Political Film Review #589


When children are inhumanely separated from their loved ones, their future can be very painful and normality may be impossible. Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor) is a noir film that traces a German artist at several junctions of his life from age 6 to 36 (1937 to 1967), proving that art cannot really escape politics. Based loosely on the life of world famous Gerhard Richter, young Kurt Barnert (then played by Cai Cohrs) is a budding artist in Dresden but experiences several traumas in his life: (1) His family must vacate their home because his father refuses to join the Nazi Party, as was true of 75 percent of the teachers, ends up moving to the suburbs, and is employed cleaning steps at a nearby hospital. (2) Although Kurt is treated very special by his aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), who poses nude before him, she later is referred by his family for unusual behavior to a local physician, who commits her, kicking and screaming “Never Look Away!” to a mental institution, with the family looking on.  (3). Nazi Dr. Burghart Kroll (Rainer Bock) makes the Social Darwinistic decision to kill mental patients, though the specific decision to asphyxiate her is made by Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch). (4) Kurt’s father, meanwhile, is executed for disloyalty. (5) Artistic Dresden is bombed during the war. (6) Russians take over Dresden when Germany is defeated. Enrolling in an art academy, teenage Kurt (now Tom Schilling) learns that art must conform to Communist conceptions. (7) When he sees a fashion student, Elizabeth Seeband (Paula Beer), he falls instantly in love because of the resemblance to his aunt, and in she becomes pregnant. But her father, Professor Seeband, now displays his Social Darwinism by opposing her paramour as an inferior being, so he performs an abortion on his daughter and falsely says that she will never again bear children. (8) The couple, nevertheless, marries and escapes to West Germany, where Kunstakademie Düsseldorf encourages new forms of modern art, excluding painting. (9) Kurt tries different art forms, but the dean, Antonius Van Werten (Oliver Masucci), tells him he is not being true to himself, so he destroys what he has done. (10) Realizing that he must return to painting, he stares at a white canvass day after day, unable to conceive of anything to paint. (11) Professor Seeband, who has also escaped to West Germany, gives him the job of cleaning steps in his hospital, just like his father.

Kurt’s primary response to the traumas has been passionate sex with his girlfriend and later wife. He finally comes out of his shell when a newspaper story reports that Dr. Kroll is captured, and Kurt is inspired to transform his photograph in the newspaper story to a painting. Soon, Kurt achieves considerable fame as the country’s top painter by converting black-and-white family photographs into paintings with a certain blurring to represent the fading that occurs over time. Nevertheless, Kurt refuses to elucidate the personal background behind the paintings, as if his mind is a blank and painting is his disease, explaining the German title of the film (Work Without Author). The noir ending for the film, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, demonstrates that he was indeed channeling his traumas all along. The real Gerhart Richter, it turns out, did not appreciate such a representation. MH