Three European Winners: A German Artist’s Bio, A Spanish Whodunnit, and A Berlin War Story

At the Movies - March 2019

470
Tom Schilling stars as Kurt Barnert in “Never Look Away.” Photo: Caleb Deschanel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Never Look Away
German Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) may not be a household name in the US, but he is renowned internationally as a visual artist. The beginnings of his career have inspired a new movie, “Never Look Away,” from director Florian von Donnersmarck. The filmmaker achieved renown and an Oscar with his first film “The Lives of Others” (2006), and he is nominated again this year (The film is rated “R” and runs 188 mins.).

It’s 1937 and a young Kurt Barnert visits, along with his beloved aunt, Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), an exhibition of “degenerate art” mounted by the Nazis in Dresden. Elisabeth admires the modernistic works, passing along her taste to Kurt, but she is later sterilized and killed by the regime because she is deemed schizophrenic. Her sterilization is performed by Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), an obstetrician and SS officer.

Switch to post-war Dresden where adult Kurt (Tom Schilling) studies painting at the city’s art school and falls for Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer), daughter of the infamous doctor who has survived the war and become a dutiful communist in East Germany. Kurt excels at the art school but chafes under a regime preaching social realism. He eventually meets Prof. Seeband, who views callow Karl as unworthy of his daughter, and, when Ellie gets pregnant, he performs a cruel abortion.

The couple, undaunted, marry and flee to the West, where Seeband has already settled. Kurt enters the modern art academy in Dusseldorf, but he struggles to find his own personal style. Inspiration comes when he copies on canvas an image of a newspaper photograph of a captured Nazi doctor (a colleague of his father-in-law) then ultimately creates his first “blur” paintings (like Richter produced) which launch his career.

Barnert’s odyssey is told in elegant sequences showing his personal and artistic development. Schilling’s performance is somewhat stolid, but it works for the portrayal of a man whose emotions have been stifled by his East German upbringing and who must struggle to find his muse. Yet his emotional life is fully expressed with his wife Ellie (an endearing Beer), supportive at every turn. Koch’s Seeband is appropriately rigid and severe, a born authoritarian. The glorious cinematography is by Caleb Deschanel, the 74-year-old American, earning his sixth Oscar nomination.

So, how much do you need to know of Richter to appreciate this film? Let’s say that it is rich enough in historic reference, narrative complexity, and striking imagery for any discerning filmgoer to appreciate. However, the more one knows of Richter and his work, the more resonance it has.

For this reviewer, “Never Look Away” comes as close as anyone has in cinema to show how the creative imagination really works: a filmic “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”

Penélope Cruz stars as Laura and Javier Bardem as Paco in “Everybody Knows,” a Focus Features release. Credit: Teresa Isasi/Focus Features

Everybody Knows
“Everybody Knows” (Todos lo Saben) is new territory for Ashgar Farhadi, the famed Iranian writer-director. Filmed in Spain, it has earmarks of his trademark style: a contemporary drama involving complex family dynamics, lacking political overtones, and eschewing any violent acts. Still, it builds palpable tension and includes a late-blooming reveal. (the film, rated “R” for mature themes, runs for 123 minutes).

The film stars two glories of Spanish cinema, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem. Cruz plays Laura, living in Argentina with two kids, who has returned to her hometown for the wedding of her younger sister Ana (Inman Cuesta) in a village outside Madrid. Her family is large, lively, and loud. The patriarch, Antonio (Ramon Barea), bellows about the house, where Laura’s older sister Mariana (Elvira Minguez) lives with husband Fernando (Eduard Fernandez) and other family members. Linked to the family is Paco (Bardem), a local vintner, and his wife Bea (Barbara Lennie). The bustle of wedding preparations leads into an exuberant wedding party.

Then this simpatico atmosphere turns dark. The power goes out, and Laura discovers that her teen-aged daughter Irene (Carla Campra) is missing. The whole family becomes gripped with the kidnapping. Paco, ex-lover of Laura, is especially concerned for her and throws himself into the search. Everyone agrees to keep the police out of it, though Fernando does consult with a retired policeman. The plot thickens when phone messages are received from the kidnappers, demanding a daunting ransom, and Laura’s husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin) arrives from Buenos Aires.

The film’s feel for Spanish life and relationships is a compliment to Farhadi, given that he’s working in an alien tongue and culture. His typically intricate plotting is in full evidence, drawing the viewer into his story. More problematic, however, is the dénouement, where a compelling whodunnit just sort of runs out. Where Farhadi fully retains his touch, however, is in directing his actors. He fluidly guides a very accomplished cast headed by Cruz and Bardem, exuding their usual chemistry. But rather than doing “star turns” they are fully blended into an ensemble. Cruz is able to transform herself from radiant to agonized, while Bardem convincingly shifts gears from hail-fellow to village avenger.

While not at the level of his Iranian gems, “Everybody Knows” is still a respectable outcome for Ashgar Farhadi’s Spanish-language debut.

The Invisibles
An amazing story of Jews surviving Nazi Germany arrives with “The Invisibles,” Claus Räfle’s gripping docudrama about a quartet of Jews in Berlin (four out of 1,700) who survived the war after 1943, when Goebbels infamously declared the city “free of Jews.” Moving between cinemas, cafés, and safe houses, they were able to elude Nazi and police officials (this film, recently released, is not rated and runs 110 minutes).

The documentary has two modes: actual interviews with the four Jewish survivors and a dramatization of their stories in wartime Berlin. The witnesses are Cioma Schonhaus, Ruth Gimple, Eugen Friede, and Hanni Lévy, all of whom tell their stories calmly and clearly, able to interject both pathos and wit. They are warm-hearted people, even forgiving, and you identify with them wholly.

The four protagonists are, respectively, played by actors Max Mauff, Ruby O. Fee, Aaron Altaras, and Alice Dwyer. We follow their escape narratives in a kaleidoscope of scenes as they lose or leave family and friends to find new covers and identities. Their ruses vary, from pretending to be a war widow to passing with dyed-blonde hair. Their livelihoods range from working as a passport forger to becoming a server of black-market meals to Nazi officers. Räfle helps to establish a documentary feel for the film inserting black-and-white newsreel footage from 1940’s Berlin, showing the city in context.

A surprise of the film is that the four don’t just hunker down: they take serious risks to survive, such as Eugen, who joins a resistance group producing anti-Nazi leaflets. It may be sometimes difficult to follow the multiple skeins of narrative, but the effort is worth it as the four triumph as too few did.

 

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.