Greetings again from the darkness. As much as we pride ourselves on ‘artistic freedom’, the reality is that politics has long played a vital role – either as inadvertent inspiration for the work, or as organized suppressor or moderator. Rarely in history has the latter been more in effect than during the Nazi regime. This film begins at an art gallery in 1937 Dresden as a loving aunt takes her young nephew to an installation of “degenerate artists”. Nazi propaganda presented modern art by such artists as Picasso and Kandinsky as a blight on German culture, and proceeded to educate (or brainwash) the populace accordingly.
Writer-Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck was behind the extraordinary Best Foreign Language Oscar winner THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006), as well as the all-but unwatchable THE TOURIST (2010). Fortunately, this latest is much closer to the level of the first one, and it has been rewarded by also being Oscar nominated. Miss May, the loving and free-spirited aunt of the opening sequence is played by the luminescent Saskia Rosendahl. As a student, a simple gesture of handing Hitler a bouquet of flowers destroys her psyche, which leads to even more dramatic ramifications. This was an era when being a free-spirit was treated harshly, which could mean mass sterilization or even being “relieved of a meaningless existence.” Miss May crosses paths with Nazi gynecologist Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), in a gut-wrenching scene that hovers over the entire film, and especially that beloved young nephew.
Tom Schilling (and his turquoise eyes) plays Kurt Barnert (the nephew at older age), one who possesses exceptional artistic talent. As Kurt begins making a name for himself (painting as directed), he meets and falls for design student Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer, FRANTZ). Yes, she is the daughter of the Professor who determined the fate of Kurt’s aunt, although Kurt is unaware. As the war escalates, Kurt and Ellie flee to West Germany, while the past haunts all involved.
Once accepted into the new art school, Kurt falls under the guidance of Professor van Verten (Oliver Masucci). It’s this Professor’s personal horror story that becomes a turning point for Kurt, and enables him to discover his own voice as an artist. During this time, Professor Carl Seeband has smoothly switched allegiances and become a communist to save his arrogant hide, though he is burdened with the knowledge that his war crimes past could catch up at any moment. This man is both family member and villain to Kurt and Ellie, tormenting and belittling at every opportunity. It’s fascinating to see how the couple perseveres through his psychological games and even medical malpractice – as if the war, Nazism and Communism weren’t enough of a daily challenge.
The film is loosely based on German artist Gerhard Richter, though mostly in the form of his earliest artwork. Mr. Richter is still alive today and still creating. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (father to Emily and Zooey) has produced a beautifully shot film, and the result is his 6th Oscar nomination. Brace yourself for a 3-plus hour run time, and the frustrations of how an artist can discover their voice despite an organized singular ideology that one is pressured to accept.
watch the trailer