Among this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar nominees, Poland’s Cold War and Germany’s Never Look Away look a lot like Hollywood’s own politically woke claptrap.
Never Look Away is the one that most easily appeals to the predilections of American film culture. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s three-hour-plus epic is a virtual seminar in lingering European guilt. It’s full of stylishly grim World War II anecdotes about Fascist cruelty and family disintegration — all within a bio-pic that parallels the life and canvases of painter Gerhard Richter.
Von Donnersmarck imitates Richter’s personal artistic struggle to show the painful experience of self-conscious survival — the knowledge that “everything true is beautiful; everything is connected.” Or as old-time movie barkers would tout: “the indomitable spirit of man.”
Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) grew up under the Nazi regime and was introduced to art by his sexy, free-spirited aunt, whose talent, intelligence, and natural seductiveness are stunted and brutalized by the Nazi euthanization order. As an art student, Kurt has a disposition that resists his East German schooling and Soviet social repression — in obedience to his aunt’s send-off, “Never look away!” His development occurs through Von Donnersmarck’s tour of the post-war art scene, which simulates projects by Lotte Ulbricht, Willi Sitte, Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana, and other iconic avant-gardists.
The film’s original German title, “Werk Ohne Autor,” translates as “Work without Author,” a reference to Roland Barthes’s essential essay “The Death of the Author” in which an artist’s personal identity is considered less significant than the social ideas expressed in his work. Von Donnersmarck parlays this major theory — founded in the insights and experimentation of filmmakers from Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Marie Straub to Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Andre Téchiné — but the ultimate point of his overlong saga reduces the theory to chic, art-house melodrama.
Rebellious Kurt falls in love with fashion student Ellie (Paula Beer), the daughter of Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), the same Nazi medic who euthanized Kurt’s aunt. This coincidence is such a narrative whopper that it had better be distanced from Gerhard Richter’s high-art sensibility and creative rigor.
But few critics and filmgoers can tell the difference when a movie subject involves Nazis. There’s a predilection for what Pauline Kael called “Nazi junkie” movies among Americans whose taste is fixated on European history and middle-class political sentiments. That also explains why Von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, a melodrama about repression by the East German Stasi, was an overrated Oscar winner.
Never Look Away itself actually demonstrates the avoidance of artistic complexity. Von Donnersmarck specializes in the middlebrow art of self-congratulation. How ironic that his film about an artist figure uses a storytelling style that sidesteps artistic innovation and never challenges comfortable taste. (Its drama has a complacent, Sydney Pollack air.) Instead of recalling Fassbinder, Godard, or even Paul Verhoeven films that confront narrative conventions, Von Donnersmarck uses banal methods to underscore disapproval, in hindsight, of Nazis and East German socialism. Scenes of Kurt’s aunt enticing off-duty bus drivers to turn their depot into an orchestra’s horn section, her nude piano-playing breakdown, Professor Seeband’s mutilation of his own daughter, and Kurt’s various art-punk tantrums are all just schmaltzy virtue-signaling.
The one exception is Seeband’s ironic bond with a Russian commander. When the Soviets take over and rout the Nazis immediately after the war, Seeband saves the officer’s wife (“because I can”) and also conveniently saves himself. Their gentlemen’s agreement surpasses the saccharine American–Russian Cold War friendship in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, yet Seeband’s “because I can” expediency never informs petulant Kurt’s use of his own skills. (“You have a gift for line,” praises his art teacher.) But then, throughout the rest of the movie, Koch’s theatrically evil dad maintains a Nazi scowl like Alexander Knox in None Shall Escape.
Von Donnersmarck’s convenient sentimentality is assisted by American cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who changes his usually ebullient style to approximate Sven Nykvist’s gentle light and smoothly modeled nudes in the ersatz European art movie The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It almost indicts the superficial perfection of current technology that Deschanel’s unoriginal images still show more refinement than most other movies. Never Look Away is, at best, decorative art — not much of a tribute to Gerhard Richter after all.
Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War continues Hollywood’s fascination with political sacred cows in a sleeker vein than Von Donnersmarck’s leviathan. Yet Cold War similarly patronizes European modernity and turns it into soft-core kitsch.
Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot play Zula and Wiktor, Polish WWII survivors who exploit each other through sex and art. They meet as Cold War envoys, representing Polish musical culture in a nationalist troupe; then both escape to the West and enjoy the licentious, promiscuous titillation of jazz (also a theme of Pawlikowski’s Ida). They’re doomed lovers but mainly desperate characters whose ruthlessness is so glamorized beyond a political context that it seems to represent traits of modern, Millennial self-interest.
Cinematographer Lukasz Zal gives each tryst and every debauchery a sparkling, high-contrast black-and-white gloss. Pawlikowski says the warring couple is based on his parents, which makes this entire film a landmark soft-core Freudian primal scene.
Cold War’s succinct version of political indifference matches that of Never Look Away. Zula and Wiktor are peers of the young Kurt, who refuses to finish his commission to paint a “Unity of the Working Class” mural. Yet, because Kurt’s self-delusion outweighs any political principle, his casual attitude toward the East German cheer “socialism needs everyone / Everyone needs socialism” seems very timely today.
Zula and Wiktor also casually go from producing folk music as indigenous expression, then as communist propaganda, then as commercial product. Pawlikowski almost satirizes their craven adaptability when the folk troupe’s “Wonderful Stalin” song is performed before a rising backdrop of Stalin that later changes to a backdrop of Stalin and Lenin.
Cold War and Never Look Away both prove that Communist-bloc movies have become nostalgic for Hollywood — sacred cows that reflect contemporary political insensitivity.