It would be hard to imagine a more auspicious directorial debut than The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 study of life in the German Democratic Republic, the Communist state that ceased to exist after German reunification. Donnersmarck never lived in the GDR, was never a Communist—his full name, Florian Maria Georg Christian Graf Henckel von Donnersmarck, betrays his roots in Germany’s aristocracy—and was just sixteen when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Yet somehow he managed a meticulous reconstruction not only of daily life in the GDR, but also of the complex psychology of an authoritarian surveillance state, where varying kinds and degrees of complicity, silent protest, corruption, victimization, and inner exile shaped the fates of citizens.
The Lives of Others follows a Stasi operative who becomes fascinated by the playwright-and-actress couple he’s assigned to spy on. Envious of their passion for the arts and for each other, he bit-by-bit undermines his own mission, fastening on the couple and inserting himself into their lives as part savior, part vampire. The movie’s drab settings harmonized with the bleak emotional landscape it surveyed, and the deftly orchestrated plot drew out a taut suspense that was both political and existential. Presenting a near-perfect fitting of cinematic matter to manner, the movie won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
After following this triumph with 2010’s The Tourist, a flimsy and much-derided Angelina Jolie–Johnny Depp vehicle, Donnersmarck has returned to familiar territory with Never Look Away, another foray into the dark recesses of modern German history. The story charts three decades in the life of a character based on the celebrated artist Gerhard Richter. Now eighty-six, Richter made his name as a painter of photorealistic portraits whose surfaces he blurred, creating a tantalizing kind of mirage that puts images in front of us and then complicates our access to their meanings. Richter himself has been famously reluctant to comment on those meanings, resorting to such gnomic utterances as “My paintings know more than I do.” Though the artist has disavowed the film, he granted Donnersmarck extensive interviews, and the biographical parallels could hardly be clearer. Like Richter, Donnersmarck’s Kurt Barnert is born in Dresden in 1932, lives through both Nazi and Communist regimes, and defects in the 1960s to the West, where he emerges as a leading figure in the art scene. Also like Richter, Barnert in childhood has a young aunt who receives a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and subsequently disappears into the monstrous maw of the Nazis’ eugenic medical system.