Saturday, September 21, 2019

Werk ohne Autor / Never Look Away

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: Werk ohne Autor / Never Look Away (IT/DE 2019) starring Tom Schilling as Kurt Barnert. The artist finds himself at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf by facing his personal trauma as a part of the German tragedy. Please click to enlarge the photo.

Teos vailla tekijää (Finnish telepremiere 13 Feb 2021 Yle Teema)
Biopic / About Art / Society
Theme: Artists…
Country: Italy, Germany
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Screenplay: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Starring: Sebastian Koch, Tom Schilling
Production: Jan Mojto, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Quirin Berg / Wiedemann & Berg Filmproduktion, Pergamon Film
Duration: 189 min
Rating: 16
    Language: German
    Subtitles: English
    Distribution: SF Film Finland
    Print source: Sony Pictures Classics
    Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel
    Editing: Patricia Rommel
Goethe Institut
Istituto Italiano di Cultura, Helsinki
Helsinki International Film Festival (HIFF) Love & Anarchy
Viewed at Kino Engel 2, Helsinki, 21 Sep 2019.

Camillo De Marco (quoted by HIFF): "True art survives totalitarianism and never lets itself be tamed by conformism, as long as the artist maintains their freedom of perspective. This is the underlying message of Never Look Away by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who returns to the big screen eight years after the disappointing The Tourist and 12 years after his extraordinary exploit The Lives of Others, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film."

"Never Look Away does engage its audience, despite having a three hour eight-minute-long runtime (spare a thought for the operators who will have to schedule it…) and being a bit too simplistic, explanatory and didactic. It’s clear that von Donnersmarck intended this film to be watched by a young audience, to whom he can pass on his interpretation of a fundamental moment in recent history. The important thing is to “never to look away.”" Camillo De Marco, (quoted by HIFF)

AA: I had read Michael Hofmann's scathing review "Art for Film's Sake" about Werk ohne Autor in The New York Review of Books (21 March 2019).

I was also aware Gerhard Richter's comment about the film that it "abuses and grossly distorts my biography". For seekers of truth and for a treasure trove of Richter's art his homepage is rewarding. From this viewpoint Werk ohne Autor fails to understand Gerhard Richter and modern art in general.

Yes: Werk ohne Autor is a mainstream entertainment film. As Richter stated about the trailer, it's "reisserisch" (like a thriller). It's linear, it's polished, it's conventional, it's superficial in many ways. The actors are beautiful film stars and glamour models. The narrative is exciting like a 19th century serial.

Yet I'm very impressed by the film. I like the direct way it confronts big issues. I like the way it states the obvious which is not obvious after all.

The film starts movingly in an Entartete Kunst (Degraded Art) exhibition in Nazi Germany. After the war we attend an art class where a well-meaning professor lambasts modern art in East Germany: it's all about "me, me, me". When Kurt and Ellie leave for West Germany, in the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf the professor (modelled after Joseph Beuys) requires complete freedom and independence.

Yes, it's obvious, it's direct. And it's relevant, and it's puzzling. This is highly dramatized, simplified and stylized. There is a satirical touch of the caricature in all three circumstances, but it's not banal or irrelevant.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck brings a blockbuster approach to German history, but it's never trivial history.

Kurt and Ellie live in three different Germanies, and so does Ellie's father, SS-Obersturmbannführer Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch) who survives in East Germany as an acclaimed professor of gynecology. When his Nazi past is about to be exposed, he escapes to West Germany, where he again rises to the top of the establishment. But he has to retire when new revelations threaten him again.

In a memorable sequence the Joseph Beuys-like professor visits Kurt's studio and fails to discover Kurt in his paintings. Kurt himself knows this. He is a brilliant technician with nothing to say. Having heard Beuys's harrowing personal story he is inspired to face his own past for the first time in his art.

The sequence of Kurt's first solo exhibition is brilliant. The audience and the critics are clueless, and Kurt answers their questions by agreeing basically with anything they have to say. He even agrees with the assumption that his images are based on "photos without an author".

It is, indeed, irrelevant for the viewer to know that the images are traumatically personal. Kurt has made photorealistic copies of photographs and blurred them with a signature sfumato brush.

Time and again, Donnersmarck shows how we completely misunderstand and misinterpret art. As in Kurt's installation, the artists may be happy to let us to do so.

In the Internet Movie Database there is a gallery of 104 photos of Werk ohne Autor. It's a wonderful resource for further contemplation of a rewarding film.

What stays in mind: the sorrowful look in Kurt's eyes as a child and a grown-up man. The sense of loss.

P.S. 24 Sep 2019. The movie keeps growing in my mind. I like the (for foreigners) offbeat observations from German history, such as the 1952 reunification proposal and the fact that until August 1961 it was relatively easy to move from the East to West Germany. – The account of the Nazi mass murder project here focuses on euthanasia (with 300.000 victims). – In Kurt's family there is a vicious circle of harassment, while Professor Seeband is a survivor in all circumstances. – Kurt's trajectory: from socialist realism to capitalist realism. I had not made this connection before seeing the film. Capitalist realism was the West German counterpart to Andy Warhol and pop art in America.


Kaikki tietävät Auschwitzin. Harvempi tietää natsien eutanasiaohjelmasta, jonka aikana steriloitiin ja murhattiin kymmeniä tuhansia vammaisia ja mielisairaita ihmisiä.

Kurt on vasta lapsi, kun hänen taidettaan rakastava tätinsä viedään laitokseen skitsofrenian vuoksi. Lääkärin vastaanotolla potilaskansioon piirretään joko sininen miinus, mikä tarkoittaa sterilisaatiota tai punainen plussa, mikä tarkoittaa yhtä säästynyttä petipaikkaa rintamalla haavoittuneille sotilaille. Täti ei koskaan palaa.

Natsi-Saksa muuttuu Itä-Saksaksi Kurtin kasvaessa nuoreksi lupaavaksi taiteilijaksi. Hän kohtaa nuoren muodin opiskelijan ja rakastuu. Kurt ei ole kuitenkaan sitä arjalaista tyyppiä, jota mielitietyn isä ajatteli tulevien lastenlastensa siitosoriksi. Isällä onkin kokemusta rodunjalostuksesta: sodan aikaan hän on piirtänyt potilaskansioihin sinisiä miinuksia ja punaisia plussia.

Ohjaaja Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck palaa uusimmalla teoksellaan läpimurtoelokuvansa Muiden elämä (R&A 2006) tunnelmiin Saksan lähihistoriaan. Never Look Away on syvästi inhimillinen kertomus siitä, mitä on etsiä omaa ääntään taiteilijana, kun sitä on tukahduttanut ensin arjalaiset ihanteet ja sitten sosialistinen realismi. Ja tietysti se on kertomus rakkaudesta.

Sanni Myllyaho (HIFF)

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