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VENICE 2018 Competition

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck • Director of Never Look Away

“I tried to find the politics from within the characters”


- VENICE 2018: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck follows up his 2010 adventure into American filmmaking with Never Look Away, a historical drama inspired by the life of Gerhard Richter

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck  • Director of Never Look Away
(© La Biennale di Venezia - foto ASAC)

Taking part in the Venice Film Festival’s competition and already announced as Germany’s candidate for the Best Foreign-language Oscar race, Never Look Away [+see also:
film review
interview: Florian Henckel von Donners…
film profile
 sees Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck return to some of the themes he previously explored in The Lives of Others [+see also:
film review
interview: Florian Henckel von Donners…
interview: Ulrich Muehe
film profile
: politics, love and the importance of art.

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Cineuropa: In Never Look Away, you don’t claim that art can actually change the world; sometimes, it can only bring comfort.
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck:
 I stole that thought from Gerhard Richter. Asked about the power of art, he said that it consoles us because it’s a manifestation of hurt that someone has suffered and decided to turn into something beautiful and uplifting. It can show us all the terrible things that have happened to us and gives us a chance to develop further. Life is a tragedy, but we still have to find a positive way, I think, of looking at it and enjoying the path. Art shows that we shouldn’t look away. We should embrace all that’s bad and see it as an opportunity.

I spent an entire year just reading about those times. If you go back to the Nazis, I found that the one thing that really embodied their position was their take on art, which was best exemplified by the “Degenerate Art” exhibition – it was extremely successful, with many of them coming to see for the last time the art that would then be destroyed. At the same time it opened, in Munich there was an exhibition called “The Great German Art”, which Hitler attended. It was like surfer art: muscular men and demure women in graceful poses. It assumed that art should only show the things you admire, and when artists were painting all the destruction and people disfigured by war, the Nazis said: “Look how they see Germany.” They didn’t see that as a cry of despair. 

You explore so many different issues in the film, from politics to racial hygiene, and even first love. Was there ever a point when you stopped to think: “Am I trying to squeeze too much in?”
In a way, this complexity is all in the background. The main story is about a young man who falls in love with a fascinating young woman, and when things get serious, he meets her father – a former Nazi and then a communist. He’s someone who is very adaptable and who sees in this young man all that’s weak and despicable. At the same time, this young man, Kurt, has to find his own path as an artist. So there is a personal story that drives the whole thing forward, and somewhere along the way, you are able to show Germany in the 20th century. It takes me a long time to find a project that makes me say: “Ok, it has enough to make me want to dive into this world for years.” I knew I was not going to run out of fuel, and that has happened to me in the past. But I believe in fiction, so it’s not a film about Gerhard Richter. William Randolph Hearst didn’t have a sledge called Rosebud either.

What is really striking is that your film is not a call for punishment.
If what we are really looking forward to is punishment and vengeance, then we are letting these people whom we want to punish define our lives. Sebastian Koch’s character gets his punishment, in a way, but he gets it because he doesn’t have what Kurt has – love, art and the search for truth, all of these things that make life worth living. We can’t hope for more justice on Earth – our everyday reality shows it’s just not there. I am not saying we shouldn’t punish people who have committed serious crimes, but we shouldn’t let it frustrate our very existence if that doesn’t happen, because in many cases, it won’t. When I go into something like the so-called Nazi euthanasia programme, I just wonder, “What did these people think?” Perhaps that once we get to the point when everyone is able to do 20 push-ups and quote Pushkin by heart, the world will be a happier place? I tried to find the politics from within the characters.

When you consider that Hitler was a failed painter himself, the whole subject of arts and politics suddenly gains a brand-new dimension.
Good point. In preparing the movie, I decided to read Mein Kampf. It feels like you are committing some kind of atrocity or participating in a diabolical Mass, but I had to understand his struggle to explain why he was such a bad artist. He considers himself to be the greatest genius, the secular Messiah coming to save the German people. But he knows that his art is no good, so it was interesting to see what a big part art plays in his book, but how little understanding he has of what constitutes it.

During all these weeks I spent with Gerhard Richter and various other artists who helped me, I realised that there is something they all have in common: they know they are not the ones creating something – they are more like a medium of sorts. If they use their senses to feel something, it will come through somehow. When he was asked about his work, Richter said: “My paintings are smarter than I am.” There are two ways to approach a problem: you can do it by thinking, but that will only get you so far; or you can approach it through art. And that might put you in a completely different stratosphere.

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