Never Look Away is an absorbing drama that looks at the interaction between art and society. I recently had the chance to speak to German writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck about his film…
Matt: You directed my favourite release of 2006, The Lives of Others, which won the Oscar for best foreign language film. I’ve always been curious to know with that category – did you get to keep the Oscar?
Florian: Of course. Normally, the director does get to keep the Oscar but I’ve heard this story about when Asghar Farhadi won for A Separation, a government delegation was waiting at the airport in Tehran who took it on behalf of the country. Luckily, Germany doesn’t have a similar policy so I got to keep mine.
Matt: Let’s talk about Never Look Away which is spread across a broad time period covering Germany pre-WWI and post-WWII. How easy was it to re-create that period of history from a visual perspective?
Florian: You sound like a producer because that was a huge challenge. We had to show Germany in all its glory before it was bombed and that involved a lot of building sets and digital cobbling together based on shots from Prague and Vienna that had a similar look to Dresden. We then had to show the aftermath which was a world in ruins. We found a place in Poland where they wanted to demolish a city and they ran out of money half way through. We then had the challenging of adapting it and making it look like a bombed out Germany in 1945.
Matt: Wow. That’s almost good fortune to have a location like that?
Florian: It was crazy. I thought we were going to have to build massive models and I was already working with model makers to create that but they never quite looked real. A runner on our set then told us about a place he’d heard about in Poland. We went there and it was amazing. It only took about a month for a team to make it looked charred and bombed.
Matt: Where did the inspiration come from to tell this particular story?
Florian: It came from a meeting I had with a journalist who said he’d just taken a year off to write a biography of the great Germany painter Gerhard Richter. He’s an incredible artist who is mainly famous for selling pictures that go for $40 million a piece. I asked why he wanted to write the biography given that so much has already been written about Richter and he told me that he’d found out something new about Richter’s life.
There was a famous photo painting which is based on picture from Richter’s old family album where he is a little child in 1933 or something and is being held by a beautiful young woman who he said was his aunt. She was later murdered by the Nazis because she was schizophrenic and they didn’t want that genetic material for the new “master race”. He created the painting as a monument to her but the journalist found, and Richter didn’t know this, was that the Richter’s father-in-law was actually one of the Secret Service doctors in charge of the Nazi genetics program.
I thought it was a really interesting starting point for a fictional story about an artist developing his sensibilities living under the same roof as the man who caused his greatest trauma. It appealed to me as a psychological, artistic mystery.
Matt: Aside from telling a good story, the film also provides a lesson when it comes to the many styles of art, particularly social realism, and its value in the world. Have you always been an art lover or was it something you had to learn a lot about before writing the film?
Florian: Art has always been part of my life. My mother worked as an art consultant for many companies for a number of years. She tried to teach a love of art to my brother and I. It was difficult in the beginning because I was young and it was hard for a child to appreciate little scribbles on a canvas. Over time, I understood that to appreciate art, you have to open up all your senses in an almost supernatural exercise and at the same time, you had to be open to the stories that came with these works of art. I grew to appreciate contemporary art as a very free and radical form of storytelling.
Matt: When making a film about an artist, it can be really difficult to capture their inner psyche and what makes them so talented. There are some great scenes here where we watch Kurt draw and paint as he tries to find his own unique style. How did you approach those?
Florian: The scene you’re talking about where he finally finds his true style was perhaps the hardest scene that I’ve ever had to shoot in my life. You’re just telling it in images. If you get one image wrong, the flow of images won’t be compelling any more. You almost have to be a perfectionist to work in film because if you don’t get it just right, it’ll collapse like a building.
We had many great artists who worked with us. Andreas Schön did many of the central paintings for us and he was Gerhard Richter’s assistant for many years. He knew the methodology. I was also lucky, and this was just a stroke a luck, that my lead actor Tom Schilling is actually a very talented draughtsman himself. He wanted to be an artist until he was discovered as an actor.
We used him to paint for several of the sequences and re-enrolled in an art school at Hamburg University. He’s such a precise person so he even took a course in how to stretch canvases because he wanted it to be as real as possible when he did it and that makes the film evens stronger.
Matt: The music in the film is quite subtle and I believe you were working with composer Max Richter for the first time. Can you tell us what you were looking for in that regard?
Florian: Thank you for asking that. To me, Max Richter is the greatest composer of my generation. I think that in a few years, he will have become a household name. In a way, he is the epitome of an artist who wants his music to reach you on every level. It’s not enough to reach your ears. He wants to reach the whole body. He used pianos with strings 20 feet long to create these super dark, deep notes that will make your whole body vibrate. That allows him to stay very subtle in the music so that you’re not listening to a bombastic score but you’re still really feeling it.
Matt: What are you working on at the moment? What will we see from you next?
12 years ago, I bought the rights to a wonderful novel called Everything Matters from a novelist from Maine which is about a child who is born with the exact knowledge of when his life is going to end. It’s about how he approaches life knowing exactly what day he is going to die. It gets very deep and I’ve been thinking for a decade about how to adapt it and I now have a very good idea about how it can be brought into film form without losing its power.