“Art is our best weapon against political extremism.”
Florian Henckel von Donnersmark said these words a couple days ago, while introducing his Oscar-nominated film, “Never Look Away.”
I’ve been lucky the past couple months. I’ve had the enjoyable and eye-opening experience of following an Oscar campaign closer than I have before. I’ve come to know Florian v.Donnersmarck some, and he’s been generous enough with his time and friendship to let me tag along and witness an awards campaign from a more personal perspective than I had expected.
He won the Oscar, for Best Foreign Language film a dozen years ago, for his German film (do I need to mention that he is from Germany), “The Lives of Others.” His new film, also in German, tracks nearly 30 years in the life of a German Artist, based loosely on the actual life of German Artist, Gerhard Richter.
This is not a review. It is not an ‘interview.’ I am not a critic or a journalist (well, yes, sometimes I have been a journalist). I am someone who wants Hollywood to create good work. I love movies...when they are good, and this is a good movie.
Any quotes or references to things he has said come from an amalgam of conversations, Q and A’s, speeches, and a symposium prior to the Golden Globes, that he was generous enough to invite me to, over the course of the last couple months.
Why am I writing about a German-language film? Because I appreciate the many ways the film plays against the worst instincts of Hollywood. Florian openly embraces his film about Art. It is about more than an Artist, though. It is about Art as social liberator. It is about Art surviving real political tyranny (growing up in Nazi Germany, then having the misfortune of living in East Germany, and spending those following years under Soviet tyranny). It is also about more than Art in the sense that it is about “Creation”; creation on an artistic level, but also literal creation, as in the creation of a human life (as in, a child).
It is important to remember, when watching the film, that it is based on the life of a real person. How much of it is based on Richter’s actual life, though? We don’t get to know. “My agreement with Richter,” Donnersmarck has said, “is that neither of us will tell how much is real, and how much is made up. I won’t tell how much I took from his real life, and he won’t say how much I made up.” He has also said, though, that some of the most bizarre, unbelievable events in the film are the most real. Beyond that, he leaves the question tantalizingly unanswered.
The film has some laughs in it as well. It is not heavy-handed lecturing. It is a human story, and there are many welcome light-hearted moments along the way. When our main character – Kurt Barnet – finally makes his way out of East Germany, and enters a prestigious Art Academy in Düsseldorf, in West Germany, his first tour of the academy treats us to all of the experimental indulgence of early 1960’s Art with a delicate blend of respect and humor. Not all experimental Art from this period hit the mark. The point was the process – the freedom – of discovery. Some of it hit the mark. Some of it is okay to chuckle at.
I was struck, listening to Donnersmarck on one occasion, by his passion regarding the troubled history of communist East Germany. This is something he focused on in his earlier film, “The Lives of others.” Many of us who are not from Germany might be tempted to take a united Germany for granted. But the trauma of a divided Germany, and the pain caused by it, remain alive and well in Donnersmarck. He has said that when he thinks back on the history of communist East Germany, particularly how the East German government interfered in the arts, and compromised – sometimes even destroyed – Artists, it is something that he feels genuinely angry about even today.
My point is a simple one. Donnersmarck makes movies for the right reason; he is exploring ideas. While he has been bouncing around Hollywood, enjoying the ‘glamour’ of a second Oscar nomination, there is no hiding the fact that he makes movies for a very non-Hollywood reason. While much of Hollywood output happens backwards - it begins with a marketing plan, followed by a pitch, then a hired writer - he works in the right direction; he starts with an idea he wants to explore.
He writes in layers. His films are about more than what is on the screen.
His film might be an Oscar winner, or it might not be. Sometimes I find it even more fascinating to follow this process, knowing that the film is an underdog.
Whatever happens on Oscar night, one thing is certain, I will continue to find inspiration from this man’s career. He is unique. He is an Artist. Most in Hollywood are not. In fact, I have been told directly by the odd Producer, “Don’t be an Artist,” that they “can’t sell Art.”
Based on what I see, for better or worse, I plan to continue to ignore their advice.-Peter Wick
February 13, 2019