Gerhard Richter: The Movie
Never Look Away (2018). Written, directed, and produced by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
A Sony Picture Classics Release
It was hard to know what kind of cinematic experience was in store upon entering MoMA’s Titus Theater 1. My expectations were uncertain. The film’s relative connection to the renowned German painter Gerhard Richter was not entirely clear. Nor was I aware that the film was an extensive feature, partially fictional, yet based on actual historical events. During the introductory remarks made at this screening [the film is now in general release, presently showing at the Paris cinema in New York], I was curious to hear that the film is Germany’s Official Selection for the 2019 Academy Awards and that the Director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, had previously won an Oscar for The Lives of Others (2006). Indeed, Mr. Henckel von Donnersmarck’s intriguing, yet playful remarks were incisive and to the point. Rather than promote his career, he advocated the importance of keeping cinema as a social art form.
This somehow opened a door as to what Never Look Away might be and what indeed it may become. As the artist Thomas Demand has so eloquently put it: “I have never seen a film that depicts as plausibly as this one how art is created, and what it means.”
Historically, this film covers a crucial span of nearly thirty years beginning with the infamous Nazi-generated Entartete Kunst or “Degenerate Art” exhibition of 1937, which traveled throughout Germany to capacity crowds, while the concluding section focuses on the first solo exhibition of paintings by one Kurt Barnert in Dusseldorf, thus simulating Gerhard Richter’s important exhibition at the Galeria Schmela in 1964. Kurt Barnert is the fictitious stand-in, in other words, for Richter, deftly played by Tom Schilling.
It is curious how the two exhibitions are employed by the Director as “bookends” in the film. Whereas we see Barnert as a five-year-old child staring intently at works of “degenerate art,” questioning whether or not he wants to become a painter, the closing sequence is filmed during a press conference at a gallery revealing a thoughtful, provocative, and mature artist in his early thirties. Here Barnert’s confidence proves inexorable.
In either case, the principle overseer for doing the research and reproduction of these historical and contemporary paintings was Richter’s former student, Andreas Schon. His effects are what give precision to all aspects of these early expressionist works from Die Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter to the early “photo-realist” paintings of Richter. The attention to these details is largely what gives cinematic authority to Never Look Away.
The calamities of growing up are further played out in accord with the agonies of Richter. Kurt Barnert has grown from childhood into adolescence in Dresden during National Socialism. By the time of the post-war GDR period, he will have applied twice to the Dresden Art Academy before being admitted to the “free painting” department in 1952 at the age of twenty. Here we are given a series of glimpses as to Barnert’s frustration with what he is trying to do. Although a first-rate draughtsman, the artist feels limited as to how far his career will go under such circumstances.
But a larger story pervades the film from start to finish— a narrative in which personal tragedy intersects with the overwhelming historical one in which heinous crimes and incarcerations were perpetrated against Jews and various dissidents who refused the Nazi protocol. A key figure in the film is a Nazi-sympathizing gynecologist Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), who was responsible for unwarranted euthanasia and for sending innocent people to camps to be murdered in gas chambers. This included a beloved aunt of Barnert who cared for him as a child in Dresden and gave him the foundation for his desire to become an artist. (This clearly emits from a forceful memory instilled in Richter.)
During his years as a student in East Germany, Barnert meets a beautiful young woman, Elisabeth (Paula Beer). They fall in love, and unaware that Elisabeth is the gynecologist’s daughter, get married. Meanwhile as the culmination of WWII is slowly becoming imminent, a Russian military colleague warns Professor Seeband that he must leave East Germany and hide out in the West if he hopes to avoid being tried for murder. Inadvertently, Barnert discovers that Seeband is a Nazi-in-hiding, which more than likely accounts for previous incidents of intense hardship that have intervened in his marriage.
Never Look Away is a complex story, but also a griping one. We may question as Kurt walks through the hallways and studios at the Art Academy in Dusseldorf as to what possibilities will open for him there. We may sense he is on the verge of doing something significant, but we also know he will go through many stages and passageways to get there. The character based on Joseph Beuys possibly had some role is guiding Barnert in the right direction, given that Beuys was hired by the Academy the same year Richter was admitted, 1961. But what finally stands out in this film is the commitment among the performers and participants in searching for what really makes an artist— that art is important because it is essential to the historical moment in which we live, and by which we learn to account for ourselves. There is no limit to the effort that needs to be made in order for this to happen.