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What The Lives of Others director did next — Richter and the Nazis

What The Lives of Others director did next — Richter and the Nazis

January 20
22:07 2019
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The many admirers of The Lives of Others, the Oscar-winning 2006 film that delved into the workings of the East German secret police to become a surprise international hit, have had to wait a long time for the film’s director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, to tackle a subject of similar heft. Indeed the only film made by von Donnersmarck since his lavishly received debut was 2010’s The Tourist, a lightweight Hollywood caper starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, that couldn’t have been more different in tone, or less ambitious in scope.

The change of direction was noted, and roundly criticised, by critics. Von Donnersmarck bears the wounds lightly. “People were expecting something more substantial from me, and then the film was marketed as an action film,” he tells me over a Skype call. “So when they saw this one, rather slow, boat chase in Venice, and no philosophical substance, there was this incredible anger. It was as if I had made a film about eating babies. That came as a little bit of a surprise. Luckily it performed well.”

The director’s new work, Never Look Away, marks a welcome return to seriousness. Loosely based on the early life of the artist Gerhard Richter, the film chronicles the Nazi regime’s treatment of a schizophrenic woman who is captured, sterilised and executed as part of a euthanasia programme. After the war the woman’s nephew, who only knew her as a child, becomes an artist in the communist east, and marries the daughter of a former Nazi officer, who happens to have been responsible for his aunt’s execution.

Von Donnersmarck was drawn to the story by an article and book on Richter by the journalist Jürgen Schreiber, who discovered the coincidence: the officer was the father of the artist’s first wife; the aunt is depicted, sitting with the four-month-old Richter, in “Aunt Marianne”, one of the artist’s most famous “photo-paintings”. Von Donnersmarck gave the book to his mother, who warned him off the subject. “She told me it was so sad, and thought I wouldn’t be interested,” he says.

But she underestimated her son’s evidently renewed wish to once more confront a historically provocative subject, in the shape of Germany’s Nazi past.

Saskia Rosendahl as Elisabeth May in ‘Never Look Away’

It caught his attention early: “For the generation of my parents and grand­parents, it was something that dominated discussion. But my mother reminded me that once I’d got into terrible trouble at home, when I was 10 or so, because I was late from school. They thought I’d been kidnapped or run over. In fact I heard two old ladies on the bus, talking about their childhood, and I was so interested to get that sense of what it was like, I stayed on the bus until they got off at the terminal.”

Then there was the movie’s second, more philosophical, theme, the role of the creative spirit in confronting emotional hardship.

“I always wanted to do a movie about an artist overcoming his own trauma by creating art,” he explains. “The story had the texture of reality. It was not drama. But I wanted to use drama to make it more truthful than reality.”

He confesses it can make for a “dangerous hybrid”. “But I always like to weave real events into fictitious stories. It helps you test the mettle of your fiction. You can ask: ‘Does this feel like it is made of the same stuff?’ When I think of Citizen Kane, to use a common example, I don’t think I would have been interested in it if it had been called Citizen Hearst. If it had been closer to fact, I would no longer have thought it would illuminate anything.”

Von Donnersmarck spent a “substantial” amount of time with Richter, the 86-year-old painter who is regularly cited as one of the world’s greatest living artists. “He was very open with his time, and it was of course very interesting to listen to the experiences of someone who has lived through all the madness of the 20th century in a very intense form.”

Richter was born and educated in East Germany, but denied entry into the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts for producing work that was “too bourgeois”. He escaped to West Germany just two months before the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

Never Look Away uses the twists of coincidence in the Richter story to provide narrative suspense. But the film also devotes much time to watching the character of the artist actually working on his art, painstakingly searching for catharsis, a way of dealing with the extraordinary historical events unfolding before him. It makes for an unusually long film, at a shade over three hours, which has evidently unsettled potential distributors: it has, at the time of writing, yet to find a deal for the UK, despite winning Oscar and Golden Globe nominations.

Von Donnersmarck felt it was important to reflect on the artistic process itself in the film. Since our interview, Richter has distanced himself from the film, telling a New Yorker writer that von Donnersmarck’s adaptation had caused “bad feelings”. Nonetheless, the artist’s work was clearly a powerful inspiration. As von Donnersmarck says, “I spent time looking at [Richter’s] work when I was with him. The photo-paintings [paintings taken from photographs, that are slightly blurred] are immediately and directly powerful, they are super-charged with emotion. Yet they are also very faithful.

“Then I saw the original pictures they were taken from, and there is nothing in them. So, something happens in that process, in transferring a nothing snapshot on to a canvas. It is like a supernatural thing. Every brushstroke is charged with feeling. It is like the way a certain sequence of notes in music can be arranged to shake you to the core.”

Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck © Thomas Leidig

He says it is the power of art that makes him feel optimistic about the future, even in our currently uncertain times.

“If you look at history, you find this incredible concern that totalitarian regimes have towards art. I find that comforting, and flattering. If they take it that seriously, it must mean that our voices are incredibly important. I think history shows that systems which go against the grain of humanity always go under.”

As for the film’s length, he finds it hard to see what the concern is. “My daughter and her friends can watch an entire season [of a television series] in a day! If you are in the mood for a thriller, that’s not what you are going to get. But if it is an inspirational art drama you are after, I hope you won’t be able to find a better one. It is very important to see the film in the right frame of mind.”

I ask if he is inclined, as he did after The Lives of Others, to take a break and turn to lighter fare once more. “Yes,” he says simply.

“There is more light in this film than in The Lives of Others.” But the illness and subsequent death of that film’s leading actor Ulrich Mühe, he says, made it “a very tough experience. It was emotionally draining.”

“I like what James Cameron said after he had just made Titanic, that asking him about any future project was like asking a woman who is crowning when she is planning on having the next [baby]!”

‘Never Look Away’ is released in the US next week

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