Seeing “Never Look Away”

Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor, 2019), the latest offering from director Florian Henckel von Donnersmark, who was also behind the camera for The Lives of Others (2006) and The Tourist (2010), is a long, conflicted, and ultimately disappointing film. It runs over three hours. While the pacing didn’t feel slow or noticeable for the wrong reasons, at least at the time I watched it, there are aspects of the film, including what it wants to say about the main character’s father-in-law (a medical doctor and unrepentant Nazi), that aren’t of a piece. Given the generically romantic thrust of the film, the fact that this discord isn’t ever resolved satisfactorily is a problem. Other aspects fit together better, including the music and the cinematography, although these often tilt towards the sappy-sentimental. The attempt to forge a connection between aesthetic experience and transcendence is made rather more forcefully: at two pivotal moments in the film climactic music/sound reaches a plateau of a single striking note. The main character Kurt and Kurt’s aunt Elisabeth are united through this ecstatic experience. It is almost as if the film takes up the advice given at one point by Kurt’s avant-garde art instructor: a true and authentic artist must channel the transcendent energy of existence. Thus two “divine” moments bookend the story: first with the aunt, during which the young Kurt looks on, and then eventually with the artist himself, after he has resolved the main inner conflict of his life. Concluding both episodes, a group of bus drivers hit their horns at once, transfiguring the aunt and the artist. The sacred and profane meet in a mundane moment of noisy communion.

Early on in the story Kurt’s aunt Elisabeth, perhaps suffering from a mental disorder of some kind, tells her young nephew to listen to a note she plays repeatedly on the piano. She happens to be naked, telling him to “never look away.” This is at once an awkwardly literal statement about the beauty of her naked body and a claim about the potentially disturbing insight of the aesthetic gaze. In playing the note Elizabeth has a mystical experience, a union with all being in which she grasps the truth of the world. It is a kind of secular beatific vision that seems to shatter her sanity. Later in the film, as a young man, Kurt is enraptured by a similar ecstasy. After viewing a pastoral scene in rural Saxony, watching the wind blow in the fields while he rests peacefully, perched in a tree, he says almost exactly the same thing as his aunt: he has had an insight into all being, the individual connecting to the whole.

Never Look Away tells the story of a young man who, under the strictures of Communist East Germany, is drawn to the truth and beauty of art, but who cannot connect that truth and beauty to himself. In the first half of the film Kurt often he looks confused, restricted, aware that he’s missing something. But he’s not sure what. His teachers and his friends all recognize his evident talent, and he frequently soars above his classmates. Why? Without an answer to this question, increasingly dissatisfied and alienated, Kurt and his young wife leave East Germany before the Berlin wall is finished. Without knowing what to expect in the West, at least they will be free to explore. Although Kurt’s wife is also a gifted artist, a tailor and designer who makes excellent clothes, her story is more or less whittled down to her ability to have a baby and her nubile availability for sex-as-creative-aesthetic-whole. The couple’s sex life, and their attempts to have a child, all-too-predictably run parallel with Kurt’s struggle to find his métier.

Eventually Kurt’s aesthetic breakthrough occurs. It is telling that this happens in a liberal democracy with a free market, i.e. the Federal Republic of Germany (i.e. West Germany). Insight arrives after a climactic period in which Kurt wrestles almost aimlessly with his medium and his theme. One day, in his avant-garde school, he responds to the teacher’s question about the essence of artistic creation. He likens the process to the difference between numbers said at random and the same numbers as part of a winning lottery. This is significant. For Kurt repeats this same response triumphantly much later in the film, when reporters ask him what his work means. Aesthetic perception is thus likened to the spontaneous alignment of a particular vision of being with existence’s presentation of something that happens to fit that vision. It is not unlike the ecstatic vision of all being that he shared with his aunt Elisabeth. Numbers said at random would seem to produce no order, no meaning beyond their saying; whereas those same numbers said in connection with some surreal event harmoniously links one’s subjective expression with an external reality. Impressed by this answer, the teacher asks to speak with Kurt after class and to see his work. But the teacher is disappointed. Kurt has not expressed the truth of his being in his art. He hasn’t connected his insight to his creative work.

To register this criticism the teacher makes reference to a famous line from a seventeenth-century philosopher, René Descartes: “I think” (therefore I am). The parallel is deeply subjective and sharply at odds with the Socialist Realism of Kurt’s teachers in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). There he was taught to reject the selfish narcissism of bourgeois art, mockingly referred to with the words “me, me, me.” But Kurt’s art teacher in West Germany suggests that to get at the (aesthetic) truth one must doubt everything external, as Descartes did, building up from the unshakable truth of one’s subjective experience (i.e. from “I think”). The teacher himself connects a deeply personal, painful, and redemptive series of events that happened to him during the course of the Second World War with the medium and form of his artistic expression. It doesn’t matter whether or not anyone around him understands his creations, he states confidently. What matters is the foundational (solipsistic) experience as the basis of artistic creation. This standard of beauty and expression are more or less that to which Kurt aspires. In addition to subjectivizing aesthetic experience, the teacher compares artists to God, whose creative energies formed the cosmos. Similarly, an artist transubstantiates everyday experience, offering an ecstatic union of the subjective part with the spiritual whole.

The German title of this film elicits some of the tensions at work in its presentation of art, beauty, and purpose: “Work without author.” Loosely based on the life of the German artist Gerhard Richter, who, in an effort to deflect artistic criticism away from his biography, did not give specific titles to his work, the film raises the question of the relationship between an artwork and meaning. In the movie, when asked by reporters what his work “says” or what it “means,” Kurt demurs. He doesn’t have an answer or doesn’t wish to give one. He certainly doesn’t articulate any reasons for his art to himself in the film. He simply repeats what he told his teacher about the difference between numbers said at random and those same numbers as part of a winning lottery. However, to say that his artwork doesn’t “say” anything amounts to an evasion, albeit an understandable one. There may be very good reasons for wishing to remain silent when one’s words will be twisted, or when one’s aims will be co-opted (as under political oppression). But it remains true that art always “says” something, explicitly or implicitly, intentionally or unintentionally, loudly or softly. Certainly one can always offer interpretive articulations of any given work of art, and the way those articulations work are connected to the social, cultural, and political currents of their given context. That isn’t to say that an artwork neatly equates with a text or with spoken language or can be exhausted by referring to the context from which it derives. But there is, or must be, some commesurability between the background from which the artistic articulation is made, the articulation itself, and its performative reception in the present. Otherwise, as Aristotle would say, nothing at all could be communicated. It would not enter the space of reasons, of meaning, of language. It would not be a work of art at all. It would be mute.

Does the film endorse the romantic-modernist view of art espoused by Kurt’s art teacher, and realized by Kurt himself? To judge by the ecstatic moments which link Kurt and his aunt Elisabeth, and which bookend the plot of this film, the answer would seem to be yes. The central contrast is that between East and West Germany, with their different political cultures in the aftermath of the Second World War. As the plot moves from one of communal repression to individual expression, so too does Kurt’s relationship to art. That much is clear. While the presentation is itself an artistic statement, and one that might not necessarily align with the statements made about art in the film internally, neither the film nor its characters seem to offer much beyond clichés. Perhaps the strongest statement it makes is that Kurt sublimates his psychological and interpersonal struggles—to find his medium, to have a child, to create and procreate—into his successful artworks. The obvious antagonist in the film is Kurt’s father-in-law. Over time, and rather late in the day, Kurt finally recognizes him for who he is: an unrepentant Nazi who not only sent aunt Elisabeth to the gas chambers, but a father who tried to sabotage his own daughter’s reproductive health. Yet Kurt does not immediately denounce him. Instead the moment of artistic breakthrough occurs when Kurt works his father-in-law directly into his painting. In a mishmash of photo-realism and dreamlike surrealism, Kurt paints a picture of his father-in-law that incorporates an earlier professional portrait. This montage in dark, drastic colours, is painted over in its entirety with what is quite literally a whitewashing technique. Something about the process apparently clicks, like a winning lottery number. Kurt completes the painting and at a key moment in the film his father-in-law sees it. The connection between aesthetic vision and recognition is made here, quickly leading the father-in-law to see that his identity as a Nazi has become public even in West Germany. With this painting, then, Kurt finally acknowledges the identity of his father-in-law and expresses aesthetically the nature of their relationship. Something that was semi-conscious and unrecognized now comes into the open: through his vision Kurt has “captured” his father-in-law and in so doing has freed himself. The artwork is a psychological palliative, a substitute satisfaction for his slowness in adequately recognizing what was happening around him. Resolution is achieved through providential recognition, the fragmented part finding resolution in a greater whole.

As this indicates, Never Look Away sets itself up to make an ambitious statement about art but then settles for what is in fact quite conventional. Consider again the contours of the film’s narrative in political terms. Kurt is an artist who, in order to express himself fully and realize his abilities, has to travel from communist East Germany to free-market liberal West Germany. Both artistic freedom and personal self-realization are linked to their supposed political equivalents. To put it in class terms appropriate to Kurt’s historical context, just as the bourgeois individual stands against totalitarianism, so too does the artwork stand in opposition to alienation, dominion, and mere utility. The legitimate political regime, like the genuine work of art, is the expression of individual subjective freedom set over and against an oppressive external power. However, if the journey from East to West Germany is Kurt’s escape from totalitarianism to freedom, later in the film he must come to terms with the fact that he can’t simply flee his past but must face it in the form of his father-in-law. Of course the means of achieving this reconciliation is art. Kurt reworks a portrait he did of his father-in-law during the Nazi past into a present-day montage, thus indicating that West Germany too must exorcise its totalitarian past by recognizing and transfiguring it. He finally connects his artistic efforts with the reality of his own subjective experience, his painting with his personal life, identifying his father-in-law as the malevolent force of death that he is.

On these terms, then, genuine artworks are like bourgeois individuals in modern liberal political regimes, autonomous and self-determining. Rejecting all external sources of authority as illegitimate, they give the law unto themselves, dictating both the form and the content of authentic expression, channeling disparate and particular forces into a harmonious whole. Yet by constructing the aesthetic domain as a purely subjective field in which an individual is ideally baptized in the holistic beauty of secular ecstasy, the implicit political ideology of Never Look Away brackets the material social conditions from which personal and spiritual realization is in fact attained. In doing so it contributes to the insulation of modern liberal social formations from the kind of critique which could open up and outline much more robust and realistic routes to human freedom and fulfillment.

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