Friday, May 31, 2019

Never Look Away - a film review

If I were going to give up my name and take another, I think I’d call myself Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. I know the name is already taken, but wow.

First off, you could do worse than call yourself a flower. Floral. Florid.

I’d leave him the rest of his names. Don’t need the “Christian” or the “Maria” and I’m not entitled to the “count” (Graf). Which he is. But I sure like the snap of this guy’s name.

If you don’t know who he is, he’s the maker of that marvelous film, The Lives of Others, about the otherwise dull life of an East German cog in the wheel who spies for the state on a writer and his wife as part of the giant oversight structure of the GDR in the days before the Berlin Wall fell.

FH von D’s film had the magic ingredient – heart. Whether it was his intention – I suspect it was – he managed to show the world that reconciliation between the two Germanys is possible and the way to accomplish it is to show the humanity beneath the surface of a killer dictatorship. If you haven’t seen The Lives of Others, do so as soon as you can. It will restore your faith in the human race.

Now Count Florian HvD has done it again. He’s made another film about the misery of life under a dictatorship and brought out evidence that people can survive untold physical hardship and psychological torture and come out with their souls intact. The English title, Never Look Away, captures the drama of the story better than the German title Werk ohne Autor (Work without an Author). It begins when a young boy, Kurt, watches his favorite aunt hauled off by the Nazis to be euthanized, supposedly because she’s schizophrenic. Her advice to Kurt, echoing John Keats, is to keep his eye on the truth of things, no matter how harsh, because truth is beauty. Kurt makes that the watchword of his life as an artist.

Because this is a brave new world of an unlimited supply of films to binge on, where once I would watch a film or read a book I had started to the end, just to find out what happens next, these days I'm quick to move on to what promises to be something better. Which is what I was tempted to do after about twenty minutes in Never Look Away. Something was off. Acting too stiff, maybe; plot line too trite. Maybe it was the swastikas. I don’t know what it was. It felt like the film was out of control. Like it wasn’t tied down somehow and was wobbling all over the place. And watching the good guy from Lives of Others, Sebastian Koch, who played the spied-upon writer, now play the bad guy Nazi – and not just a bad guy, but a seriously evil villain, the kind who ties maidens to railroad tracks – was disconcerting.

Next thing you know, this curious film jumps ahead in time. The war comes to an end, the Russians move in, the villain manages to survive by saving the life of a Russian general’s daughter, and injustice prevails. Villain – his name is Carl Seeband and he’s a medical doctor (gynecologist) – rises to the top in the East German communist structure, his secret Nazi past safe thanks to his Russian general benefactor. And gets to be evil in a whole new way.

Now here’s where the movie gets interesting. Florian Count Maria Christian, it turns out, is not making this movie so much about bad guy Nazis who become bad guy Communists when the winds change. He’s making it about the purpose of art. Does it have a purpose? Is it to reflect truth (whatever that means)? Should it be didactic? Channel original thought or creativity? The Nazis instrumentalized the work of artists, supported anyone glorifying German superiority and heroism, and demonized non-pictorial art as decadent. Their communist successors carried the same torch, insisting on “socialist realism,” i.e., depicting the ideal world to come as if it had already arrived. And what’s Kurt, our little boy, now fully grown, to do with his aunt’s advice never to look away? He has the talent to work in the GDR as an artist, but the stuff he is forced to produce leaves him disgusted with himself.

Just when you think von Donnersmarck (I’ll stop toying with his name now) is turning his three-hour binge into an art history lesson, he goes all Hollywood on you. He takes the life of Germany’s best-known modern artist, Gerhard Richter, not as an inspiration for a biopic, but as a jumping off place for a romantic drama, mixing the facts of Richter’s life with fiction in order to make big-time box office.

All this stuff should add up to shlock film-making. But, for reasons I’ll leave to more serious film critics to explain, that’s not what happens. Instead, what you get is a riveting edge-of-seat race between a young artist seeking meaning in life and a world of sinister forces threatening to trip him up. Three decades of German history, Nazism and communist dictatorship, leave you prepped for defeat. Instead you get inspiration. You move through the several twists in plot orientation, and you wonder at times whether this is supposed to be understood as political history told at a personal level. At some point it becomes an extended art lecture, and you worry the filmmaker has gone off on a wild tangent. And what’s all this romantic fluff with naked bodies (lots of shots of one naked body lying on top of another)?  Where are we going to end up? Is this a moral tale where the villain shouts “Curses!” and rides off into the sunset?

After sifting through all the pieces, it sinks in that you’ve been taken for a marvelous ride. The pieces you once saw as disparate and disconnected now hold together in a work of art in which the filmmaker doesn’t lecture you on how to get at meaning; he shows you. You don’t listen to his secrets of creating art, you observe it unfolding.

Florian has more going for him than his splendid name. He’s a giant of a man – 6 feet 8. As both Lives of Others and Never Look Away make clear, he knows how to tell a good story. And he knows how to pull together a first-class team. Never Look Away is not only well-told, it is visually glorious. And the music is hauntingly beautiful, as well.

Never Look Away is the reason people go to the movies.

photo credit:

P.S. There are so many rich details I might have included here, but I worry about clutter. This is a major film-making project with a wide-ranging background story. For details, check out:

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Double Dictatorship - a review and a reflection

Ines Geipel
Doppeldiktatur - Double Dictatorship - a German neologism that has come into use since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany and the wider acceptance of the notion that Germany, within the last century, has undergone not one, but two debilitating dictatorships, one under the fascists, the other under the communists.

I just finished wading through a very difficult book, Umkämpfte Zone: Mein Brüder, der Osten und der Hass (Disputed Zone: My brother, the East, and Hatred) by Ines Geipel. Difficult for me, because it views the world through an East German lens and even when I thought I understood the references I suspected I was missing many of the complex associations. I simply did not share the experience she writes about. That, in addition to reading through the dark glass of an often inaccessible literary German.

I sought out the book after seeing Ms. Geipel on a German talk show. I was taken with the earnestness of her claim that Germans have never properly processed the damage done to their psyche from having lived through two distinct systems of mind control. Geipel seeks an explanation for how it is the right-wing AfD (Alternative for Germany) Party is enjoying such success in Germany despite two absolutist dictatorships, and attempts to link the resurgence of nationalism with the failure to learn from history. It's not an easy case to make. No psychological cause and effect is. We know that kids who bully were often bullied themselves, but can such cause and effect associations be made on a national level?

Her claim that the poison of unresolved hatreds can return to haunt us if not properly dealt with is obviously not just a German fear. I see it in America’s bitter failure to own up to its history of slavery and segregation, its patriarchal values now once again raising their ugly head in the attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade, and the tragedy of America’s inability to resist going to war to protect its corporate business interests under the guise of fostering democracy around the world.

So much for my political orientation, formed in part from working through the years of the Cold War with the Army Security Agency in Berlin, listening in on East German party cadre at work keeping their German Democratic Republic afloat. I was still in my early twenties, very wet behind the ears, and I was up against an unexpected challenge. The American military superiors I had to answer to were not the sharpest knives in the drawer and contrasted poorly with the jovial, kindly Germans I got to know through my earphones. Us against them. Us being an all-male blind obedience military, them being a small in-group of folk who took every opportunity to talk about their grandchildren and exchange birthday and anniversary congratulations. An early encounter with cognitive dissonance. And the need to see the complexity beneath the surface of things. 

Don’t misunderstand me. Living in West Berlin in the early 60s, one could not escape the contrast between East and West. The Easterners may have had the best of earnest intentions to make their homeland a better place, but I had been in East Berlin before the wall went up and I could read between the lines in the East German papers. I could see the social realism, the pretense of superiority that was supposed to be treated as fact until the actual facts could come about at some future time. And although, like most people, I chose the West over the East mostly because it was where I lived and because it had more color, and not because I was committed to an anti-communist ideology, I did understand at some level that there was something wrong with the lack of free expression in the East, with the fact that there were so many more people in uniform, so many more machine guns in sight, and the country had become a place where everybody seemed to spy endlessly on everybody else. I couldn’t readily articulate what was wrong with all this at first, but eventually it began to sink what it meant that they were shooting people trying to get across the wall for a crime with the surrealist name: “flight from the Republic.”

Hitler was able to rise to power in large part because of a fear of communism. Just as post World War II Korea was caught between the Russian and Chinese desire to spread communism on one side and American capitalism on the other, Germany in the late Weimar period was torn apart by those inspired by Karl Marx who believed that Germany, not Russia, was the ideal place to start a world communist movement, and those who espoused a racist, nationalist fascism, on the other. Four weeks after Hitler rose to power, his thugs set fire to the Reichstag. He blamed it on the Communists and used it as a pretext to claim dictatorial powers.

When Hitler was defeated and the Eastern (Russian) Zone became a communist state, the East Germans saw an opportunity to define themselves as anti-fascists, stake a claim to communist purity, and saddle the West with all the crimes of the Third Reich. The Communist “good guys” against the anti-communist “bad guys.” Instead of rooting out the fascist sentiment that permeated the East, they were able to construct a pretense that, as communists, they had been the victors in the Great Anti-Fascist War. It didn't help that the Americans had in fact effectively put an end to the denazification process, thinking such a reorientation program might get in the way of bringing the Germans around to the American way of fighting communism.

This myth of non-fascist purity is crumbling before our eyes as we watch, little by little, how nationalism in Germany is now manifesting itself to a greater degree in the East, in states like Saxony and Thuringia, than in the West. In the right-wing AfD Party and the anti-Islamic political movement known as Pegida. It is this phenomenon that Ines Geipel addresses in her story about the “Contested Zone.” “The zone,” not coincidentally, is the term Westerners used to refer to the Russian Zone, the place which became the DDR, the German Democratic Republic.

Geipel’s is a story of unfinished business. She traces the two dictatorships through her own family and particularly how the lives of her Nazi party grandfather and Stasi-connected father impacted her own and her brother’s and how they grew apart over the years. How the shame led to silence and the silence meant that the guilt would never be exposed to fresh air. In a binary world, either fascist or communist, to speak of criminal behavior in one realm was to foster it in the other. A third space was too difficult a task for most people - the choices were to take sides or to remain silent and declare oneself apolitical, which only extended the failure to come to terms with the evils of dictatorship and postponed any real kind of reconciliation.

One cannot escape the effect of adding a second dictatorship to the first. 1933 to 1998. Three generations, one on top of another having to watch what one says and where one says it. Living with the knowledge that the rug can be pulled out from under you at any given moment, without warning, where to get ahead often depends on betraying another, and objective truth must necessarily give way to a forced ideological one.

Geipel makes use of a powerful device not of her own making. Her brother’s death brings home to her all the missed opportunities to talk about the things their generation should have brought into the open. She none too subtly thus implies that all of us need to question what there is in us that provides a place for our notions of xenophobia, or white supremacy, the inclination to look away, or the willingness to believe things because they are in sync with an external inherited ideology rather than the product of an open mind and critical thinking.

photo credit