Turning away from tyranny

  • by David Lamble
  • Tuesday February 12, 2019
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Tom Schilling as Kurt Barnert in "Never Look Away." Photo: Caleb Deschanel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Tom Schilling as Kurt Barnert in "Never Look Away." Photo: Caleb Deschanel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In Germany's official entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar "Never Look Away," director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck takes us through a horrific episode from the WWII genocidal tragedy known as the Holocaust. The film covers an impressive time-span, from 1937 Dresden, where a young woman is sacrificed on the altar of Nazi eugenics, sterilized, then gassed in a concentration camp; to the early-1950s Cold War in divided Germany, where ambitious young people head for the politically liberated Western sector; to the mid-60s struggles of a young artist to create a legitimate style while settling old scores with his ex-Nazi father-in-law. The filmmaker dazzles with the bold strokes of a generation that turns its back on the tyrannies of both the Hitler right and the Stalin left.

Right out of the box, von Donnersmarck boldly subjects us to a Nazi propaganda harangue against "decadent" (meaning, modern Western) art. Our attention is fixed on impressionable 10-year-old Kurt, accompanied by his young mother. The film begins with an atrocity committed against the mother, then delves into the devastating trauma experienced by survivors of the Third Reich. The survival strategies of Kurt, a young painter, are brought robustly to life by the boyish young screen actor Tom Schilling. Kurt, loosely based on the life of German painter Gerhard Richter, is haunted by the atrocities inflicted by his Nazi officer father.

Never Look Away director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Photo: Sony Pictures Classics  

My chat with director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck began with asking about the powerful feelings invoked by the English translation of his film's German title. "Werk ohne Autor" literally translates as "Work Without Author."

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: I'm happier with the English title than with the German title. "Never Look Away" was not really translatable into German because German is a language that sounds very strict, so "Never Look Away" sounds like a really strict teacher admonishing a student. In English it carries so many different meanings: Never look away when you see injustice. That's the very least you can do. It also means never look away because you might be caught up in prejudice: even if you think you know what you're going to see, you might have to question your beliefs. I think that's an important message. A lot of catastrophes in history could have been avoided if people had not just averted their gaze.

David Lamble: Why did you open the film with a 1937 talk on "degenerate art" by a Nazi officer?

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: It's a film about someone breaking free, who discovers that the only way to be a real artist is to shrug off everything he's learned. First the Nazis try to shape him into someone who glorifies the Nazi ideology; the Communists want him to paint pictures of workers to inspire people to believe in extreme socialism. Then he flees to the West and has to find his own voice. First he looks at what the market's doing, and that can be a form of ideology. Finally he sees that the only place to look is within.

One of the most extreme examples of ideology trying to influence art was that 1937 degenerate art exhibit. Historically, it was one of the most successful art shows in history: over two million people saw it. Goebbels and his people went into the museums and removed the Expressionists, all that New Objectivist stuff. They chose the ones they felt were the most absurd — Kandinsky's shapes and circles, or a blue horse, why would a horse be blue? — and showed them in this awful exhibit where they posted the exact amount in marks that taxpayers had paid for the art, at a time when Germans were very poor. Of course, most people were uneducated about new movements in art and were outraged. But many others went to the exhibit because they knew this would be the last time while the Nazis were in power that they would see great art.

Oliver Masucci as Professor Antonius van Verten in Never Look Away.Photo: Caleb Deschanel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics  

After that exhibit, the Nazis did an impromptu exhibit in Switzerland, sold a few of the paintings, and what was not sold was burned. We had a whole team of artists working on reconstructing these paintings. Often there were just little B&W pictures to draw from.

I call your lead actor, Tom Schilling, the "German Jimmy MacAvoy" because both actors specialize in roles where their characters are exposed to unreasonable amounts of danger. Here Shilling plays an intrepid young artist whose adventures take us through a very dangerous period in German history.

You're right, Tom Schilling is truly a brilliant young actor. I enjoyed him in "Coffee in Berlin." He doesn't say that much, and that's something I always look for in an actor: if someone is so compelling that merely watching him watch other people is interesting. Then there was his role in "Generation War," a huge TV series filmed from the point of view of WWII German soldiers sent to die on the Russian front. His was such a compelling performance that I enjoyed watching him through the whole series.

In our camera tests I could never get what I needed from him. I wondered what the problem was. Is Tom intimidated because I'm seven feet tall and he's a foot-and-a-half shorter? I had him come in seven times. Afterwards he handed me a letter saying, "Florian, I know you didn't get what you wanted from me, but you'll never get that in a casting situation. Because to give you what you need for this complicated, artistic character, I have to know that I can open up, to feel wanted, loved, accepted, which is impossible in a casting situation. So trust me: I know what you need, I know I'm the right man for the part."

I was really conflicted. Against the advice of all my friends I called Tom and said, "You have the part." He said, "Are you sure I didn't just seduce you with my letter?" I replied, "You did seduce me, but I think that you're right for this." He was exactly right for the part. Without Tom I'm not sure I could have completed the picture.

This incident has made me reconsider the whole casting process. During the shoot I told Tom to forget the real-life artist the story is based on, and remember this is a film about you. It has to come from you. I completely believe that the actor is the character. Schilling is one of those actors who keeps amazing you with his subtlety, his precision, his transparence. You can look through his eyes into his soul.