Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck on Never Look Away

The Lives of Others director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is back with new movie Never Look Away, a decade-spanning epic inspired by Gerhard Richter. The German director talks to us about blurring fact and fiction

Feature by Gianni Marini | 02 Jul 2019
  • Never Look Away

“Nine months,” says Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck when we ask how long it takes for his scripts to take shape. “In the time it takes one body to weave another it must be possible to make a screenplay.” The Academy Award-winning German director’s self-imposed time limit is designed to combat his own perfectionist weakness. Even for Never Look Away, his new feature that spans three decades of German history, the limit was enforced. The challenge was not in the writing, however, it was in the filmmaking. “It was a lot harder than anything I’ve ever done, than The Lives of Others or The Tourist.”

The film shows Dresden before, during and then after the bombing in 1945 – it all had to be built even though it is only the backdrop. The opening scene sees the film's child protagonist, Kurt (Cai Cohrs), visiting the Nazis' 'degenerate art' exhibition. “We had a whole troupe of painters reconstruct this artwork, much of which the Nazis destroyed,” says von Donnersmarck. Even then he did not know how long his exploration of the relationship between trauma and art would be. This would only be discovered in the editing suite when the film’s natural rhythm appeared. “There comes a point when you realise if you take away a scene it makes the film feel longer, because it changes the natural structure.” The editing flows and time passes at a different pace.

The pace of Never Look Away is forceful. Young Kurt experiences a childhood full of tragedy: his beloved aunt is violently committed to a mental institute never to be seen again, the beautiful city of Dresden becomes a hellscape in the firestorm, his two uncles are killed in the war and his father kills himself. This little boy watches it all with an unflinching gaze from the moment his aunt tells him to “never look away” because “everything that is true is beautiful.”

Von Donnersmarck’s screenplay sows the seeds of artistic expression throughout Kurt’s childhood and lets them grow to bear fruit later in the film. “Everything that the artist has experienced is necessary for him to create the work he has made. This is what I wanted to explore with the film.” Adult Kurt (Tom Schilling) eventually achieves artistic maturity in spite of successive ideological impositions. For von Donnersmarck, “every little thing that Kurt suffers has been necessary.”

The central terrible secret that creates tension throughout the film is that Kurt’s father-in-law directly facilitated the murder of his schizophrenic aunt. It is almost too wild to believe but it is “the factual point of inspiration” for the movie. Von Donnersmarck’s story is inspired by the life of Gerhard Richter, one of the world’s most important contemporary painters, who grew up in Nazi Germany. In communist East Germany, he found success as a painter of socialist realist murals before escaping to the West. His paintings of photographs brought him great acclaim across the Western world while his murals were destroyed as the work of a traitor.

In his 70s Richter found out through the work of a journalist that his father-in-law had managed to escape execution despite being a high-ranking SS officer who had been the administrator of the hospital where his aunt had been forcibly sterilised. Richter had painted not only his aunt and father-in-law but also the architect of the Nazi euthanasia programme that led to his aunt’s murder. It is the existence of these mysteriously connected artworks that formed the starting point of a story about artistic development. “An artist doesn’t have to have understood something, they can know something subconsciously and process it through their emotions.”

At moments throughout the film the focus is blurred, inspired by Gerhard Richter’s use of the Renaissance technique sfumato – a process making the painting look blurry or smoky. “You take a very soft brush and go over the sharp contours and it creates a magical effect,” says von Donnersmarck. “It allows the viewer room for interpretation. If I took a photograph and throw it out of focus it suddenly becomes uncertain, allowing you to make it your own.” Von Donnersmarck believes this is in part a result of “too brave a child looking everything right in the eye.”

There are times when childhood Kurt raises his hand before his eyes, temporarily blocking his view – and ours. The movement mimics the shutter of a camera. He also uses his hands to frame what he sees, such as in a scene when some mental institute nurses get their portrait taken. It highlights Kurt’s act of seeing the world but also draws attention to the idea of perspective. Gerhard Richter himself explored the notion of authenticity through his photo-realistic paintings, playing with the sense that the paint on the canvas captured some sort of objective reality.

Von Donnersmarck believes “fiction can get closer to truth than a mere enumeration of facts.” For him, Richter’s paintings of photographs are not simply replicas. The act of transmuting turns what may merely have been an objective piece of evidence into a document of his emotions with more density than the original ever had. “In German, the word for fiction is also the word for density and poetry. Fiction is condensed reality; it is somehow more real.”

Von Donnersmarck illustrates this idea by way of an example. “Take Citizen Kane for instance, I think it is a more interesting exploration of what is fascinating about the life of someone like William Randolph Hearst than a biographical film using the exact facts.” Never Look Away is heavily peppered with references to Gerhard Richter’s biography but von Donnersmarck insists on its fictional nature. Richter himself has been notorious in swaying between both elusiveness and openness about any meaning behind his work. It is a fascinating irony that the film and Richter’s life are now inevitably linked but that the truth is no clearer.

The film builds towards Kurt’s artistic freedom of expression. It is, for von Donnersmarck, a cathartic climax in which art is a healer. He quotes from Hollywood legend Elia Kazan’s autobiography describing art as the scab that forms on the wound of trauma. Perhaps Never Look Away is part of the scab that is still forming over Germany. “My grandparents’ generation spoke very little about the twelve years of Nazism. It is a social psychological phenomenon often reported throughout Germany.”

Von Donnersmarck thinks this silence is from a fear of inciting the anger and disgust of the younger generation. “My parent’s generation were obsessed by the period of the Third Reich.” The silence, he thinks, is mentally unhealthy and so the trauma continues to be passed down. But he is hopeful about the next generation, who he thinks can use the increased separation to approach what happened with more sobriety.

The trouble with von Donnersmarck’s philosophy – that great trauma is the genesis of great artwork – is the uncomfortable proximity in which it places creative expression and war. But he says it does not mean we need another war in order to have glorious art. “Unfortunately, the world will always provide plenty of opportunities to do despicably evil deeds that will be enough fuel for there to be great art until the end of time.”

Never Look Away is released 5 Jul by Modern Films