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Juan Camillo Roman Estrada
Young artist Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) has fled to West-Germany, but he continues to be tormented by the experiences he made in his childhood and youth in the Nazi years and during the GDR-regime. When he meets the student Ellie (Paula Beer), he is convinced that he has met the love of his life and begins to create paintings that mirror not only his own fate, but also the traumas of an entire generation.Written by
Wiedemann & Berg Film
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck should be a satisfied man. He made a stunning debut in 2006 with The Lives of Others, which immediately earned him an Oscar. Then he fell victim to Hollywood, who offered him the chance to make a lavish star-studded spy thriller, but it ended up as The Tourist, a star vehicle that looked beautiful but showcased very little of his narrative brilliance (nor of Johnny Depp's talent). It took him eight years, but with Werk ohne Autor/Never Look Away, he is back at full strength. This is the movie that makes me hope that he has learned a valuable lesson, and make more of such signature personal films where he calls the shots instead of the stars or the big studio.
The original title, meaning "Work (of art) without author" is the overall theme of the film from the beginning, when the young protagonist Kurt and his subversive aunt learn how Nazi Germany regards art as nothing more than a vessel to propagate its ideology; individual touches or any implicit criticism are seen as mere egocentrism. Ironically enough, even the communist GDR regime that replaces the Nazis years later adheres to the same rigid dogma: art should serve the political cause and not the artist. Kurt feels extremely hampered by his inability to make the art that he wants, and even after a move to the free West, he finds that years of repression makes it difficult for him to find his own unique signature.
Parallel to Kurt's story, we follow Professor Seeband (the always reliable Sabastian Koch), a respected gynecologist who has sadly adopted the Nazi ideology of keeping bloodlines pure by removing the physically and mentally ill from society. This means ruthlessly sentencing people to forced sterilization and even death when it benefits humanity in his views. Despite having narrowly survived the war, he remains a staunch and unapologetic supporter of this conviction, even if he has to hide it. However, his sins will come back to haunt him, one way or another. As fate would have it, both Kurt and Seeband have more in common than they may ever realize, and even get to play major roles in each other's lives. The film is invisibly divided in alternating chapters where we follow these characters, sometimes separately, often at points where the course of their lives intersect.
It is nice to see how well director von Donnersmarck's script balances these two stories, and ties them together. He takes ample time to show how the these two men live with the burden of their past over thirty years in a divided Germany. Even though the intensity of the events vary, and with a running time of 188 minutes, the film doesn't bore a single minute. The WWII part is easily the most gripping and emotional sequence in the movie, where the director allows himself the grandest gestures to tell his story, which makes for some memorable scenes that are tough to watch. After Der Untergang (Downfall) and The Lives of Others, it again shows how German filmmakers do not shy back from showing the uglier parts of their history.
After the war sequences, the director moves our emotions in more subtle ways. Kurt's past memories have irrevocably shaped him, but none of them are slapped into our face. And despite Seeband's cruel disposition, there remains humanity in him. With beautiful cinematography by Passion of the Christ's Caleb Deschanel, Kurt's coming of age is shown with great humanism, drama, surprising humor, and a pivotal moment where his aunt introduces him to sexuality, and tells him to "never look away", which explains the also very apt English title. The nudity and sex are done with a playful approach and feel very natural to the story, reminding us of similar episodes in our own lives, and the times where mainstream cinema was much more comfortable with depiction of such scenes.
Apart from a character study and the subjective weight of our past, there is a fascinating central question of what produces authentic art. Is it by following established movements, or by finding one's own way and ignoring established tradition if necessary? And how do we depict 'truth'? The film gives no definitive answer to these universal questions, but Kurt's solution marks the point where both his story and Seeband's reach their emotional climax. Even here, von Donnersmarck could have easily gone big, but he shows restraint by not going for the most obvious or satisfying conclusion. Much is left to our own interpretation, like a true piece of art.
Like The Lives of Others, this film is another great example of the director's talent for tying together character and story arcs, while at the same tackling his nation's troubled past. But even as a picture book, the film works and never gets dull. The Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Movie is more than deserved, as is the Best Cinematography nod. Good luck there!
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