by Steven Prokopy
Over the last few weeks, the Music Box Theatre has been the only venue in Chicago to feature all five of this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominees on its screens. Rounding out the group is writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s latest, NEVER LOOK AWAY, about fictional German artist Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), who grew up and gained an interest in art during Nazi-controlled Germany, only to be forced after the war to live in communist-dominated East Germany during the Cold War. He eventually escaped to West Germany, where he studied art and married Ellie (Paula Beer), but is always under the watchful eye of his father-in-law, Prof. Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a man who may have deep ties to Kurt’s troubled past.
While NEVER LOOK AWAY explores Germany’s seeming inability to escape the worst parts of history during the 20th century, it’s also a thoughtful examination of how artists under strict creative confines manage to find ways of being expressive and even subversive under such conditions. Based loosely on the life of real-life German painter Gerhard Richter, the film is the director’s third feature, after 2006’s THE LIVES OF OTHERS (the surveillance drama, also set during the Cold War), which won the Foreign Language Film Oscar, and 2010’s English-language THE TOURIST, starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie.
We caught up with Von Donnersmarck recently to discuss why a film set in this period is vital today, the influence of Gerhard Richter’s life story on that of the lead character, and whether telling a story set in the modern times interests him at all. The film opens at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, February 15.
Question: First of all congratulations on your Oscar nomination.
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: Thank you very much.
What was it about this story of artistic creativity under a couple different types of restrictions that captivated you so much?
FHvD: In a certain way, you could also see it as the story of this artist that the Nazis try to shape into a certain type of person. The Nazis are defeated, the communists take over, and they try to use his talent for their purposes. Then he flees to the West and somehow has to shrug all of that off to become the man and the artist that is the best version of himself. That journey mirrors what we all have to go through, hopefully in a less extreme form. All of us are raised by people who, with full conviction, try to shape us into something specific. And the point comes in all of our lives where we have to figure out who we are and where we were steered in the wrong direction and how we can find our own center again. In a way, I like the exploration of that and toward this path toward creativity.
Inevitably with artists under creative restriction, it’s sometimes fun to watch the ways in which they subvert the templates that are forced upon them. Did you look for ways in which Kurt could do that?
FHvD: There’s definitely a lot of that. I mean, there are whole bodies of work of artists who worked under dictatorships and the fun that they had trying to go undetected by the censors. But I always feel like there’s something deeply unartistic about that. The artists should strive toward complete freedom and not be willing to accept that the censors could shape their work so much that you’d have to change it in order to escape them. In a way, the censorship is effective if it has to resort to that, because if the censors are not going to notice than most people aren’t either. So what’s the point of having an inside joke between like-minded people? That’s something I always have a problem with, and art under dictatorships has it very difficult. You can almost say that as soon as government gets seriously involved in art, or an authoritarian regime has specific ideas of what art should be, it almost ceases to be art.
It become propaganda.
FHvD: It really is, yes.
I know this story was inspired to a certain degree by the life of Gerhard Richter. Which parts of his life made it into the film? And also, did you consult with him or did you contribute anything to this story?
FHvD: The original idea was inspired by one very extreme element of his biography. There’s a very famous painting that he did of him as a little baby being held by a beautiful young woman, who he explained was his mother’s younger sister, who was later murdered by the Nazis because she didn’t fit the genetic criteria that the Nazi’s though was necessary for the building of the Master Race. She had what they thought was a mental disability that was hereditary, and she was murdered for it. This was a big trauma in his life, and what he didn’t know and didn’t find out until the 2000s, when he was in his 70s, when a great German journalist uncovered it, was that the father of the woman Richter ended up marrying was a high-ranking SS doctor who was responsible for parts of that eugenics program that the Nazis started.
So that was the starting point for me to build my story, a highly fictionalized story, but using these elements that I found were really interesting starting points. It became this duel between a young artist who has to find his voice and his father-in-law, who thinks he’s completely unworthy of his beautiful daughter, but it actually responsible for the greatest trauma in the life of this young artist, perhaps even the very trauma that propelled him into becoming an artist.
It’s almost so unbelievable that it feels forced, until you hear the true story.
FHvD: Yeah, yeah. It’s one of those things, you’re right, it seems so crazy. But unfortunately, because of all the madness in Germany in the 20th century, to a German audience, this doesn’t seem that strange. Wherever you look, you will find such stories. Even in the story of Richter, if you looked further, you will find much more. Interestingly, there was a journalist who accompanied me for a time from the New Yorker, and she looked more deeply into this whole thing, because she was interested in this. So the father-in-law, although he was the director of the clinic that performed the sterilizations, he was no the one who performed the procedure on the aunt, so who was it? And she did some research and found out that the person who actually performed the sterilization on the aunt was the same OBGYN who delivered Richter himself.
And even that didn’t surprise me because this is how weirdly connected everything is—both the great and wonderful things as well as the crimes and victims. It all happened in this not-very-big country that is Germany in the 20th century. Everything you can imagine that happens in world history happened in a doubly intensified form in Germany. The whole world was divided into these two superpowers vying for control of the world, then you look to Germany and the whole country is divided into two blocks. Then you look at Berlin, within the divided country and divided world, which is further divided. That is why, for very sad reasons, we German storytellers are in a position to tell the stories of madness in the 20th century, because our country lived it in an intensified form.
You’re inching closer to telling a story set in more modern times. Do you see things happening now that might make for a film that serves as a microcosm of history?
FHvD: That’s an interesting question. The thing is, in talking about history, we’re always talking about the present. The only things that are interesting in history are the things that somehow remind us of today. I always find that history is a much better way of talking about the present political situation than if you deal with something directly in the present day, because people’s minds are much more open. My mind is much more open when I go see a historical film because I don’t have these firm positions where I stand politically when you go into the past. People are more willing to change their mind when they examine examples of things happening in history. If I were to make a political statement about what’s going on right now, half of the audience would immediately be put off by that because that’s the nature of politics. But if you go back in history, you can say the same thing.
I have this dream that every politician who ran for public office everywhere in the world would have to take a history test to show that they know about all the troubles that have been caused in history. I so often think when I see politicians making horrendous mistakes—not just in America—“My goodness, have you never taken the time to look into the history, because all of the things you’re doing right now have happened before. For example, as soon as you attack some group—some nationality, some group, some minority—and hurt that group in their pride, you will have the most extreme conflict and hatred that you could possibly have. It has always led in history to a catastrophe when a group has been offended by the representatives of another country, especially if that country is stronger. You can look at the story of the outbreak of World War I even and see the fact that one Slavic country was greatly offended by the political actions of Austria. And that led to a kind of Pan-Slavism, where all of these countries banded together and developed a spirit of their own. If you press a country or group or anybody too hard and hurt them in their pride, you’re asking for trouble.
Kurt is a fascination protagonist because he’s a great observer. Ho doesn’t speak much, but he’s very observant. In your search for the right actor to play that part, did you look for someone who could say a great deal without words?
FHvD: Yes, that’s exactly right. Tom Schilling has that ability. He can be very expressive without words. In fact, he doesn’t say that much in real life. He’s almost observing. In fact, Ulrich Mühe, my lead actor in THE LIVES OF OTHERS, had that some quality. You can see when you’re looking at them, it’s not that they’re not saying much because they have nothing to say. They have chosen, instead, to be observers, and they’re constantly thinking, and I like that quality. A lot of our camera tests and screen tests were just him doing nothing—sometimes we have entire reels on this film where he doesn’t say anything. He’s just observing. I always enjoyed watching him nonetheless.
Speaking of great actors, you’re working with Sebastian Koch. And since you two worked together last on THE LIVES OF OTHERS, he’s worked with some of the great directors, including Spielberg, Verhoeven, Tom Hooper. What do you find most compelling about him, beyond his good looks.
FHvD: [laughs] Yes, he’s phenomenally handsome. But I'll tell you something, he’s an even better actor than he is handsome. He just has very precise, he prepares like crazy, so he took a whole year off from acting just to prepare for this part. That’s how serious and dedicated he is. One of the things that was really important to him was to find out what had shaped this person into being the cold and murderous person that he ended up being. How do you end up like that? He was convinced that you’re not born as a monster, so how do you become one under the seemingly normal circumstances he grew up in? We took some time to find the right books that this character would have read as a young man and would have shaped him.
During our preparation and rehearsal, he would act out these opinions that were in these books as if they were his own opinions and really find the way that this character moves and speaks. I love it when actor come totally prepared, and that doesn’t just mean knowing the lines but developing the character, having found within themselves this character. He was actually someone that I asked to come on board before I’d even written the screenplay. I said to him, “I can only write the screenplay if you play the villain.” And he said, “What do you think of me? I want to play the good guy.” And I said, “No, you’re playing the bad guy and you know why.” [laughs] He understood that I really needed him for this part, and he wanted to make the character real.
I want to ask about one of your key collaborators, your cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. I had no idea he was a part of this until I saw his name in the credits. How did you connect with him, and what did you learn from working with such a master?
FHvD: He’s someone who really shaped my view of cinematography as art. I know the exact moment when I started seeing it that way, because I was seven years old, and my father was a representative of Lufthansa, the German airline, in New York, and he took us to see at an open-air theater THE BLACK STALLION. It was such a magnificent experience, and I remember understanding that the images he was creating were every bit as good as the ones my parents took me to see at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since then, I’ve followed all of his films, whether it be THE NATURAL or THE RIGHT STUFF or BEING THERE or NATIONAL TREASURE or the upcoming THE LION KING.
One of the main reason I wanted to work with him was that I wanted to learn from him how he creates this light, and the interesting thing is, I still don’t know. He’s a complete artist; he doesn’t know himself. He likes his light to be naturally motivated, because he doesn’t like unrealistic light, but he likes it to be maximally beautiful, which is really interesting because it matches the painting philosophy of Richter. Caleb was the other person, besides Sebastian Koch, who I contacted before I started writing and said, “I can’t think of anybody else who could photograph this but you,” and he understood that and signed up for the project. It was a surprising journey searching for an artistic truth. We spend a lot of times in museums together, finding paintings by many different artists from many different eras, and for each sequence, we had a guiding painting. It wasn’t like we re-enacted that painting, but there was something about the spirit of that painting or the composition informed us in that sequence. He has such a deep love for art and for acting, so we were very much aligned. If I asked him what are the two things he cares about most, besides his family, it would be art and acting. It’s like that for me too, and we were able to use that. We hadn’t known each other very well before that, but we discovered that we are almost in full agreement on movies or artists, and that made it very easy to collaborate as closely as a director of photography and a director can. It’s an intense collaboration, and it was great.
Florian, thank you so much. Best of luck with the film and the Oscars.
FHvD: Okay, great. Thank you. Speak to you soon.
Steve Prokopy is the chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review (www.ThirdCoastReview.com). For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago Editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.”