Shubha Ghosh, Art as Judgment: Review of Florian Donnersmarck’s Film, “Never Look Away”
Art as Judgment
Florian Donnersmarck´s 2018 film, “Never Look Away,” takes us through three periods of German history. This journey is marked by the personal tragedy and rebirth of an artist closely modelled on Gerhard Richter, a contemporary visual artist who came into his own in the pop art scene of Dusseldorf in the 1960´s. What this emotionally heavy, yet engaging film, shows is the power of art to act as judgment in obtaining vindication against the greatest of evils.
We begin in Nazi Germany, in Dresden, with a tour of an exhibition of degenerate artworks purged by the Nazis as expressive outrage by Jewish painters that served little purpose in promoting nationalist virtue. Kurt Barnert is a young boy visiting the exhibition with his aunt, who is a sensitive musician, prone to visions and audio-hallucinations. She is taken away by the government, and her murder at the hands of the SS for being a mental degenerate is played out against the bombing of Dresden. Against these historic events, young Kurt matures into a sensitive, romantic painter whose drafting skills are put to work in Eastern Germany. In Soviet Dresden, Kurt´s talents are exploited by the government to paint a mural depicting the glory of workers under Communism. Art once again is subservient to the State in countering the degeneracy of the individual artistic vision. Kurt rebels and with his wife, a fashion design student turned seamstress, escapes the East for the freedoms of West Germany. There, he enters the art academy of Dusseldorf where the antidote to realist utility of Soviet art is a radical individualism: art as a unique vision whether expressed through canvasses bleeding paint or the footprints on tarp of the aspiring and socially climbing artist. In this third environment, Kurt comes into his own, as did Richter, by blending his rich technical skills as a realist with a deeply personal vision of reimagining photographs as paintings.
Confronting Degenerate Art: Never Look Away
What spurs Kurt´s growth as an artist is the personal drama of his love affair with Ellie, the art student who coincidentally shares a name with his murdered aunt. More amazing is another coincidence related to the aunt´s death at the hands of an SS doctor, who first orders her sterilization and then her gassing. The doctor is none other than Ellie´s father, and the interactions between the struggling artist Kurt and the arrogant, loathsome doctor crystalize the tension that drives this three-hour movie. Kurt and Ellie are aware of the doctor´s evil and suspect the corruption that lead to his being protected by a Soviet bureaucrat from prosecution for his war crimes. We wonder as we watch (as perhaps you do while reading this essay): Will Kurt learn about the deeper connection between the doctor and the tragedy of his life, the murder of the aunt who inspired his own artistic passions?
Enough spoilers for now. Let me say that the last hour of the movie climaxing in the creation of a photo-collage from photos of the aunt and Kurt, the Nazi who spearheaded the sterilization program, and Kurt’s father-in-law reaches a crescendo of artistic passion and moral judgment that, frankly without being too over the top, moved me to tears. Equally moving is the actual ending of the movie, when after a press conference where Kurt comes into his own as a celebrity artist, he pays a surprising and meaningful tribute to his murdered aunt. Politics, art, creativity, judgment blend together perfectly in a story where evil is not vindicated through law but through artistic expression. What the state would dismiss as degenerate becomes empowered to reveal truth in art, however unaware of the triumph.
Kurt’s Tribute to His Aunt: Painting as Judgment
The German title for Donnersmarck’s movie is “Werk ohne Autor,” or “Artwork Without An Author.” The title has two meanings. First is the repression of individual artistic expression under Nazi Germany and the Soviet bloc: all that matters is the work, not the author. The second meaning is the power of the artwork, specifically the collage Kurt creates at the end, to stand as meaning even if the author does not fully comprehend its relevance. Kurt is compelled to juxtapose photographs to speak to some truth he senses but does not intellectually grasp. When revealed, by accident, to the Nazi father-in-law, the shock and fear he displays betrays his complicity and his own realization that perhaps his son-in-law and his daughter know the truth. The father-in-law runs away (the actual doctor he was modelled on was never tried for his war crimes) while Kurt shrugs off his father-in-law’s reaction, silently letting the collage speak for itself. He is proud as an author even if the artwork has its own meaning.
This disconnect between artwork and creator comes through in the press conference at the end of the movie. Journalists try to undermine Kurt with their questions. One TV news reporter wonders whether Kurt’s generation of artists actually understand what they are trying to say, a subtle reference from the director to Kurt not seeing the truth about his father-in-law’s involvement in his aunt’s murder. The TV news reporter passes his own judgment while standing in front of Kurt’s photo collage of his aunt but only after passing over two other artworks because of the inappropriateness of broadcasting them. The passed over artworks are of a nude woman and another of a Nazi officer (see images here of Richter’s work on which the paintings in the film were based). Viewers in 1960’s Germany would not be able to stand witnessing either image. Artwork, with or without an author, is cast off subject to the whims of the media and the audience.
Richter’s SS Officer
Richter’s Nude Descending
Fans of Donnersmarck’s breakthough film, the 2006 “The Lives of Others,” will remember that the movie ends with the publication of a book. The book’s author does not fully comprehend the connection with the Stasi Officer who spied on him and saved his life. His brief encounter with the ex-officer in reunified Berlin after the book’s publication does bring the author closer to an epiphany, but it continues to be elusive. “The Lives of Others” ended with another work without an author, a work that takes on its own meaning divorced from the connection between people.
The director’s choice for the English title, “Never Look Away,” is telling. The true story might simply be that “Work Without an Author” did not test well. I like to think that the title is an admonishment for the audience. They are the final words of Kurt’s aunt to Kurt as she is dragged away by the Nazi doctors. Kurt never looks away even if the final truth of what he sees and depicts escapes his understanding. Viewers of Donnersmarck’s breath-taking film about state power run amok should never look away from the power of art to pass its own judgment on what the world brings up in the moment.
Gerhard Richter and his painted photograph of his aunt
Shubha Ghosh is Crandall Melvin Professor of Law, Syracuse University College of Law
 See Dana Goodyear, “An Artist’s Life, Refracted in Film,“ The New Yorker (Jan. 14, 2019).