The Lives Of Others writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck returns to Venice, the setting for his second film The Tourist, with the world premiere of big-canvas European co-production Never Look Away (Werk Ohne Autor).
Tom Schilling, Paula Beer, Sebastian Koch and Saskia Rosendahl star in the period epic which charts the story of German artist Kurt Barnert (Schilling) who escapes East Germany but remains tormented by his childhood under the Nazis and the GDR-regime. When he meets fellow student Ellie (Beer), he is convinced he has met the love of his life and begins to create paintings that mirror his own fate and the traumas of a generation.
With a budget of around $20M the 188-minute feature is among the most expensive German-language films ever assembled. Sony Classics has U.S. and select territory rights (as they did on the brilliant Oscar-winner The Lives Of Others), Beta handles sales and was a co-producer. The pic was recently selected as Germany’s Foreign Language Oscar hopeful. We spoke to Henckel von Donnersmarck about his third movie.
Why did you want to tell this story?
I wanted to explore the origin of human creativity. I was fascinated by how people have the ability to turn traumatic things that happen to them into wonderful art. I looked for some time for a story through which to tell this and discovered it in a biography of artist Gerhard Richter. There was an episode in the book about a couple whose love is disrupted by an extreme ideologue. I thought it was an interesting starting point from which to explore Germany in the 20th Century. I thought I’d tell the story I had wanted to read about these two people and their lives.
German artist Richter was a large inspiration for the film. Why was he a subject for the project?
We went on a trip together to Dresden where he showed me important places from his youth. He thought it was interesting to tell a story based on elements from his biography and he was very generous with his time. He is a fascinating man. He embodies Germany and Europe more than anyone I can think of.
But I was inspired by a number of artists. Painter Andreas Gursky came to the set, for example. And Thomas Demand was like a godfather of the film. He knew the whole period of art history we dealt with very well. And David Hockney is someone I meet in LA from time to time so I’m sure I borrowed elements from him too.
You have some impressive young actors in your film. Schilling is a rising actor known from German TV mini-series Generation War, Paula Beer was a breakout two years ago in Venice in Francois Ozon’s movie Frantz and Saskia Rosendahl is known for starring in Cate Shortland’s Lore. Series such as Babylon Berlin and Deutschland 83 have done well recently and feature strong young casts. It seems there is a bright new wave of young German actors emerging. How do you view this generation?
Yes, I see that new wave. It was amazing to work with someone like Paula who had just turned 21. She is so sure-footed and confident. I could have used every take of hers. Saskia was the same. There’s something about this generation, and I see it everywhere, not just in Germany, I’m very confident in them. They select their material very carefully and they make fewer films than the generation before. They treat their own art as if it’s sacred and they have a weight and heft that helps their performances. Sebastian and Tom didn’t work for a year before this film just so they could prepare themselves for their parts. They are more like Daniel Day Lewis than those actors who make a string of movies in quick succession. And that’s how I like to cast my movies. I try to have conversations about the roles even with those who have one line.
I understand the budget is around $20m, which is significant for a European co-production…
I can’t disclose the budget due to contractual reasons but luckily we had great support from German and other European funders. Beta Cinema was also key. Sometimes when I leave a movie I feel undernourished (or overfed). We said ‘what is the movie we want to see on screen’ and I was able to achieve that.
The film features a certain amount of female nudity. Given amplified conversation around gender equality were you concerned about how that might be received?
There is a lot of nudity but it’s equally male and female. Erotic scenes are not problematic or offensive per se, it depends on the attitude in which they are shown. Are they essential to the plot or characters, for example? If you don’t show nudity, you are making a prudish film. It’s like saying we shouldn’t show love on screen because it’s a private matter or hatred because there’s so much of it in the world. A person’s sexual life expresses so much about them. When I talked to Paula about it — because she hadn’t done these types of scenes before — we discussed how a Playboy shoot, for example, is a type of exploitation but how as long as you are showing something in order to tell a story that is important and different.
Why was there an eight-year gap between this film and your last movie?
Perhaps in part because this film’s ambition didn’t fit a European budget. But also it takes me a while to find a subject matter that will keep me interested. I knew there was enough in this to keep me engaged. There were other things I was working on in that time, though. I wrote the screenplay for a political thriller film before making this one. I hope to make that. I also developed some plotlines for series I’d like to make. I used the time to line up some things so I’ll hopefully be able to fire more rapidly going forward.
Your first film The Lives Of Others was a huge critical and commercial success. Your second film, The Tourist, did well at the international box office but had a tougher time in the U.S. both with critics and at the box office. How did you deal with that challenge?
I received many more positive letters about The Tourist than I ever did for The Lives Of Others. But after my first film I think people expected a certain type of movie from me. I think critics felt they had ordered a main course and got a dessert. I understand that expectations were disappointed but I hadn’t been taking any orders. I felt like making dessert and I’m happy how it worked out. The experience taught me that expectations mean something and need to be managed appropriately. It was decided that The Tourist should be presented as some kind of action-thriller, which it really wasn’t. I think we had two days of shooting a boat ride through Venice and that was about it. I said on this movie, Never Look Away, I don’t want the trailer to misrepresent what it is. It shouldn’t be called a thriller. It’s more a suspenseful drama. I want it to be represented truthfully.
I’ve developed two series ideas and one movie idea but I’m not entirely sure what’s next. I need to recover from this one first. However, I would like to find some kind of partnership with an OTT company, someone with greenlighting power, a partnership which means you don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time. So much time is spent putting these projects together and it’s not what I’m best at or what most interests me.
Have you spoken to Netflix, for example?
Not yet. I’ve been underground on this film for a long time but I hope to have those conversations in Venice or Toronto.
It’s interesting to hear you’re working on series. The scope and depth of The Lives Of Others and Never Look Away might have lent them well to series as well…
Yes, you’re right. The first version of this movie was four hours long. I thought uh oh, this is probably not a movie. Series are leading to a renaissance in story-telling. But I do still believe psychologically ambitious movies can be made on a big scale.