Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

Forum locked This topic is locked, you cannot edit posts or make further replies.  [ 1 post ] 
Author Message
PostPosted: Fri Nov 30, 2018 10:00 am 
Site Admin

Joined: Sat Mar 08, 2003 1:50 pm
Posts: 3967
Location: California/NYC
N.B. this has a main release in Feb. 2019, one-week only in 2018 starting Nov 30th.


A German artist who survives Nazism and the War to become famous

It's surprising and gratifying to see the great events of the Twentieth Century drawn from the point of view of someone who emerges as one of the most important post-war German artists. With its stunning photography, its looming music, its leaps from one signpost year to another from 1937 to 1966, von Donnersmarck's new film may seem overambitious and over explicit at times, but through a protean and enigmatic protagonist (played by the boyish, floppy-haired Tom Schilling) and a focus, unusual for a mainstream movie, on postwar art, it neatly avoids cliché. Drawing references from key modern artists. Von Donnersmarck, who directed the much admired The Lives of Others/Das Leben der Anderen , works with a sure hand and evident passion for his subject - ultimately, nothing less than modern art's fractured search for meaning in a world of exhausted ideas and shattered feelings.

It's no secret that a couple of important postwar German art figures are clearly referenced:. The mentor and teacher Joseph Beuys, and the painter Gerhard Richter emerge as central, but only after half-way through.

The three-hour film is bookended by moments of magic realism, hinting, perhaps, at the spiritual and mysterious side of all art. Major scenes in between are simple and iconic, or grand and horrifying. As things start, six-year-old Kurt (Cai Cohrs) already draws precociously. He and his beloved young aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), who's keenly aware of his artistic talent, quietly resist a 1930's Nazi lecture on "Degenerate Art" where a doctrinaire guide (Lars Eidinger) tours them through Kandinsky, Mondrian, and other modern masters in the Nazis' notorious damning exhibition. Kurt and Ellie agree between themselves that the "degenerate" Kandinsky and Mondrian and other modernist greats are actually pretty great. Later, Elizabeth persuades a group of bus drivers to sound their collective horns, creating a magical effect, but hinting at her benign madness.

Eventually little Kurt will survive the war and its aftermath, but his loving and preternaturally wise, also partially schizophrenic aunt will not. Once she is diagnosed and brutally taken away to be institutionalized for a "little rest" that will never end, Elizabeth is doomed. Little Kurt looks through his fingers at the violent scene of her removal. But he looks, because it is she who has told him to "never look away." She will be part first of a mass Nazi sterilization of mentally challenged or insane, later of worse.

The film now focuses for a while (with splendid production values) on the Nazis, the reluctant and the more-than-willing ones, and the bureaucracy of evil. It particularly concentrates on a gynecologist, Professor (he always insists on the "professor" designation, with its evil ideological implication) Carl Seeband (Lives of Others star Sebastian Koch), who allows his specialization to be used in the Nazis' eugenics. The figure of 400,000 eliminated is proudly announced at a meeting of officials. Kurt's intimacy with his aunt will remain engraved on the boy's mind. Much of the family is wiped out in the vividly glimpsed fire bombing of Dresden. His father (Jörg Schüttauf) resists membership in the Nazi party, but when it grows dominant and he loses his teaching job, he reluctantly joins, to his later shame.

After the war Kurt's father, now stigmatized in the post-Nazi world, can perform only menial tasks, cleaning the floor of the printing and sign painting office where Kurt gets a job, and shows his sureness of hand by drawing big letters perfectly without a stencil, not to show off, but because he can. Kurt goes on to become a star Soviet-style social realist painter mentored at the Dresden art academy, whose director continually admonishes the students to serve the communist cause and not their egos, not the "ich ich ich," the "I I I." The new regime seems as oppressive to the individual spirit as the Nazi one, but without the flashy uniforms and grand spectacles.

Meanwhile the film prepares its deeply haunting if slightly contrived irony. Kurt courts Ellie (Paula Beer), an attractive young woman who's in the "fashion" section of the communist art academy, where he's studying painting, and partly a reference to his aunt. The painting he's doing is crap, of course, as eventually he will realize; but Kurt 's great natural gifts make him the style's most favored local practitioner, which is fun and leads to one benefit after another in a meager world where perks are everything.

The couple is romantic: Kurt and Ellie make love at her parents' house clandestinely, and then, when those parents return unexpectedly, he disappears by jumping naked into a tree: we have learned already of his gifts as a tree-climber as a youth. One day we get a shock when "Professor" Seeband, the Nazi doctor, reappears as Ellie's father. He wants nothing to do with Kurt, but he can't block the union.

Seeband is an example of one of those Nazis in high places who've found comfortable berths in the new post-war world, in his case in the eastern part of the divided Germany. The resonance of this wrong is the stronger in the film because of how vividly von Donnersmarck has staged the destruction of Kurt's aunt, with whom Seeband had direct personal contact. Seeband was linked with the high SS officer in hiding who was responsible for the network of medical men guilty of the genocidal acts in the name of eugenics, whom he refuses to reveal anything about. Seeband's own survival is secured by a high ranking Russian officer whose wife he's guided through a difficult birth.

The film keeps Seeband's evil and his survival percolating at a low level but ever-present. Sebastian Koch makes a wonderfully suave villain, although it may feel that too much of the evil of Nazism is made to rest on his oily, well tailored shoulders.

While the evils of the Nazis and communism remain in the background as all part of the drab oppression of Soviet domination, the focus finally shifts in the film's final segments to Kurt's art career. Rising to the top of young Soviet Realist artists in East Germany, he's commissioned to execute a series of monumental murals and given a nice car and other perks. But all that bores him, life in East Germany is unspeakably grim and drab, and, longing for more, he and Ellie escape to West Germany, which in this pre-Wall period is still relatively easy.

Once in West Germany Kurt makes the key decision to enter the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where he encounters the full freedom and ferment of postwar western art. Presiding at the Academy is Professor Van Verten (Oliver Masucci) - whose sad demeanor and perpetual hat and vest tell us he's a stand-in for Joseph Beuys, the mentor for a whole generation of key German artists. Kurt finds a friend at the Academy who shows him around, and we see the world of experimentation and performance and conceptual art - all the creative ferment coming to life in the late Fifties to which the Communist world turned deaf ears. Lucio Fontana is slashing canvases? Okay, Düsseldorf students do it too.

Von Verten/Beuys looks at Kurt when he arrives, and seems to sense his brilliant talent and natural facility. He finds that despite Kurt's bringing no work (he has burned it all), his eyes show "you have seen more than any of us," so he makes him a student - with a studio, giving him privileged status. Beuys normally looks at nobody's work, but through a contribution at a lecture, Kurt becomes a master pupil, like Blinky Palermo, Jörg Immendorff, Anselm Kiefer, Imi Knoebel, and some others (though, unfortunately, we don't meet them in the film).

Kurt has the freedom and the mentor. So what's he going to do with his talent, now he's cast Soviet realism aside? He runs through many false stabs at styles of the moment before he finds his own more personal solution. He hasn't found himself yet when Von Verten/Beuys comes to look at his work, and there's nothing that's "there." Instead of commenting directly, Von Verten/Beuys tells his own (i.e. Beuys') story of being shot down in the war and being saved from death from burns by peasants who swathed him in fat and felt - which became the bedrock of his belief and primary materials of his work. The message is clear. Kurt must dig deep into his own past to find himself as an artist.

And he does. The film has a breathless sequence of scenes, almost suggestive of a mystery thriller, involving old photographs, news headlines about captured Nazis, and a haunting new use of Kurt's facility for realism - an unexpected direction at this stage in western art. His work is sufficiently original and inexplicable to win him a gallery, a show - and a fame that he nurtures by silences and haunting utterances that are as much a part of the art of the time as the art itself. This sequence, which obviously simplifies things, makes it clear the film is alluding directly now to Richter - the more so when Kurt announces at a triumphant press conference, after achieving great success, that he will henceforth do no more paintings from old snapshots and has become interested in "color charts."

One wishes the film had followed Kurt on to the color charts - the equivalent of Richter's celebrated abstract work - but it stops here. Nonetheless it leaves us with much to ponder, and has provided a rich sense of the complex background of the post-war innovators in art. This is a splendid film whose treatment of the life of art and the art of the postwar period is worlds beyond the next tumultuous Van Gogh saga, or fretful story of Picasso's women.

Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel is responsible for the glowing images, production designer Silke Buhr for the superb sense of changing periods. Max Richter composed the powerful score.

Never Look Away, 189 mins., original title (German) Werk Ohne Autor (Work Without Author), debuted at Venice Sept. 2018 winning two awards; also showed at the Toronto and Zurich festivals. It released theatrically in various countries in Oct., Nov., and Dec. Limited US release in Nov. 2018 to qualify for the Oscars; it is the German Best Foreign entry. For a Venice review that's as enthusiastic as I am, see Boyd von Hoeij in Hollywood Reporter. Coming to Northern California 15 Feb. 2019.

Chosen as Germany's Best Oscar entry, the film (January 2019) is now shortlisted for the coveted award with eight other titles: Birds of Passage from Colombia, The Guilty from Denmark, Shoplifters from Japan, Ayka from Afghanistan, Capernaum from Lebanon, Roma from Mexico (the favorite), Cold War from Poland, and Burning from Korea. (Alfonso Cuarón's more known and popular Roma was the winner).


©Chris Knipp. Blog:

Display posts from previous:  Sort by  
Forum locked This topic is locked, you cannot edit posts or make further replies.  [ 1 post ] 

All times are UTC - 8 hours

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 24 guests

You cannot post new topics in this forum
You cannot reply to topics in this forum
You cannot edit your posts in this forum
You cannot delete your posts in this forum
You cannot post attachments in this forum

Search for:
Jump to:  
Powered by phpBB® Forum Software © phpBB Group