It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the 75th Venice International Film Festival (29 August – 8 September), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.
Milo Garner reviews Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s upcoming drama.
“Von Donnersmarck: two features, never more.”
For a while this was one of the great tragedies of modern German cinema, the acclaimed director of The Lives of Others dropping off the cinematic map after completion of his poorly-received (though relatively successful) sophomore effort. Eight years later he returns with a grand and sweeping narrative about art, love, and Nazis. With an estimated $20 million budget, it is also amongst Germany’s most expensive productions, and that much is clear.
In approaching this three-hour behemoth, however, I detect an uneven split. There is the more substantial film, one that concerns the process of artistic creation, its meanings and origins, set around an artist living in East and West Germany during the Cold War. Then is another, a melodrama about love and eugenics in the GDR, an exaggerated and far less engaging subplot that consumes most of the film’s first half. It is in this melodrama that many of the film’s issues come to the fore, the first and most essential being its appearance. While the cinematography is technically well executed, it is the production design that must be questioned. Everything has a sheen, a brightness and cleanliness. It almost reflects the romantic cinema of the thirties and forties, obsessed with beautifying everything and everyone. Kurt (Tom Schilling) might paint all day and night in one scene, but God forbid his perfect hair might fall out of place, or his fresh face be besmirched by some blemish. And Ellie (Paula Beer) may age more than a decade by the film’s close, but let that not show on her faultless body, always caught in a warm and welcoming light. For a film so caught up with the concept of truth, it seems perhaps ironic that it presents a visual aesthetic so unreal.
This unreality follows into this subplot’s villain, too. Professor Seeband (Sebastian Koch), an ex-Nazi eugenicist, becomes the arch-evil, the father-in-law from hell. Not only is he a Nazi (the skull on his cap emphasised like in that Mitchell and Webb skit), but he’s a philanderer, prickly in attitude, and a general bastard all round. His character cannot be compelling because he is entirely contrived, and nothing about him is at all refined or rounded. It is possible for a Nazi to be human even if they are still despicable – this kind of moral depth might have given the film something to grasp on in this extended section. Instead we are left with a ruefully predictable romance, one whose dramatic ironies veer increasingly in the direction of soap opera. It is competently, if not excellently made and always watchable. But at once, disappointing.
While the sections focused on art must still endure the rather ironic aesthetic qualities of the film, they are a little more developed in narrative, and for the better. The central idea is an artist finding his voice, caught between extremes. The first of these is in the Soviet clench of East Germany, where limitations are obvious. He is trapped in the genre of social realism, which prioritizes immediate and obvious meaning to the more indulgent habits of artists. This is art for the people, a populism of sorts, one that sees bourgeois in the abstract. Von Donnersmarck is clear to reflect this belief against Nazi rejection of degenerate art, for much the same reasoning.
Kurt then emigrates to West Germany, but here faces a foe less obvious than Soviet artistic tastes, that being a lack of substance altogether. Instead, it is necessary to produce something garish and loud, new and outspoken. A total freeform in which it is easy to lose oneself, as Kurt almost does. He must discover his own style, and what it means to have a style at all. This arc functions, but it functions as any might predict. Again, for all its artistic pretentions in content, the film’s form is deeply conventional, and perhaps loses a sense of its subject in being so. At Eternity’s Gate, while perhaps not so pristinely crafted as Never Look Away, achieves its own goal of explicating the artistic process far better in its attempt to embody it. We see as Van Gogh sees, and understand the world as he does fully. While von Donnersmarck occasionally experiments with point of view shots, this is largely a film from the objective eye. Everything is as it seems.
I am left at a crossroads with Never Look Away. It is generally engaging and always well crafted, but at once lacking in direct, evocative feeling. It hits every beat, but as the (surprisingly smooth) run-length trundles on, emotional investment always seems out of reach. The acting is generally up to standard, at least half of the music is great (with the other half being uncharacteristically bland for Max Richter), and it’s difficult to fault von Donnersmarck’s understanding of space or camera placement. But the result is spectacle that fails to move.
Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor) had its premiere at Venice Film Festival. It has yet to acquire a UK release date. Check out its German trailer below: