Directed by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck | 188 minutes | drama, history | Actors: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl, Oliver Masucci, Hanno Koffler, Cai Cohrs, Evgeniy Sidikhin, Ulrike C. Tscharre, Jörg Schüttauf, Jeanette Hain, Hans-Uwe Bauer, Ina Weisse, Lars Eidinger, Johanna Gastdorf , David Schütter, Franz Pätzold, Jonas Dassler
“Werk Ohne Autor” is an “Oscar-worthy” film. This is not entirely unambiguous. The film, from the director of the Oscar-winning “Das Leben der Anderen”, contains many attractive and positive features. The viewer can enjoy beautiful camera work, picturesque production design, excellent acting and beautiful music. And a romantic story about a painter, loosely based on Gerhard Richter, who tries to find his identity in a world that – for a long time – does not allow this, or only marginally. All of that is engaging and more than enough to give the film a warm recommendation. What can be bargained for, however, is the place that this personal story occupies within the – larger – German history and (the lack of) the subtlety of the film’s main messages.
Gerhard Richter himself has already renounced the film, as it would not conform to reality enough, but that does not have to be a disaster. That is, if the rest is complex and intriguing enough and all choices can be properly justified. You might ask yourself the latter, for example, in a sudden, isolated scene in which a group of women is gassed. Yes, it did take place, but to what extent it was necessary (in passing) is the question. The scene is not really necessary for the plot. It seems to exist mainly to add tragedy and tension.
After these ‘outings’ we concentrate (again) entirely on the adult Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), who in the prologue as a little boy with his aunt, Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), went to an exhibition of ‘degenerate art’ by modern before the war, while these works are razed to the ground by the attendant. Too individualistic and meaningless; not like art created for – and inspired by – the people. Elisabeth whispered in Kurt’s ear that she secretly likes it very much. Symbol for a freedom of spirit that Elisabeth strives for but unfortunately is not allowed in Nazi Germany. And not in communist GDR Germany either, as will become apparent later.
Elisabeth’s freedom goes so far as to lead to psychotic, manic excesses, in which at one point she plays the piano naked while little Kurt enters the room and not much later hits an ashtray against her head until bleeding. She states that everything that is real is beautiful, and urges Kurt to never look away. These are two essential messages in the film that recur regularly. Kurt tries to express this first philosophy in his artistic excesses. There is something profound to get out of it, but the film makes no real attempt to explore this thesis. Which may be necessary, because of course not everything that is real is beautiful. Given the historical context of the film, you don’t have to look far for evidence for this. Basically it is not much better than the opposite idea: “everything that is beautiful is real”; what you could see as the Nazis’ position.
It may seem like a small thing, but precisely because the whole film seems to be about Kurt’s quest for his own voice, his identity and a processing of his trauma and past, you expect more meaning when he makes his choice. A reason why it is precisely this work, this approach, that sets him free.
A really large, intriguing context or depth is therefore not required. Which may be a loss, but definitely not a disaster, because what remains is a more than creditable personal drama, which director Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck films with the flair of an old-fashioned Hollywood filmmaker. There is a lot of coincidence in the story, because of course Kurt falls for a woman whose father was involved in a trauma from his childhood, but that’s part of these kinds of movies. Fortunately, Sebastian Koch plays the role of the heartless SS man (because are there others?) With gusto, keeping the viewer’s eyes constantly glued to the image. This also applies to the two female beauties, Saskia Rosendahl and Paula Beer, who are filmed stylishly and often naked – which is very un-Hollywood and distinctly European.
It is also remarkable how long the focus on art continues to captivate, with not only images of the paintings and other works of art, but also discussions about their meaning. However you turn it, if a film continues to hold your attention for more than three hours, it does a lot of good. You want to know which path Kurt takes as an artist and whether he can be free; in his art and l for a bit. You want to see how the SS man’s daughter fares and whether this couple in love has a future. You want to experience the father being unmasked and the dear daughter finally turning against her parents, with an emotionally explosive scene. That not all ends are then resolved in such a way is both refreshing and unsatisfying.
“Werk ohne Autor” (English title: “Never Look Away”) is an ambitious film, which aims to make a political, historical, personal and biographical impression. This also works to a large extent. The viewer gets something of everything and, greatly helped by the technical qualities of the film, is carried away by the personal drama, the larger implications and the expectations that are created. The fact that in the end the focus shifts slightly more to emotions and external beauty and that there is not a satisfactory answer to them everywhere, slightly detracts from the experience – and ironically, the theme of the film – but the elegant effect is enough to make the film proudly.