How ‘Never Look Away’ Juggled Art, Love and the Madness of German History

TheWrap Oscar magazine: “Our county, Germany, has been at the center of every craziness, of every madness, of every abomination of the 20th century,” says director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

This story about “Never Look Away” first appeared in the Foreign Language issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose “The Lives of Others” was a surprise winner of the foreign-language Oscar in 2007, is back in the race with an expansive new film covers three decades of German history, from the eve of World War II to a divided country after the building of the Berlin Wall. The main character is an artist (Tom Schilling) looking to find his voice.

“Never Look Away” is the German entry in this year’s Oscar foreign-language race, and this is one in a series of interviews with directors of the foreign Oscar contenders.

How would you describe your film?
FLORIAN HENCKEL VON DONNERSMARCK:  The story at its very basis is the story of a father who tries to destroy his son-in-law, and a woman who is caught between these two men, both of whom she loves. There’s many different levels at which you can look at the story, but at its most basic level that’s what it is.

At the same time, it’s the story of an artist who is trying to find his way, and who falls in love with a fascinating young fashion designer, and when things get serious he meets her father — and this father, in this film that spans three decades of German history, is an extreme ideologue. He used to be an extreme Nazi, we experience him as the Nazi, then when things change he’s an extreme communist. And then finally when he goes to the West he knows how to make money and does very well in that world, too.

But this man sees in the son-in-law everything that he finds despicable. He finds him weak, unintelligent, an artist. He’s a great doctor, a man of science, and does not think that this man can provide the protection to his daughter that he thinks she needs in the world.

We see your main character before World War II, then after the war in East Berlin, and eventually in the West. Why did you want to tell a story that spanned that much time?
I felt it was impossible to look at these episodes isolated from each other. Each was a reaction to a previous event. And I thought it was interesting to take an artist who was shaped by the atrocious art philosophy of the Nazis and then the almost-as-atrocious art philosophy of the Communists, and then flees to the West and has nothing left to rely on.

Everything that he’s learned is of no use in this society where art is completely free. I thought it would be interesting to watch the journey of this person toward freedom across some of the least free times that history has ever known.

In this movie, as in “The Lives of Others,” you’re looking both at large changes in society and at small effects on the people in that society.
[Milan] Kundera, who wrote “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” said the big novels and the truly exciting stories that have relevance for our time are written where history has recently happened and you can feel the effects of history. Our county, Germany, has been at the center of every craziness, of every madness, of every abomination of the 20th century.

And in a miniature form, it lived through all the big changes. The whole world was divided into an Eastern and a Western bloc, and our country was actually as a country divided into an eastern and western bloc. In a way, we lived with the effects of that, and we live with it to the present day. That’s part of the message of the movie. Great art that is about the personal trauma that is tied to the trauma of an entire country and of the world.

To read more of theWrap’s Foreign Language issue, click here.

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