Tom Schilling as Kurt Barnert, an analog for German painter Gerhard Richter, in 'Never Look Away.' (Photo by Caleb Deschanel; Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
The light above Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s head is flickering.
We’re in the empty bar of a Nob Hill hotel and I’m asking the 6-foot-9-inch-tall director about a scene in his third film, Never Look Away. In it, a reporter at an art opening asks the painter Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) if he plans to create something other than “blurry copies of photographs.” (Barnert is a fictional analog of the German visual artist Gerhard Richter, whose early work might be easily, and incorrectly, dismissed as such.)
Unlike his cynical reporter, von Donnersmarck, the Academy Award-winning writer and director of The Lives of Others, would never dismiss Barnert or Richter's work. He found himself drawn to and transfixed by Richter’s paintings—so inspired by the man's work, in fact, that he produced a three-hour movie about the formative years of the artist’s imagination.
As he starts to answer the question, von Donnersmarck frowns and narrows his eyes, clearly distracted by the light above. He stands on his chair to adjust the bulb, protecting his hands from the heat with the corner of a paper bag. Inside the bag is a book he just bought—The Magic Lantern, Ingmar Bergman’s autobiography.
As he tightens the bulb, he recalls something he learned in film school: “If you have a flickering light, it's one of the safest ways to put the audience into a kind of panic-mode.”
“It's important, in any form of art, to trust only your own senses,” he says. We settle in an adjacent room where the lights didn’t induce a sense of panic and pick up where we left off. “It's something that I tried to capture, also, through the title, Never Look Away,” he explains. “If you portray what you feel and somebody then comes up to you and says, ‘I don't like your face.’ Well, sorry, it's the only one I've got.”
The German title of the film is Werk ohne Autor, which he translates as “a body of work without an author or originator.” It's a term, he says, used by critics of Richter's work who believed he had no point of view, that he created his art mechanically and excluded biographical material. Von Donnersmarck’s film is a treatise that proves otherwise. The narrative shows just how personal Barnert’s (and therefore Richter’s) art actually is.
Never Look Away builds a mythology for the artist out of the ruins of World War II and the Cold War. Mingling narrative with the sweeping politics of a, von Donnersmarck creates a German epic. Barnert is the sole Romantic hero of a Bildungsroman wherein fascist, communist and liberal governments all weigh in on what an artist can and cannot say. Often placed in the role of an innocent bystander, Tom Schilling carries a purposefully blank (though not unintelligent) expression in his bright blue eyes.
Barnert doesn’t emerge from the war emotionally unscathed—his father, brothers and aunt all suffer tragic fates—but he retains an openness that allows an audience to approach him. We can project our own aspirations onto his, or wistfully reminisce about the ones we’ve forgotten. The actor weathers difficulty not stoically, but as if he’s impermeable to harm or supernaturally aware that his gifts will come to fruition. We watch as his artistic practice is curtailed (in East Germany) and later given free reign (in West Germany); as a result of that shift in geography and oversight, his work transforms.
Never Look Away is old-fashioned in that it contains and honors the essence of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet—an instruction manual for the soul of an artist-in-waiting. The director elaborates on that, suggesting it’s not our inner child but our inner adolescent who has access to artistic freedom.
“We all have a moment during our teenage years, where suddenly we feel like, yes, everything is possible. We can find the code of the world, the answer to all questions,” he says. “In a way we're more right about that than we are when we take all the little setbacks and failures and troubles too much to heart.”
Call me naive, but in person von Donnersmarck’s philosophy sounds pure; he’s unshaken and impassioned. He believes that art brings us closer to our humanity and that ideologies don’t. Fittingly, in his films, politicians and authority figures remain especially unmoved by art.
“Some people have shut themselves off so much. It's some form of ideology. Ideology and art are things that are at diametrically opposite poles,” he says. “Art is something that I take incredibly seriously. It's something to be taken as seriously, almost, as religion,” he concludes.
“It's the strongest weapon that we have against political extremism. Art is the one thing that can change people.”
'Never Look Away' opens Friday, Feb. 15, in San Francisco at Landmark’s Clay Theatre.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.