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Film Never Look Away, and the fine art of fictionalizing the lives of others

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck at the 91st Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on Feb. 4, 2019, in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Chris Pizzello/The Associated Press

Nobody, says the German film director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, would have wanted to see Citizen Hearst. For starters, Randolph Hearst probably didn’t have a sled called Rosebud. So, if Orson Welles had remained faithful to the biography of the newspaper magnate when making Citizen Kane, he would have lost his key to the character’s psychology – and his surprise ending. Real life may be fascinating, but great art requires some invention.

“I believe in fiction,” Donnersmarck said during a brief interview at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September. “I believe fiction can reach greater levels of truthfulness than fact.”

Donnersmarck was discussing the relationship between fact and fiction because his new film, the Oscar-nominated Never Look Away, is a fictionalized biography of Gerhard Richter, the leading visual artist of postwar Germany. And just how fictionalized has become the matter of some debate.

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In interviews, Donnersmarck has insisted that Richter’s fascinating life was just his starting point. A boy during the war, Richter began his career as a socialist realist mural painter in East Germany, but escaped to the West before the wall was built. There, he began producing paintings based on photographs, using both family snapshots and images from newspapers and magazines, in a deeply personal art that addressed Germany’s Nazi past. But the artist in Never Look Away is not named Richter – he’s named Kurt Barnert and played by Tom Schilling. In one very obvious departure from Richter’s real life, he is introduced to Western contemporary art by a fedora-sporting teacher who looks a lot like the conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, the foundational figure of the new German avant-garde in the 1960s. The Beuys character is not named Beuys, however, and in real life, Richter did not study with Beuys.

Yet Donnersmarck himself has raised the issue of whether obvious inventions such as this are something of a smokescreen. In an interview published in January in The New Yorker, he speaks of a deal with Richter, whom he interviewed extensively while writing the script: In his public comments, Donnersmarck would stress the film was fictionalized, so that new details about his life that Richter had revealed to him – and the article suggests they are significant – would not be identified as such. “May the journalists speculate over what is truth and what is fiction!” he is quoted as saying.

Tom Schilling as Kurt Barnert and Paula Beer as Ellie Seeband in Never Look Away.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Well, a journalist doesn’t like to think she is being used, so The Globe and Mail returned to Donnersmarck, asking him to clarify his January remarks. In the midst of an Oscar campaign for the best-foreign film statuette, the director graciously provided detailed answers by e-mail. He confirmed the arrangement with Richter, but reiterated that the film is heavily fictionalized.

“I find films that claim to be biographies often suffer either from being too true to facts, or they suffer from too much invention which makes them dishonest. … My agreement with Richter was where it wasn’t a matter of public record anyway, i.e. where I only know things from our recorded conversations, I would not reveal what was true. In exchange, he would not reveal what parts were invention on my side.”

So, why does any of this matter? Because Richter’s aunt was a schizophrenic who died in a Nazi hospital. And Richter’s father-in-law was a Nazi doctor, who forcibly sterilized women such as Richter’s aunt before eventually consigning them to the gas chambers. And the plot of Donnersmarck’s film turns on that ghastly coincidence.

“I thought it would allow me to tell a story of how the criminals of that era lived under one roof with the victims,” he said in the September interview. “And how a great artist could find his way while being subjected to those energies.”

On film, that is a saga that takes us through 35 years of history, from the wartime days when Kurt’s lovely, if eccentric, young aunt is taken away in a straitjacket, to his marriage to the daughter of a former Nazi in socialist East Germany, to both Kurt’s and his father-in-law’s eventual success in the capitalist West. (The daughter is played by German screen sweetheart Paula Beer, reinforcing the movie’s appeal to the box office.) As a biography, the story is fascinating territory. As fiction, it seems unwilling to cash in on the melodramatic coincidence it has noted, that Kurt has married the daughter of the man who literally signed his aunt’s death warrant.

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Cai Cohrs as a young Kurt Barnert in Never Look Away.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Never Look Away is a long film – three hours in length – and it follows the recent German trend for big-budget Hollywood-style movies that expose postwar deceit (Labyrinth of Lies; The People vs. Fritz Bauer). Those conventions would seem to demand a final showdown between Kurt and his father-in-law, but Never Look Away doesn’t deliver it. Donnersmarck, who won the 2007 foreign-film Academy Award for The Lives of Others, about a Stasi agent, prefers the term grammar to convention, but the viewer who knows the background may be left wondering if the film’s ungrammatical conclusion might have a certain motivation behind it: the actual facts. In the most gripping moments in this sometimes frustrating film, Kurt is shown gradually exposing his father-in-law’s crimes in his art but never confronting him in person. That certainly rings true to life, but not perhaps to Oscar-winning drama.

So, whatever it is that Donnersmarck has discovered about Richter’s true life – there are more secrets to the family relationships than can be discussed without spoiling the film – there seems to be room for yet another biography about the remarkable relationship of Richter’s life to his art and of his art to German history.

Just to confuse the picture further, the artist has disavowed the film – apparently without seeing it. Donnersmarck isn’t worried.

“I had been warned … he turns on people who depict him, no matter how much he collaborated with them beforehand. I thought I would escape it by keeping him informed every step of the way. But perhaps if someone has lived so much of their life in political systems that tried to define them, you will react negatively to anything you see as an attempt to define you.

“Or perhaps it’s just way more cool to say: ‘I just hate that statue they built of me on [the] town square,’ rather than to pose in front of it with the mayor.”

And whatever happens to Never Look Away at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, statues of Gerhard Richter will stand for a very long time.

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In the most gripping moments in the film, Kurt (Tom Schilling) is shown gradually exposing his father-in-law’s crimes in his art but never confronting him in person.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Never Look Away opens Feb. 22 in Toronto and Vancouver

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