‘As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me,” George Orwell wrote in 1941. So it went with Germany in the 20th century. The most cultured of peoples turned to barbarism. The most logical and scientifically minded of countries wrapped itself in the most rancid pseudoscience. Even as it turned against its neighbors, the country turned against itself, devoting unthinkable resources to the task of imprisoning, sterilizing, and murdering millions of noncombatants.
After the war, pride and shame battled for space in the German psyche. When I lived in Bavaria in the early Nineties while serving with the Third Infantry Division, it was a strange sensation to be in a country where the defining national trait is guilt. The sense of humiliation was balanced by a dogged pride, though. Memory and forgetting seemed equally imperative. A gorgeous 18th-century palace shone in the center of town where I lived. Not a scratch on it could be seen. Yet it had been bombed out in World War II and lovingly restored to look exactly the way it had. In Berlin, by contrast, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church was nearly destroyed by bombing but its ruins were left standing as a reminder and a warning. Which is the correct approach — leave the ugly scar or start fresh? Remembrance or renewal?
The question of complicity hung over German cinema in the 1970s, as films such as The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978) and The Tin Drum (1979) spoke for the children of the post-war generation lashing out at their elders, decrying a Germany in which ordinary civilians coldly played along with atrocity. In recent years, German film has opened up its frontiers, even venturing into the long-forbidden territory of making comedy out of Hitler in such films as My Führer (2007) and Look Who’s Back (2015).
Today Germany stands at sufficient distance from its past to enable a new, more considered way of reckoning with it, and in addition to the luxury of time the German filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has enjoyed the benefit of living part of his life in New York and later California. Insight often accompanies distance. Donnersmarck, who won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for The Lives of Others (2006), seeks a broader, deeper, richer explanation for Germany, its self-inflicted catastrophes and their sequels. He notes, in a New Yorker profile, “Because of all the terrible suffering Germany caused in World War Two, there wasn’t a lot of focus on what the German people suffered, understandably. But many people were apolitical, and suffered the way [the painter Gerhard] Richter’s family suffered, and the way mine did.” The Lives of Others, about the moral wreckage caused by the Stasi surveillance state in East Germany, is rightly praised as one of the best films of this century. Yet his new effort, Never Look Away, which has just hit theaters after it was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (and also for Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography), is even better. It’s expansive, it’s sublime. It’s one of the very few films I’ve seen this century that I call a masterpiece.
To attempt a restrictive definition of that term would be folly, I think — art resists being wrangled into categories — but some would say it’s a question of components. Great acting, great cinematography, great sound, etc. Very often critics will rush to proclaim something a masterpiece because it constitutes “great cinema,” meaning it flaunts the tricks in the director’s magic case. A Clockwork Orange, with its irresistible flash and sizzle, is a prototypical example of this conceptual error: It is indeed great cinema, but it’s not a great movie. Because cinema is simply a storytelling medium and the story of A Clockwork Orange is cold, frustrating, dismal. The movie leaves me exhausted, not exhilarated.
Cinema is simply a means of telling stories, and for me a masterwork of the form typically has a surprising, fresh story; emotionally gripping characters whose conflicts strike deep chords; and some important purpose or profound subtext. Often there is some inspired structure, some inherent beauty or symmetry or balance, and Never Look Away has all of these things. It presents itself as a bildungsroman about a boy named Kurt Barnert growing up in 1930s Dresden who in his early thirties, in the 1960s, becomes a great painter modeled after Gerhard Richter, but the film is much more than a character study or a reflection on how art transcends catastrophe. It is a study in the strange balances and ironies and paradoxes that constitute 20th-century Germany, or the German character. One character makes an offhand reference to “consistent German madness.” Donnersmarck finds the German 20th century to be a long, desperate struggle between opposed forces.
Dualism is all over the film, a tale of mirror images and clashing opposites. Kurt, the man of beauty and art (played as an adult by Tom Schilling), is balanced by Herr Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch, who led the cast of The Lives of Others), the man of science and medicine. The men are connected by two women, both named Elisabeth, both of whose reproductive functionality is attacked by Seeband. Within Seeband himself there is a fascist and a socialist, an obstetrician and an abortionist, a life-giver and a death-dealer. He saves the life of a woman and her baby in childbirth in a wondrous scene that pays tribute to the skill of physicians, but he is also the head of the Dresden region’s program to sterilize and then euthanize those deemed genetically inferior. One of these is Kurt’s schizophrenic aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), a woman of deep feeling who introduced him to the imaginative possibilities of art but was also a Nazi who once delightedly handed the Führer a bouquet in a parade. This, but also that is Donnersmarck’s approach to his native land. Donnersmarck’s reflectiveness and sobriety enable him to avoid any tendentious strain.
Seeband is counterbalanced not just by Kurt but also by Kurt’s father, a teacher who unlike most of his peers resisted joining the Nazi party in the 1930s because he hated Hitler. He paid a steep price for it, losing his job. One comic scene shows him learning that a way to avoid saying the detestable words “Heil Hitler” is to quickly say “Drei Litre” (three liters) instead. But his wife finally talks him into joining the party in 1940, convincing him that it would be his “capital” after the war. This man, who is not at his core a Nazi, pays dearly for nominally being a party member; Seeband, on the other hand, who so deeply imbibes Hitler-inspired eugenics that even after the war he proves willing to end the life of his own grandchild based on a crackpot theory about genetic purity, pays no price whatsoever for being a committed Nazi and effortlessly morphs into a Russian-speaking socialist in East Germany after the war. Kurt’s father’s fate is grim.
Donnersmarck examines the moral equivalence of Nazism and socialism in a surprising way: through twinned lectures on art, one at the outset of the film and one in the middle, after East Germany becomes a Soviet satellite. Both a Nazi art lecturer and a socialist give much the same spiel about how art is useless if it strays too far from the interests of the people, which in turn is a euphemism for state propaganda. A key moment in Kurt’s education is when he learns that a true artist must possess the courage of individualism: “You’re the only one who knows if you’re doing it right.” One of many immensely effective set pieces is a scene in which one of Kurt’s mentors at art school places portraits of the leaders of the two major post-war German political parties in front of his classroom and sets them both on fire, advising his students, “Never vote for another party again. Vote for art. . . . By making yourselves free, you are liberating the world.” After the two tribal horrors, Germans would rediscover that they were not mere cogs in some national project.
Kurt’s aunt’s philosophy of art is that whatever is true is beautiful, but she is in the grip of a schizophrenic episode when she says this. Nevertheless the thought stays with the young man as he develops as a painter. His breakthrough is a new kind of painting, a triumph for him and, for Donnersmarck, a summation of all of the ideas he’s been working through in the film. The new form is itself a product of balances. Kurt tells his wife that if they can’t have children his paintings will be their children, and so they are. But they are also his forebears and his own past. One of them depicts him and his aunt in pre-war days.
Those paintings — works of immense skill that appear to be photographs at first glance but are actually meticulously painted with photos as their models — balance the casualness of a snapshot with the sustained effort that goes into a canvas. They bring the low culture of the tabloid into the refined precincts of the gallery, unite the shuddery old with the galvanizing new. Kurt’s style is of course Richter’s. Richter, 87, who The New Yorker says is “widely considered to be the greatest painter alive,” cooperated with Donnersmarck when the filmmaker was writing the screenplay, but he dislikes the film and is keeping his distance from it. That’s perhaps not surprising — if someone made a three-hour film of your life, it might bear little resemblance to your own perception of yourself — but it’s a little ironic given that Never Look Away is one of the most breathtaking tributes to an artist, in any medium, that has ever been put on film.
In Germany, the film is entitled “Werk ohne Autor” (Work without Author), which is a sobriquet early critics applied to Richter’s seemingly eerily objective paintings. That description seems so obviously wrong that I suppose the title is meant ironically: Consider all this young man went through before his first exhibition and you’ll hardly dare to erase his identity again. I prefer the historical resonance of the English title. Kurt is a boy about six when he finds his lovely adult aunt playing the piano nude. “Don’t look away,” she tells him. “Never look away.” She continues to so advise him even as she begins striking her own skull till it bleeds. It’s a very early tutorial in beauty and violence. Kurt continues to document the moment in his mind even as his aunt is taken away to a mental institution. Someday this horror will inform his art. Great post-war Germans such as Richter didn’t look away from their country’s past, but they built a peaceful, prosperous, art-loving new Germany upon it.