The distraction of almost obtusely misleading English subtitles aside, I was pretty much mesmerised by the first 45 minutes of the film, which had me close to tears on several occasions. Elisabeth May’s (Saskia Rosendahl) composition for Hitler, her desperate pleas with the stony SS doctor, Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), and the shower sequence, condemned as gratuitous and in bad taste by some reviewers (The New Yorker’s Antony Lane showed a rare lack of judgement in joining that choir).
Perhaps in writing and shooting the disputed sequences, von Donnersmarck was concerned that we, as a contemporary audience far removed from the reality of such deeds, might miss the complete lack of empathy and human decency he was trying to portray. It seems to me von Donnersmarck is right. Even those of us sensitive to such messages in film mostly do not see the real consequences of contemporary red pencil annotations, despite reading daily about shocking child abuse, suicide rates, drug addiction, homelessness, and the privations of poverty. We do not connect these with deliberate actions whose agents pretend they are only doing their jobs. Or who actually believe that some people should be made to suffer for the good of others.
The disputed sequences had an added poignancy for me because, concurrently, I am looking again at Leni Riefenstahl’s mid-1930s films made for the NSDAP (Nazi party), and re-examining their historical context. In the early 1930s you might have already caught glimpses of sociopathic monsters like Seeband (just look at those damaged, brutal, punishing faces in Riefenstahl’s films), but they were as yet free of the indescribably monstrous crimes and gravity-defying, crushing guilt they would earn for themselves, and an entire nation, just a few years later.
Such things unfold in many places today, with reckonings years or decades away. Perhaps never to be realized at all. I could not help but liken the scene of a meeting of SS doctors, chaired by Dr Burghard Kroll (Rainer Bock) to the first convocation of Nazis in Frank Pierson’s brilliant film Conspiracy (2001), about the planning of the ‘final solution’. Bock’s Kroll is to Werk ohne Autor as Branagh’s Heydrich is to Conspiracy. The gathering in the von Donnersmarck film is confined entirely to SS doctors, all wearing the four pips on their collars denoting the rank of Sturmbannführer (equivalent to Major), who clearly think themselves as objective scientists and a cut above any party thugs. And yet, they are planning the extermination of ‘genetically tainted’ people. With no sentiment or empathy for the people they plan to murder. It is a scene that might today take place around party room and cabinet tables, or in the boardrooms of public service departments and private corporations.
Professor Seeband is exposed in a very short time as an archetype Nazi monster for wanting to help in an extermination program, not just collaborating in something that gives him pause despite his chosen allegiance and rôle.
After the terrifying introduction to the story, Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), now grown to be an aspiring artist in post-war East Germany, has only a vague experience of those events, or the firebombing of his native Dresden, and the deaths of his uncles Ehrenfried and Günther May. It is the vague recollection of wider tragedies that many war children carry with them. As did my father, a nine-year-old boy at the end of WWII, who lived in Berlin and saw very directly how the Third Reich dissolved. Seeing it first as the capital of the thousand year empire, and then as ruined ashes, with corpses piled high in the streets. The same streets that were under the polished boots of the Nazi hierarchy. And then the starvation of the Russian blockade, when no food reached Berlin residents, already cut off from the most basic services, which had all been utterly destroyed by the war. I have no doubt it damaged him in ways that none of us can imagine. He never really talked about it, but I guessed, sometimes, at some unspeakable things he witnessed. And suffered.
So, I try to guess at the psychology of Barnert, and the motivation of his quest to be an artist without losing his soul to ideologically decreed ‘socialist realism’. His love affair and marriage to Seeband’s daughter, still without knowing that man’s grotesque history, is a little pat. A little six-degrees-of-separation. But not dramatically inappropriate; in post-war Germany many people had to connect with each other without knowing, and sometimes without wanting to know, who they had been in their past lives.
Ostensibly, the character Kurt Barnert is based on the artist Gerhard Richter. And von Donnersmarck did indeed interview Richter, never denying that he is the inspiration for some parts of the story, but reminding people the film is a work of fiction. A caution that shouldn’t be necessary.
There is a submerged theme to the film about the metaphysics of love and life. Kurt Barnert’s quest for truth is more important to him than success or money. On the surface that seems like an unworthy cliché. But for me it was an entrée to one of the intellectual undercurrents in the film: the eternal German obsession with metaphysics which preoccupied both Martin Heidegger, ‘the Nazi philosopher’, and the Frankfurt School of Jewish-German thinkers who had to flee Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930s. I mention them in particular because they are precise contemporaries of the film’s historical milieu, and because I see their theorizing informing the film’s fictional speculations.
Frankfurt School critical theory concerned itself with rejecting inevitably ideological ‘objectivity’ in defining truth, and looking instead for personal and social liberation in overturning a capitalist objectification of people and nature as mere artifacts of value. As such, it was initially a Marxism-oriented school of thought, but became critical of developments in communism, too, after Stalin’s purges exposed the hypocrisy underlying the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.
My first intuition that critical theory had an influence in the film was the portrayal of Kurt Barnert’s aunt, Elisabeth, whose unconventionality builds past her confession of being drawn to degenerate art, to the concert of bus horns she seeks, as if to drown out the obscene reality that is Nazi Germany. Past all that to the naked piano recital, and her self-harm while she smashed a glass ashtray into her head to inflict a bleeding wound and explaining it away as ‘playing a concert for the Führer’. Eccentric? Barking mad? It doesn’t really matter that her responses to the Nazi regime in Germany are as rational as any others in the cauldron of a much greater madness. And so much greater is the pathos of her own family condemning her to the fatal degradation of Nazi ‘medical’ ministrations.
These sequences are not accidental. Von Donnersmarck deliberately tells us about the horrors of Nazi Germany at the same time as drawing our attention to the fact that unconventional reactions to ‘reality’ are inevitably met with incredulity or censorious critique. And not just under tyranny.
I thought Kurt Barnert’s ennui in East Germany-a disenchantment with the imposed ideology of socialist realism-was a delicious inversion of early critical theory, showing us a struggle to be liberated from the contemporary Marxist ‘subversion’ of capitalist objectification. Which appeared to involve plenty of objectification in itself. Art was offered to Barnert as merely, and solely, an avenue for state propaganda, similar to the ideology proposed in the opening sequences when the Nazi curator denounced almost the entirety of contemporary art as degenerate. This was a real event. The Nazis staged a ‘degenerate art’ exhibition between 19 July and 30 November in 1937 with 650 works of art confiscated from private and public collections. The intention had been to illustrate how much greater authentic German art was, but, in reality, the degenerate art exhibition drew far greater visitor numbers than the concurrent Great German Art Exhibition.
So, for Barnert, Germany had swapped one ideological tyranny for another. Only the nomenclature had changed.
Then there is Barnert’s transformation at the Düsseldorf Academy of Arts. I could not help thinking that there was another ironic reversal of Frankfurt School critical theory, with Barnert escaping socialist realism under the guidance of fellow student Günter Preusser (Hanno Koffler, channelling German artist Günther Uecker), by looking for some way of presenting a new form of capitalist objectification: this time the ‘reification’ of art as not much more than an object of financial exchange value.
I fancy I even see the last remaining survivor of the Frankfurt School, Jürgen Habermas, lurking behind the face of Preusser, who earnestly advises Barnert to search for ‘the idea’ while showing him a plurality of approaches, and advising that traditional painting is ‘dead’ as a form of artistic expression. Habermas’s life work is about recognising pluralist dialogue in the public sphere as the foundation of stable democracy, making it possible to appreciate many different points of view without descending into the binary conflicts of ideology, and thus also finding emancipation from ideologically imposed meanings, just like those of fascism and Marxism-Leninism.
It’s a tortured twist of logic to move from Barnert’s return to the ‘dead’ art of painting, as a means of reinterpreting the memory value of photographs, as an emancipation from the dictates of socialist realism. As an emancipation, as well, from the capitalist objectification of the artist, as contained in Preusser’s advocacy of defrauding the public by presenting an ill-defined ‘idea’ as the sole qualification for artifacts to become objects of exchange value.
I can see Heidegger creeping into the picture. It begins when Barnert leans lazily back against the scaffold in front of a wall mural he did not and does not want to paint in East Germany. He tells his assistant he doesn’t want money or fame, but merely to find truth. We need to remember at this point what his aunt says to him near the beginning of the film:
Don’t look away, Kurt. If you never look away, your gaze will become strong as steel. You will see the truth. And everything that is true is beautiful …
Is this Heidegger’s search for an elusive, ‘pre-ontological essence’, or human truth? Is it Barnert’s subconscious understanding of the unknown strands of history that tied him to Professor Seeband, and the later sanctification of Barnert’s marriage with a pregnancy, after Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer) was diagnosed by her father as sterile?
This search for truth, or maybe the beauty accessible only through truth, is definitely a motif strong enough in the film to give it its English title: Never Look Away.
The strongest evidence of Heidegger’s presence in the film is the monologue Professor van Verten delivers in Barnert’s studio.
During the war I was a radio operator with the Luftwaffe. I was a terrible radio operator, and my pilot was a terrible pilot. Not really surprising after only four weeks’ training.
We were shot down on our second sortie, over the Crimea. The pilot was killed immediately.
The Tatar nomads got me out of the wreckage with burns that really should have killed me. These peasants, the very peasants I was dropping bombs on, pulled me out of the wreckage and looked after me using whatever they had. They rubbed animal fat into my wounds and wrapped me in felt blankets.
If I ask myself what I truly know, what I have truly experienced in my life, what I can claim without lying, it’s the animal fat on my skin, the homeland of animal fat, of felt. When other people talk to me about love, about women, about their children or about sex – I know what they mean only because I experienced that fat and felt on my skin.
My life before then was totally uneventful. My childhood was happy and sheltered, a couple of slaps across the ears, not many.
My teachers liked me. I wanted to be a businessman, like my father. I didn’t have any “artistic talent”.
And I haven’t experienced anything since then, either. I’m still cheerful. I spent the last days of the war in an army hospital with friendly nurses. Very friendly nurses.
Afterwards I had pretty rapid success and was appointed professor here. But the fat and the felt – those I understood … I understood them as deeply as Descartes understood that he existed. “I think, therefore I am”. Descartes had questioned everything. Everything. Everything could be an illusion, a trick, his imagination. But then he understood that something had provoked that very thought within him, and consequently something must exist … and that something he decided to call “myself” …
This comes pretty close to offering an interpretation of Heidegger’s central question in modern philosophy: if you strip away every artifice of ideology, all the imposed meanings contained in analytical methods used to look for truth, including even language, can you discover the ‘true’ nature of your existence-in-time?
For van Verten this is to do with animal fat and felt (which featured prominently in the work of German artist Joseph Beuys, on whom van Verten is at least partly based). For Barnert, it is a visceral intuition about powerful but mysterious meanings locked up in photographs, recalling different times and places that nonetheless seem to influence the present, and the potential futures that can arise from that past-present nexus. Such as the salvation of Barnert’s marriage through an impossible pregnancy that somehow also seems to redeem Professor Seeband’s monstrous sins, but without quite exonerating him from deserved shame and guilt.
This, too, strikes me as pure Heidegger.
And, almost as punctuation to my arguments for Heidegger’s presence in the narrative, the title in German itself, Werk Ohne Autor (Work Without Author), seems to reflect the philosopher’s contention that the truth about existence cannot be described by a creator, or being (an author), using ordinary language. It has to be felt, and conveyed in art as unspoken, unwritten intuition.
Paradoxically, no matter the odium Heidegger attracted in his lifetime for endorsing the Nazis, the mentor and lover of a young Hannah Arendt is today universally acknowledged as one of the most brilliant and original thinkers of the 20th century, while the Frankfurt School is reviled by Western reactionaries as a nest of revolutionist troublemakers for rejecting capitalist objectification and seeking personal and social liberation from the hegemonic ideology du jour.
Granted, the philosophical themes mentioned are not easy territory, even if they were known to the wider audiences of the film. And I doubt very much there is that awareness outside a narrow and narrowing demographic. But the ideas they embody are the heritage of 20th century German philosophy, and I see them strongly reflected in the film’s narrative, offering meanings far deeper than a passive, literal inculcation of the story could ever deliver.
It was those hints of metaphysics that kept me interested in the narrative for three hours.
True, Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography is more than competent, Patricia Rommel’s editing seems effortless, the acting is routinely better than good, and production techniques are so good you don’t notice them. In other words, it is an eminently watchable fable regardless of message or profundity. Nevertheless, if it offered only passive, literal meanings, I would have been bored senseless pretty quickly. And I can understand why so many film critics didn’t think of the film as particularly engaging: they simply didn’t see anything that reflected their own mundane life-experiences.
Reading Sarinah Masukor’s ABC review of the film I was struck, as if by a slap in the face, by her apparent ignorance about the significance of the East German sequences. Because, I think, she had no conception of a Germany divided after the war. Forty-four years of millions of people’s lives glossed over in her mind. A third of the film’s possible significance simply ignored. It also seemed that, to her, the Nazis were some immaterial nightmare vision rather than the reality of ordinary people turned into monsters. The banal and petty little people Hannah Arendt had described after the Eichmann trial in the early 1960s. People who are all around us today. Were there yesterday. Will be there tomorrow. Could be our family, friends, or neighbours.
I was disturbed that Masokur, like so many other reviewers (including those of the New York Times and Washington Post), could not look past a shallow interpretation of the film found solely in literal meanings (or in nods to politically correct tropes). I suspect this is because of a paucity of imagination, and a dismaying ignorance of history and the humanities that seems to be the new norm, even among university-educated professionals.
So, for example, it struck me as risible that von Donnersmarck was taken to task for misrepresenting the artist Gerhard Richter, when he so obviously poked (good natured) fun at Beuys, Uecker, Fluxus practice, and the ZERO group. I guess that wasn’t spelled out literally enough for the critics.
I am somewhat gratified that it was an Australian film critic, Paul Byrnes (Sydney Morning Herald and The Age), who did see more in the film than the sum of its literal meanings: ‘… it’s a film full of horrific secrets. There’s no certainty that art nor truth will triumph, but there is a pungent sense that both still matter.’
Not to be too arch about it, that sense of not being entirely alone in seeing more than my own world reflected back at me in a work of art is somehow reassuring. It makes it slightly easier to suffer a world currently crowded with brash mediocrity and more than a hint of re-emergent fascist sociopaths like Seeband.
Werk ohne Autor/Never Look Away, 2018, Pergamon Film and Wiedemann & Berg Film in co-production with Beta Cinema, Bayerischer Rundfunk and ARD Degeto, 188 minutes.
Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel. Edited by Patricia Rommel. Music by Max Richter.
With: Tom Schilling as Kurt Barnert, Sebastian Koch as Professor Carl Seeband, Paula Beer as Ellie Seeband, Saskia Rosendahl as Elisabeth May, Oliver Masucci as Professor Antonius van Verten, Hanno Koffler as Günther Preusser, Cai Cohrs as boyhood Kurt Barnert.