Everything that’s true is beautiful.
The thing that people who didn’t attend art school or don’t have a foundation in art history never understand is the reasoning behind postmodern art. They find it funny to reductively joke about how their three-year old child could net them a million dollars by scribbling on a canvas because they refuse to look beneath the surface and let the image speak as emotion through abstract form rather than some ingrained sense of realism. These artists had the skill to paint portraits but chose to strip things down instead. It’s not as though they necessarily wanted to throw away their training either—they simply had no choice. The advent of the photograph meant the original utility of painting was dead. The avant-garde movement therefore worked to redefine it.
So how wonderful is it that Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck opens his quasi-biography of German painter Gerhard Richter entitled Werk ohne Autor [Never Look Away] by having a Nazi make just such a reductive joke? Here’s twenty-something Elisabeth May (Saskia Rosendahl) encouraging her young nephew Kurt Barnert’s (Cai Cohrs) desire to be an artist by showing him a gallery show depicting “degenerate” art. The tour is led by a man speaking about the austerity of German art and how it must always represent their nation with strength and authenticity. By contrast, these works by people like Willem de Kooning and Piet Mondrian are the result of illness either because that’s how they see the world or that’s how they hope to topple the establishment through subversion.
It’s a key point of argument not only to inspire little Kurt into being fearless against an oppressive force that sought to silence individuality, but also for what soon happens in their lives. With Hitler’s rise ascending ever higher and Kurt’s father Johann (Jörg Schüttauf) struggling to earn a living without dismantling his dignity to join the Nazis in any form other than on paper, the world had suddenly become deranged. What then happens when you find yourself to be the lone sane person amongst a zoo of zealots? You become labeled insane. This is of course a matter of life and death in a regime wielding purity of blood as its agenda. How do you ensure an illness like schizophrenia doesn’t consume everyone? You sterilize the afflicted.
To understand the journey an adult Kurt (Tom Schilling) takes is to know Elisabeth was one such patient and Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch) the SS Officer and chief gynecologist assigned to cleanse Germany of defections. The film of course goes into the intricacies of what occurs with much more depth and emotional heartache, but it’s difficult to talk about the second two-thirds of its three-hour runtime without knowing those facts. This is because fate will eventually bring Kurt into contact with the beautiful Ellie (Paula Beer), a woman who reminds him of his aunt and who just so happens to be Seeband’s daughter. What’s so refreshing about this melodramatic twist, however, is that von Donnersmarck doesn’t work towards a reveal. He uses it to conjure ghosts instead.
This allows him to cement the comparisons and contrasts between two families locked in a war they didn’t ask for and the ambitions or lack thereof that sealed their futures. On one side is Johann’s willingness to lose his job and home due to refusing allegiance to the Third Reich and the other is Carl’s never-wavering desire to trip over himself for a position towards advancement, power, and wealth. The former keeps his soul but little else. The latter ignores his and eventually trades sides for whoever is willing to protect his head. Karmic retribution arrives periodically, but again never overtly so. von Donnersmarck is more interested in his audience acknowledging his characters’ hearts, minds, and guilt than them smugly knowing their effect on each other.
Why? Because these characters exist at a moment of great political, geographical, and cultural upheaval. They’re so fixated on what they must do to keep themselves and those they love safe that any chance of retribution would prove hollow. So the film painstakingly shows us the tiny moments that define their trajectories whether it’s concession (Kurt painting in a Socialist realism style to earn a living and be allowed to hone his skills without threat of prison), rebellion (Ellie covertly letting her relationship with him blossom under her parents’ roof), or stalwart obfuscation (Carl holding crucial information to his chest knowing that its revelation would place him in a mutually assured destruction scenario). And how they deal with these things is personal because they know everyone else’s duplicity.
Here they are in communist East Germany wherein a “me, me, me” attitude is deemed wrong and yet that’s what they live by. It gets to the point where happiness and survival can only come from escape. In West Germany Carl can hope past transgressions are forgotten, Ellie can get out from under his domineering thumb, and Kurt can finally realize the art within himself that his Aunt Elisabeth dreamed about so many years ago. The idea of truth plays a role both in life (Carl constantly bending reality to his whims based on an “unquestionable” expertise) and art (Kurt realizing the difference between photography’s objectivity and painting’s subjectivity). It’s poetic that the latter ultimately finds his truth on the same canvas that forces the former to confront his own.
I labeled this a “quasi-biography” before because Gerhard Richter has been very vocal about his distaste of the film—even calling it an “abuse.” While many of the bigger moments appear to be true to his life, however, the more contrived connections von Donnersmarck utilizes to drive his message home probably aren’t. It’s unsurprising then that all the names have been changed so we can experience Kurt Barnert’s life on its own merits as a commentary on artistic freedom and the overwhelming tragedy surrounding World War II whether in the lead-up or aftermath. This disconnect actually helps its success because we can simply treat the whole as historical fiction from the beginning. Even so, you have to grin at Oliver Masucci‘s blatant Joseph Beuys impersonation complete with self-mythologizing.
Just because knowing art history will augment your enjoyment doesn’t mean not knowing will hinder it. There’s a lot here to like purely on the basis of putting this period of time onscreen to talk about issues that have been rightfully glossed over by the Holocaust. It’s not as succinct or suspenseful as the director’s previous Oscar-winner The Lives of Others, but its immense heft is never felt. von Donnersmarck and his actors really draw you into this chaotic and fractured world to see truth rise from the ashes and memories that won’t allow themselves to be buried away forever. Eventually we learn how true power can only come from within because it’s our uniquely dynamic identities that propel real change. Speak your truth and set yourself free.
 Left to right: Tom Schilling as Kurt Barnert ©2018 BUENA VISTA INTERNATIONAL / Pergamon Film / Wiedemann & Berg Film
 Left to right: Sebastian Koch as Professor Carl Seeband ©2018 BUENA VISTA INTERNATIONAL / Pergamon Film / Wiedemann & Berg Film
 Center: Paula Beer as Ellie Seeband ©2018 BUENA VISTA INTERNATIONAL / Pergamon Film / Wiedemann & Berg Film