The opening scene takes place at the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Dresden in 1937 where Barnert/Richter (age five) and his aunt are in attendance. This exhibit was assembled by the Nazis to showcase what they considered immoral art that did not "elevate the soul." It's laughable to think about the Nazis pontificating on morality. This theme of the interaction between art, morality, and politics is carried throughout the forty year time span of the movie. During the time that Barnert was living in the GDR he was expected to depict scenes about hardworking citizens. In one art class the students were to draw from models with the male shouldering a sledge hammer and the female holding up a sheaf of wheat. Interesting that art, morality, and politics are still debated. For example, I am thinking of Serrano's "Piss Christ" and Mapplethorpe's "The Perfect Moment" exhibit.
Fortunately Kurt and Ellie ultimately escape to the West. I knew that the Berlin Wall went up to keep the East Germans from fleeing to the West, but, as shown here, it was fairly easy to escape to the West before the Wall went up.
The story strays from the facts of Richter's life for dramatic effect on occasion. In an intriguing plot twist Ellie's father is shown, in his capacity as a Nazi medical doctor, to be responsible for the ultimate extermination of Kurt's aunt. Also, Kurt winds up at the Dusseldorf Academy of Art while the Academy was under the direction of Professor Antonius van Verten--a fictional stand-in for real life Joseph Beuys. The movie promotes the myth concerning Verten/Beuys of his having been shot down in Crimea during WWII and saved by Tartars.
Donnersmark has assembled an able cast. Cai Cohrs, playing Barnert at age 7, had the ability to portray intense absorption in his surroundings, giving a hint as to his ultimate development as an artist. Sebastian Koch is perfect in his portrayal of Professor Seaband, a stiff, aloof Nazi. After the war you see that Seeband had not adapted his personality just to being a good Nazi, rather he was ideally suited to being a Nazi; this worked well for him in the GDR as well. Seeband was capable of evil deeds even after the War. I had never seen Oliver Masucci, who played van Verten, and I was impressed with his ability to capture my attention just in his speaking parts. The women, Saskia Rosendahl as Kurt's aunt, and Paula Beer, as Kurt's love interest, were up to their parts. I would like to have seen Tom Schilling, as Kurt, show a little more intensity, following up on Cohrs' lead.
Much time is devoted to showing Kurt's struggle to find his métier. His initial breakthrough was to start with photo realism and overpaint with some simple full brush strokes. Of course this movie has you asking, "What is Art." As an example, the simple overpainting of a photo image adds an indefinable mystery to the original. Is the original photo not art, but the overpainted one is?
The sound is closely miked. You don't miss door closing, the wind in trees, car motors, sheets rustling, and so forth. The score borders on being intrusive at times, but I really liked the low bass notes that accompanied the love scenes.
This was nominated for an Oscar for best cinematography. The camera work is not flashy but effective. After finding out about the Oscar nomination and watching the movie a second time with an eye toward the color palette, composition, and lighting it is easy to see the justification for the Oscar nomination. Between the sound and lighting the style reminded me a bit of Terrence Malick.
When the final product is of such high quality credit has to be given to the director.