Interview: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, director of Never Look Away
Inspired by the life of German visual artist Gerhard Richter, Never Look Away is the new film from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, director of the Oscar winning The Lives of Others. It follows the development of an artist, Kurt (based on Richter), from a young man growing up in Nazi Germany, to being acclaimed by Communists espousing Socialist realism in the post-war years, and finally after fleeing to the West becoming a leading figure in the art community and the Fluxus movement making waves in Düsseldorf in the 1960s. Never Look Away received two Oscar nominations, Best Cinematography and Best Foreign Language Film.
As he did with The Lives of Others, von Donnersmarck combines entertainment with a look at the battle of ideas and philosophies dominating Europe throughout much of the 20th century. It’s a fantastic looking film, with Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff, The Black Stallion and The Passion of the Christ) on masterpiece form, wherein every frame is as judiciously and joyously crafted as all the provocative artwork on display within the cinema frame.
Florian Henckel von Donnersmack joins us at Curzon Mayfair for a Q&A on Saturday 29 June. In anticipation of that special event, Kaleem Aftab spoke to von Donnersmarck about art, philosophy, and how to open minds through history.
What made you want to make a film depicting the life of an artist?
I'm a bit of a sucker for films about artists. I always find them really fun to watch even when they fail. I had an approach that I thought would not see me fall into the traps that some of those other films fell, by focusing on this idea that somehow artistic talent is made up of all the cumulative experiences that someone has had in their life, especially the bad ones.
Is that true for yourself, have you used the good and bad experiences in your life to feed your cinema?
You have to use everything at your disposal, every single experience, the more of yourself the better any artistic expression will become. When I embark on a subject, I try and think what type of film can only I make. That won't necessarily mean other people will find it equally thrilling, but at least it will mean I will find the many years are worthwhile as it’s a voyage of self-discovery for me.
In the film the Socialist realism art professor criticises a “me, me, me” approach to art in the West, yet it seems to me that’s the approach you have?
At the end of the day, the “me, me, me” approach is the only one, even here, where in many ways this film is as far from my experience or my world as possible. The movie ends before I was born and I can't even draw a particularly convincing stickman. I've experienced none of the trauma. In a strange way, the only way to overcome ego in art is by relying completely and only on your own senses and reporting what you've experienced and that doesn't necessarily have to be something literal.
One of the challenges of Never Look Away is how to show the work of artists, especially painters, inside the frame of the camera. How did you handle your own composition as well as the need to showcase the work of artists on canvas?
It was a real challenge to show painting. I usually shoot on CinemaScope, a type of widescreen lens, but it seemed that wouldn't be right. We went for a more traditional aspect ratio because otherwise you'd only ever have a sliver of the paintings visible. I felt that an interesting approach was to show how easy it is to create photo paintings. And I was very gratified to see on Instagram that a lot of people after watching the film were inspired to make photo paintings on their own using that exact approach the film had taught them.
Caleb Deschanel was Oscar-nominated for Best Cinematography for this film. It seems like you have a great partnership?
Caleb Deschanel and I had these guiding images for every sequence where we said we'll use this painting by Casper David Freidrich or this painting by Gerhard Richter as a visual guideline for a sequence that maybe had nothing to do with painting so that there wouldn't be this visual world of the paintings and then the visual world of the film, but that each part of the movie would seem like painting also.
It’s also apparent in Never Look Away that society impacts artists as much as artists inspire society. When making a film set in the past, how much of today becomes relevant?
I find it very difficult to talk about contemporary politics because people have such extremely passionate opinions. I've always found that for all the political arguing I’ve done in my life, and it seems like it was a major chunk of my life, I've never changed anybody's mind about anything and I've never really changed my mind about anything. I feel that there's a shortcut to changing people's opinions and that is by talking about history, because normally we don't have as rigid an opinion on history. I feel that ideology of any kind is a real problem. It's like a programming error in the human psyche or soul. We're so susceptible to ideology and we find it so attractive to just subscribe to some philosophy that we put it above our thinking and feelings. Unfortunately that's something that's extremely prevalent in the present day.
Society’s prevailing ideologies is a major component of the film and on the working life of Richter, how did you choose the art works from the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich to put in your movie?
The Degenerate Art Exhibition happened pretty much like we describe it. We only used artists actually represented there, such as Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Otto Dix, George Grosz, so it was a matter of historical research. We had a team of art historians who also helped us reconstruct some paintings because a lot of them were destroyed after the exhibit. The exhibition happened because the Nazis pulled out of the public collections all the artworks that they deemed not worthy of the Nazi philosophy. Then they showed the ones that they considered the most ridiculous in this free to view exhibit to make fun of it. It was one of the most successful exhibits in art history with over 2 million attendees.
After the war, Kurt is suddenly working with Socialist realism, which also proved to be problematic?
That was a new movement where the main purpose was to glorify the Communist ideal, glorify the worker and encourage the worker to do great work. But it also serves the government purpose and they had a list of artists they thought were good and those not so good. Picasso was an interesting case because they liked some of his work showing the plight of the worker and the poor man begging in the streets with a child and all that, but when he discovers Cubism and became abstract they considered that an act of artistic vanity.
Then the final phase of the movie takes place in West Germany and a whole new scene develops around Kurt?
We show this bizarre moment in art history where in this small town of Düsseldorf, mainly through the influence of this one very important German sculptor, an art philosopher at the Kunstakademis Düsseldorf called Joseph Beuys, a whole new wave happened. The idea of this art was to overcome any form of ideology and dictatorship and just to look within for art to be the ultimate personal expression. Up until the present day, the artists from Düsseldorf in the early sixties are dominant on the art market. The approach was to sever ties with anything that came immediately before and even what came before that is unacceptable because it led to the Nazis. It was a very radical reinvention of art that held immense appeal and was very influential throughout the whole world. So for the film, it was just a matter of creating works that were representative of the spirit of the time and a lot of the stuff was very funny.
You started by talking about being a sucker for films about artists, which are your favourites?
I thought AndreI Rublev was really interesting and I really liked Julie Taymor's Frida, about Frida Kahlo. Actually Frida was the very first film my daughter ever saw and she really enjoyed it. We wanted her to see a strong woman artist finding her way.
[Words by Kaleem Aftab]
NEVER LOOK AWAY + DIRECTOR Q&A
Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck joins us for a post-screening Q&A at Curzon Mayfair, this Saturday 29 June at 4.30pm
Nominated for 2 Oscars - Best Foreign Language Film and Best Achievement in Cinematography - Never Look Away is an intergenerational tale of love, sorrow, art and politics spanning three decades of 20th century German history, from Nazism through much of the Cold War.
Never Look Away arrives in cinemas on Friday 5 July