Guest post by Leah Marie Chizek.
Postwar German art can be befuddling. In one of the more lighthearted sequences from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film Never Look Away (Germany, 2018), the young artist and émigré Kurt Barnert, newly arrived from East Germany, wanders the halls of the famed Düsseldorf Art Academy, where he is now enrolled as a student. This is not the art he knows but art whose iconoclastic glee seems boundless and, indeed, befuddling. Barnert’s colleagues do not paint but ply huts made of potatoes, concoct geometric sculptures from nails, and sling lard into the joints of classroom walls. If he wishes to compete, he must find his own artistic metier, a search that culminates in his painterly interpretation of old photographs.
We are made privy to this moment of breakthrough when he singles out a family photograph of himself as a young boy, cradled in the arms of his beloved aunt, who was murdered by the Nazis. Kurt transforms this photo into a large-scale grisaille, ever so slightly blurred as if to stress the foggy factures of time and memory. But Kurt’s painting does not befuddle; it reveals. On one hand, it is a loving tribute to his aunt, who, toward the beginning of the film tells a 5-year-old Kurt to never look away, for “everything that’s true is beautiful.” But it also reveals more than just the truth of their close bond, disclosing an unexpected fact concerning her death of which not even Kurt is aware—a spoiler that brings the film full circle and that I won’t divulge here.
As it were, Never Look Away itself operates much like a blurred picture, ostensibly but also never really concealing the identity of the artist on whose life it is based: Gerhard Richter is now 88 years old, and he arguably remains the most famous (and most highly-paid) artist living today. Donnersmarck’s film paints Richter’s life in broad, canny strokes: like Barnert, Richter experienced the Third Reich as a small child, and as an art student in East Germany, he first endured the GDR’s repressive artistic policies before eventually fleeing with his wife to the west, just before the borders were permanently closed and the Wall was built.
Richter isn’t the only recognizable figure in the film, either. His colleagues in Düsseldorf are likewise cinematic stand-ins for other famous postwar artists, like the lard-slinging Joseph Beuys, clad in his trademark felt hat and fishermen’s vest. Much more tellingly, Richter did indeed have an aunt, Marianne, whom he once painted (Tante Marianne, 1965) and who was sent to a psychiatric clinic in Grossweidnitz, where she would be sterilized and eventually starved to death under the Third Reich’s Action T4 euthanasia program—a family tragedy that becomes the film’s red thread.
At the same time, these broad strokes are blurred to produce a creative retelling of the artist’s life, subject at times to the sort of soapy metaphysics Hollywood does best. The result is an unquestionably beautiful film, sumptuously shot, and with an epic character that garnered Donnersmarck multiple Academy Award nominations—more than any German film in thirty years. But toeing the line between fact and fiction is also tricky business, and for circumstances that remain murky, the film sparked what quickly became a well-publicized rift between Donnersmarck and Richter, embroiling them in a he-said/he-said game that has left the film’s critics—themselves divided despite the film’s obvious box-office success—to speculate. Donnersmarck had in fact sought Richter out, inviting his feedback on the script, and has stated that Richter expressed great enthusiasm, even offering to paint original works of art for the set. But in the end, Richter never even saw the film and has sought to distance himself from it, stating only that it misused the facts of his life. (Curiously, Richter is also famous for once having compiled his own catalogue raisonné, deliberately omitting works from the record as it suited him—a method that flies in the face of this most art-historical of genres.)
One is left suspecting that the film’s Achilles heel may well be its Hollywood ambitions, which more often than not seem to demand unstinting allegiance to melodrama. Facts are embellished if not distorted, complexities necessarily flattened, and difficult histories—like that of the Holocaust—dangerously aestheticized, subordinated in pursuit of a compelling and comprehensible story. To that end, Donnersmarck’s film instrumentalizes Richter’s biography but also the history of postwar German art and indeed history itself for the sake of emotional catharsis and narrative absolution, and in potentially troublesome ways.
Barnert’s art, unlike Richter’s, comes across patently nostalgic and confessional, and the enigmatic, even spiritual qualities of much postwar German art like that of Beuys may seem lost to caricature; still more controversial has been one sequence early in the film, set to the elegiac tones of Händel, which has been roundly criticized in Donnersmarck’s native Germany for its shamelessly sensuous montage of wartime horrors. Just what exactly rankled Richter is hard to say, but for all its beauty the film clearly has its flaws. And yet for precisely these reasons, Never Look Away seduces us as a fascinating case study into the politics of adapting an artist’s life to celluloid.
As for that cinematic spoiler? After seeing the film, those interested may wish to consult Richter’s actual painting of his Aunt Marianne on the artist’s own website.
For a fuller discussion of both this painting and its significance within Richter’s larger oeuvre, see Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, translated by Elizabeth M. Solaro (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
Never Look Away will be screened at the IU Cinema on March 1 as part of the Art and a Movie series and the International Arthouse Series. There will be a pre-screening talk at the Eskenazi Museum of Art at 3 pm.
Leah Marie Chizek is a graduate assistant in the Department of Works on Paper at the Eskenazi Museum of Art. She is currently a dual-master’s candidate in art history and library science, with an emphasis on rare books and manuscripts.