drama, this one a portrait of the (fictional) artist Kurt Barnert as a young man. The film begins before the violence of World War II takes over, and continues through the founding of the German Democratic Republic and the construction of the Berlin Wall—the epic, tragic sweep of twentieth-century Germany. Kurt’s artistic development and personal history closely mirror that of Gerhard Richter, one of Germany’s most celebrated living artists. Like Richter, Kurt was born in Dresden and studied at the Dresden Academy of Art. Early on, Richter garnered attention as a painter of Socialist Realist murals before escaping to the West, where he continued his studies in Düsseldorf. Richter’s uncle and father were in the Wehrmacht, and he had a mentally ill aunt who was killed as part of the Nazi euthanasia campaign. As a child, he watched the firebombing of Dresden, and as a young man, he sought artistic freedom in ideologically restrictive East Germany. And yet, in spite of these many obstacles, he went on to create some of the most coveted and well-respected art of the past century.

Donnersmarck has selected Richter’s story for the artist’s success but also for his life’s drama. In an interview with the German broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk, Donnersmarck frames the question that drove Never Look Away. “For me, it’s about creativity,” he says, “to trace how someone can take their life, and the trauma of their life, and transform it into something like art.” In doing so, Donnersmarck hopes to achieve the same success as he did in The Lives of Others: to use one individual’s dramatic, tightly plotted story to reveal the impact of German history on one superlative man’s life and art.

Never Look Away begins with a tour of an exhibition at a Dresden art museum. It’s 1937, and Elisabeth, a beautiful, young blonde in a seafoam dress, leads her six-year-old nephew, Kurt, by the hand. A Nazi official in uniform criticizes modern art as a meaningless game of one-upmanship in which artists like Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Wassily Kandinsky propose faddish, often ugly truths about the world. In his view, modern art is unskilled, decadent, and indulgent, an indignity to German soldiers and a waste of taxpayer dollars. The scene renders a slightly ahistorical version of an infamous exhibition of “Degenerate Art” that the Nazi party actually mounted in 1937, to display work they blamed for the disintegration of German culture. As Kurt and Elisabeth’s tour guide makes clear, in 1930s Germany, art was meant to glorify and purify German heritage and feeling, rather than serve as a venue for expression. The meaning and purpose of art change several times over the course of the film, often in harmony with whatever punishing ideology—nationalism, communism, or capitalism—is ascendant. Those shifts are among the film’s central themes.

After their visit to Dresden, Elisabeth and Kurt return to their still-peaceful home. But the quiet is soon disrupted: Elisabeth, a youthful exemplar of Aryan beauty, is chosen to deliver flowers to Hitler on his visit to the city, and afterward, she begins to unravel. Kurt finds Elisabeth naked at the family’s piano. She tells Kurt that the pristine beauty of the piano’s notes holds the secret to the universe. She can hear the same purity when she pounds a crystal ornament against her skull, which she does until blood trickles down her face. “Everything that’s true is beautiful,” Elisabeth tells Kurt, and admonishes him to never look away.

Elisabeth’s psychic break is what sets the film’s dense plot in motion. Elisabeth’s illness is reported to the central medical authorities, and soon she is committed against her will to a mental hospital. Here, she turns from an individual into a cog in history: one of the hundreds of thousands of disabled or mentally ill women forcibly sterilized so as not to infect the Aryan race with inferior genes. When she learns of the pending operation, Elisabeth begs Professor Carl Seeband, the head of the gynecology department at the hospital and a member of the Court of Hereditary Health, to spare her. He remains unmoved and goes a step further: He draws a red plus-sign next to her name to indicate that she should be “relieved,” in Nazi parlance, of her “meaningless existence.”

Though Aunt Elisabeth gathers that Professor Seeband has a daughter—she appeals to his humanity by calling him “Papa”—she doesn’t know that her name is Elisabeth, too. Some years later, Kurt meets Ellie at the Dresden Art Academy. Though brunette, Ellie has the same alabaster glow and sparkling blue eyes as Kurt’s Aunt Elisabeth. Ellie and Kurt quickly fall in love, and before long, Kurt finds himself with a cruel, controlling father-in-law, a former Nazi (though he doesn’t know it yet) who has no interest in or respect for art. Unbeknownst to Kurt, he is also Aunt Elisabeth’s murderer.

Donnersmarck’s film is only loosely based on Richter—it’s not announced as a biopic—but many of the basic facts are, shockingly, true. Richter did have an aunt, Marianne, who was schizophrenic and forcibly sterilized, though she died of starvation in a concentration camp rather than in the gas chamber where Elisabeth perishes (and where Donnersmarck, to the chagrin of critics, dares to take his camera). In his thirties, Richter painted a famous canvas of Marianne as a young teen, holding him as an infant. His first wife was also named Marianne, though she went by Ema, and her father, Heinrich Eufinger, was an SS doctor who bore responsibility for the forced sterilization of some thousand women. Richter knew that his aunt died of starvation due to the Nazi eugenics campaign but was apparently unaware of the connection between his aunt and his father-in-law until an investigative journalist reported it in 2004. That Richter’s personal history contained such traumatic historical entanglements seems almost unbelievably ill-fated and, because it’s true, it demonstrates just how widespread the lingering effects of the Nazi period were. (Richter, for his part, told Der Spiegel that he has only seen the trailer for Never Look Away and found it “too sensational.”)

Toward the end of the film, Kurt produces a series of black-and-white paintings of photojournalism and family snapshots, blurred after the fact with horizontal strokes of a thick brush. Among these are paintings of young Kurt with his aunt Elisabeth; his uncle Günther in a Wehrmacht uniform; his father-in-law’s passport photos; an SS doctor, who was the head of the Nazi eugenics program, as he is led away in handcuffs. All of these individuals have deeply influenced Kurt’s life; likewise, they are all entangled in the crimes of the Nazis.

At one point, a strong wind blows the shutters of Kurt’s studio windows closed, causing a projection of his father-in-law’s passport photo to overlap the unfinished painting of Kurt and his aunt. Just as chance made an indelible impact on Kurt’s life, so it also plays a role in his art. Kurt makes these works after months of uncertain exploration, and it’s clear that Donnersmarck intends for us to understand them as the moment that announces Kurt’s artistic arrival.

Donnersmarck gestures at the interplay of fate and creativity with the wind-blown shutters, but in his hands that bit of chance comes out as contrived. Indeed, he ignores the fact that Richter tried to obscure the origin of his photos, in order to divorce their original meaning from that of images he rendered in paint. Richter wanted to paint the photographs, he says, partly because he saw them as “works without an author.” (This phrase, “Werk ohne Autor,” serves as the German title of the film.) As Richter told Michael Kimmelman in a 2002 interview,

When I first started to do this in the 60s, people laughed. I clearly showed that I painted from photographs. It seemed so juvenile. The provocation was purely formal—that I was making paintings like photographs. Nobody asked about what was in the pictures. Nobody asked who my Aunt Marianne was. That didn’t seem to be the point.

Toward the end of the film, Kurt says at a press conference that the tender family photographs are random, that he plucked the passport photos from a photo booth. Asked about the meaning of his work, Kurt demurs again. “My works are smarter than I am,” Richter has said, and Kurt repeats it here. “I’m not making any statements, I’m making pictures,” Kurt emphasizes.

Richter’s work wasn’t expressly about making bold statements about history, his own or his country’s. He used the same blurred, photorealist techniques for numerous other subjects: curtains, cows, his children. Some of these—a clownish rendering of his father and his dog, his wife’s family on vacation at the sea—can be read as documents of a corrupted history, but they’re also just snapshots, moments in any ordinary life. Richter’s work suggests that every family has its share of hidden traumas, that all historical and personal memories are conflicted.

By contrast, Donnersmarck wants to make bold, historical statements, and that is where his film about art falters. At times, Never Look Away feels like a hulking, even unwelcome example of Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Turning over the past is such a ubiquitous activity in Germany as to have become something of a cliché there, and Germans have developed high standards for when it is useful and when it is earned. It’s telling that Never Look Away hasn’t been well received in Germany, where reviewers accuse Donnersmarck of sacrificing historical accuracy and ambiguity in pursuit of something big: the headline-grabbing Major Themes of Nazis and the GDR; another Oscar. Never Look Away is perhaps too epic, too ambitious, eager to make grand statements rather than to find poignancy and authenticity in one story.

And yet, Donnersmarck touches on something elemental about how biography, inspiration, and history can combine to create something of lasting value. In spite of Richter’s protests, it is part of what gives his photo portraits their frisson. At one point in the film, Kurt’s professor, Antonius van Verten, a stand-in for Joseph Beuys, falters in one of his lectures. In a moment of uncertainty before dismissing his students, he asks if anyone has something to contribute. Kurt bravely raises his hand. He’s been thinking about lotto numbers, he says: a group of digits that are utterly meaningless—until luck, or some mathematical probability, makes them significant. The events of the past, even coincidence, aren’t always significant, he suggests, but they can become meaningful.