Real Arthouse Films: Never Look Away & Ruben Brandt Collector
By Marc Glassman
Never Look Away
Florian Henckel von Donnesmarck, director & writer
Starring: Tom Schilling (Kurt Barnert), Sebastian Koch (Carl Seeband), Paula Beer (Ellie Seeband Barnert), Oliver Masucci (Antonius Van Werten), Saskia Rosendahl (Aunt Elizabeth), Ina Weiss (Ellie’s mother), Cai Cohrs (little Kurt)
Ruben Brandt Collector
Milorad Krstic, director, writer, animator
With the voices of: Ivan Kamaras (Ruben Brandt), Csaba “Kor”Marton (Matt Kowalski), Gabriella Hamori (Mimi), Henry Grant (Membrano Bruno), Matt Devere (Bye-Bye Joe)
Despite complaints about the decline of arthouse films—Indie dramas, cutting-edge docs, foreign auteur projects and truly maverick animation features—it’s still possible to see very good cinematic works in Toronto and many other North American cities every week. It’s rare, though, to see two well made films about art in the same week; apart from festivals, the subject of painting just doesn’t seem to bring in audiences on a regular basis. So it’s nice to view a couple of fine new releases—Never Look Away and Ruben Brandt Collector—that take art seriously, although in very different ways.
Never Look Away is by far the more famous of the two. Directed by the German Oscar winning director Florian Henckel von Donnesmarck, it’s inspired by the life of the great painter Gerhard Richter. Like von Donnesmarck’s Academy Award winner The Lives of Others, the film deals with private lives of artists affected by the Kafka-esque Communist regime in East Germany and the far different environment in West Germany during the years before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This time, he ups the ante by starting his film during the Nazi era where not only Jews and the Roma were jailed and killed but also “good” Germans who were diagnosed with mental problems.
The early scenes in Never Look Away are effective and affecting as the young Kurt Barnert (who will become a great painter) goes with his beloved aunt Elizabeth to the notorious Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich in 1937, which “curated” some of the finest art of the period—works by Kandinsky, Grosz, Picasso, Chagall and many others—and condemned them as being morally reprehensible. Aunt Elizabeth is clearly a free spirit, who is intrigued by the art, and encourages her nephew to “never look away” and confront the truth of situations. Wonderfully played by Saskia Rosendahl, Elizabeth is viewed by the audience with increased apprehension when it becomes obvious that she is more than somewhat unhinged: she plays piano naked at home with the boy present and hits her head with a glass ashtray, seeking to find the perfect note.
By 1940, Elizabeth has become more difficult to deal with and insults a Nazi doctor, Carl Seeband, who is a gynecologist intending to sterilize her. After a hysterical confrontation, Seeband signs Elizabeth’s death warrant, which is fully in keeping with the Nazi dictum to remove mental “deficients” from society. When World War Two ends, Seeband, who is played with authority and menace by Sebastian Koch, one of the leads in The Silence of Others, delivers a child, who could have died, to a Soviet officer’s wife. With this courageous act, the apparently heartless Nazi is given the opportunity to adapt to the new totalitarians, the Cold War Communists.
A few years pass and Kurt, now an art student at college, meets and follows in love with an attractive fashion designer named Elizabeth Seeband. Yes, Kurt has met the girl he loves—and her father is the one, who signed the death sentence of his beloved aunt. Over three hours in length and covering a half century of German history, Never Look Away is a true epic, filled with colourful characters and melodramatic coincidences. Von Donnesmarck teases the audience with plot twists worthy of Dickens but refuses to follow them through to their apparently appropriate conclusions. He has bigger fish to fry. The director wants to look at what happened to Germany in the 20th century and tell that story though an “everyman” who is paradoxically an influential artist.
Though Kurt is not necessarily Gerhard, both become rising stars in East Germany, painting brilliant murals for the people. But this doesn’t make him happy: like his Aunt Elizabeth, totalitarianism, whether Fascist or Communist, is not for him. Fleeing to the West with Ellie just months before the Berlin Wall is erected in 1961, Kurt (and Gerhard) seek a new way of painting in the West. Here fiction and reality move in somewhat different directions. Kurt goes to Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, where he is taught by the brilliant and eccentric Antonius Van Werten, the leftist ideologue and believer in performance art, who influenced a generation of artists—and not just in Germany. Van Werten is clearly based on Joseph Beuys, down to his fedora and enigmatic nature. In reality, Gerhard Richter knew Beuys and admired him but was actually taught by K.A. Gotz, a filmmaker and printmaker as well as a painter, whose students included the influential artists Sigmar Polke and Nam June Paik.
For those who love art, Never Look Away is a must-see. You really get a sense of the art scenes in Fifties East Germany (and Socialist Art in general) and in revolutionary times in Sixties West Germany. The film is an intelligent and moving account of what happened to Germany over many dramatic years. Poignantly, and correctly, the first major work by Kurt/Gerhard are blurred photographic images, which emphasize the subjective nature of objects and subjects that are supposed to be real. The film is truly important and only suffers from the casting of Tom Schilling as Kurt. Simply stated, Schilling is more of a character actor; the film would have been better with more scenes featuring Saskia Rosendahl, Paula Beer and Sebastian Koch.
Ruben Brandt Collector is a crazy but effective melange of director/writer/animator Milorad Krstic’s obsessions with 20th century art and movie thrillers. This unusual animation feature is populated by characters who could have been drawn by Picasso and other post-Impressionist artists. Despite its intensely artistic look, the film launches with a bravura chase scene involving two cars and their drivers racing through France after an ancient, beautiful fan has been stolen. The drivers are Mimi, a great movie stunt double, and Matt Kowalski, a detective who is hell bent on recovering the fan, which belongs to the Louvre.
While Kowalski recovers the fan, Mimi disappears from view until she re-emerges as a patient of Ruben Brandt, a psychologist, who trying to liberate his clients’ submerged cravings in order to find their identities. Yes—this is an intellectual as well as an artistic animation feature!
Brandt is suffering from a psychological problem, too. He is having nightmares of being attacked by Velazquez’ Infanta and Botticelli’s Venus: both are trying to kill him. Gradually, it emerges that Brandt’s cravings for certain pieces of art, whose protagonists are trying to kill him, can be dealt with by stealing them. Mimi and a motley crew of the Brandt’s aficionados—and patients-succeed in ‘acquiring’ great works like Manet’s Olympia and Hopper’s Nighthawks at the Diner while Kowalski and a couple of ex-Mafioso try to stop them.
A strange mixture of film noir and Surrealist aesthetics, Ruben Brandt Collector is a visual delight. Its plot, which links psychology to some of the best and worst experiences of the past century, is clever but ultimately not conclusively rewarding. Perhaps a sequel is necessary to solve the issues set out by this astonishing animation feature.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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