Dispatches from the Venice Film Festival: Werk ohne Autor (Never Look Away)

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck depicts a captivating melodrama, inspired by real events, that spans through three eras of German history, and portrays the way personal experience coalesces with the creative process.

Werk ohne Autor (Never Look Away), is drenched with the sensitivity towards history and social interconnectedness, that the German film director had so vividly conveyed in his 2006 Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others.   

His latest film is an extraordinary Bildungsroman about a young art student, Kurt (Tom Schilling) who falls in love with fellow student, Ellie (Paula Beer). Ellie’s father, Professor Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a famous doctor, is dismayed at his daughter’s choice of boyfriend, and vows to destroy the relationship. What neither of them knows is that their lives are already connected through a terrible crime Seeband committed decades before.

Werk ohne Autor cuts across the Nazi Era, Socialism and the time for reform: The Sixties. Germany’s political history intertwines with a variety of artistic movements. While shedding light on the madness and tragedies of the twentieth century, through the example of three human destinies, we experience the liberating power of creation through the artistic expression of the Third Reich, Socialist Realism (with mentions to Walter Womacka, Willi Sitte, Werner Tübke and Bernhard Heisig) and Conceptual Art.

As a matter of fact, Werk ohne Autor literally would translate to “Work Without Author.” It’s a shame that the English version was changed to “Never Look Away,” because the original title is emblematic to the storyline and the hero’s personal and artistic journey. For Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, art is a major theme in his life.

The director revealed how he was affected by the groundbreaking Zeitgeist exhibition in Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau, that he saw when he was not yet ten years old. Another major influence in his creative process was the work of German painter Gerhard Richter, as he explained: “In recent years I found myself continually encountering the work of Gerhard Richter at important moments and with important friends of mine – at the homes of Ulrich Mühe, of my agent Beth Swofford in Los Angeles, and of a friend of mine in New York, Noam Gottesman. I was unable to forget these images of Gerhard Richter even weeks and months after I saw them. They were like memorable melodies that continue to dance around in your head. Like earworms. But in this case eyeworms. With the difference that they weren’t annoying, but a continual source of enrichment.

This 188-minute family drama, flies with ease, unfolding a spellbinding thriller that explores the making of genuine art.