Drama, rated R, in German with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
The origin story of German artist Gerhardt Richter is the armature on which Oscar-winning filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others) has hung this engrossing look at art, love, war, politics, and evil. It’s a work of fiction, and doesn’t purport to be a biopic, but it has landed close enough to (or far enough from) the mark to elicit a frosty repudiation from Richter.
The arc of this movie is the journey to self-discovery of a young artist named Kurt Barnert from his childhood in Nazi Germany before and during the war, his coming of age in communist East Germany, and his escape and eventual creative flowering in West Germany.
Von Donnersmarck begins with Kurt as a little boy (a soulful Cai Cohrs) in 1937 Dresden, holding the hand of his beautiful Aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) as they visit a Nazi exhibit of “degenerate art” (Picasso, Grosz, Kandinsky, etc.).
That kickoff scene sets the stage and the tone for the movie’s central quest, which concerns the meaning and value of art. The Nazi tour guide (Lars Eidinger) gives a cautionary lecture on the dangerous depravity of modern art, which he says wallows in subjective visions instead of exalting the people. It’s one of a series of explicit viewpoints about art that keep popping up throughout the film.
Soon after, little Kurt comes upon his aunt seated naked at the piano in the family parlor. “Never look away,” she urges the boy. “Everything that is true is beautiful.” As the movie progresses, more perspectives on the philosophy of art are delivered — by an East German art teacher, a West German art student, and in one of the movie’s most riveting scenes, an eccentric professor (Oliver Masucci, superb) at the Düsseldorf academy where Kurt is trying to find his artistic path. A breeze and a slide projector also figure importantly into the film’s teaching moments.
Not long after her nude piano scene, Aunt Elisabeth is institutionalized for schizophrenia and falls into the hands of the hospital director, gynecologist Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a doctrinaire Nazi who commits her to the sterilization program and then the Final Solution the party has mapped out for the mentally and physically deficient.
Kurt grows up (now played by Tom Schilling), develops his talent, is accepted at the academy, toes the communist art line (much the same as the Nazi’s), and meets a beautiful design student (Paula Beer) who reminds him — and will remind you — so much of his late beloved aunt that he can’t call her by her name, Elisabeth, and settles instead on Ellie. It is a nickname given her by her father, who turns out to be the very same Prof. Carl Seeband.
From here on, lives and stories intertwine. Seeband, who dodged execution after the war through a combination of opportunism and professional skill, has insinuated himself smoothly into the power structure of the new GDR communist regime. When his position there becomes precarious, he defects to the West, where he continues riding high — a commentary on the ideological adaptability of power.
Kurt and Ellie, now married, also slip across the line, a step ahead of the building of the Berlin Wall. He leaves behind a successful career as a painter of socialist heroic murals, and begins to explore the world of Western modernism, floundering as he searches for a Big Idea everywhere but within himself. And his troubled and troubling relationship with his authoritarian father-in-law continues.
But of course he will find his way, and the way he finds bears a close resemblance to the breakthrough art of Richter, with blurred photorealist painting renditions of black-and-white snapshots. Through his discovery of truth in his art, Kurt is also able to expose certain truths in relationships, coming close to, without ever quite understanding, the dark ways in which his and Seeband’s lives have intersected. Interestingly, in a press conference at the artist’s wildly successful first show, he lies repeatedly and denies the truth about the identities and stories behind his paintings. It’s almost enough to make you look away.
Von Donnersmarck can lapse into cheesy cinematic devices from time to time, and the powerful music score gets a bit bombastic. But overall, the sweep and skill of his storytelling carry the weight of the film’s three-plus hours gracefully. Schilling makes an attractive if somewhat passive central figure. It’s the great Koch who dominates the movie, finding shreds of humanity in the smooth monster he portrays.
Richter cooperated extensively with von Donnersmarck in the research and preparation of this movie, and many of its story points and the ultimate discovery of his artistic vision mesh with known details of the painter’s life. The result may have angered the painter, but they make for an engrossing movie that has earned the director his second Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination in as many tries.