Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

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Never Look Away

German artist Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) may not be a household name in the US, but he is renowned in the art world and has been called “the greatest living artist,” conducting, over a 65-year period, an amazingly protean career in every aspect of the visual arts. The beginnings of that career are the inspiration for a new movie, “Never Look Away,” made by director Florian von Donnersmarck. The filmmaker achieved renown with first film “The Lives of Others” (2006) which earned him, at age 33, an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, a category for which he is nominated again this year. An open question for moviegoers approaching von Donnersmark’s film (which he also wrote) is how much does one need to know about the real Richter to appreciate and assess the fictionalized version?

The story, a complex one, begins in 1937 with a young Kurt Barnert (standing in for Richter) observing, with a beloved aunt, Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), an exhibition of “degenerate art” mounted by the Nazis in Dresden. However. Elisabeth, a smart and sensitive sort, admires the modernistic works, passing along her taste to her nephew. Later, she is sterilized and killed by the Nazis because she is deemed schizophrenic. Her sterilization is carried out by Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), an obstetrician and member of the SS.

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

Kurt, undaunted, marries Ellie, and the two flee to the West, where Seeband and his wife have already settled. Kurt is able to get into the modern art Academy in Dusseldorf, but he flails a bit finding his own personal style. Inspiration comes when he comes upon a newspaper photograph of a captured Nazi doctor (a colleague of his father-in-law), enlarges it to produce an oil painting likeness, and ultimately creates his first “blur” paintings of common photographic images (just like Richter did) which launch his career.

Barnert’s odyssey is told by von Donnersmarck in unhurried and elegant sequences (note the three hours plus run time) which allow enough time to show Kurt’s personal and artistic development. Schilling’s performance might be seen as stolid, but it makes sense for a man whose emotions have been stifled by his East German upbringing and who must struggle to find his muse. Instead, the emotion in his life is fully expressed with his winsome wife Ellie (an endearing Beer), supportive at every turn. Dr. Seeband is appropriately rigid and severe, a born authoritarian. For Koch, his work represents an impressive turnabout from the role he played in von Donnersmarck’s first film, where he impersonated an enlightened, accomplished playwright. The glorious cinematography comes courtesy of Caleb Deschanel, the 74-year-old American, now nominated for six Oscars, including this film.

So what of my initial question: 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 it.

However, the more one knows of Gerhard Richter and his work, the more resonance it will have. For any reader who may remember a major retrospective of Richter’s work that filled DC’s Hirschhorn Museum in 2002, they will recall his striking “blur” paintings—and so many other artworks that followed. Von Donnersmarck does create Kurt’s own backstory, but he constantly echoes the world of Richter, too. A wonderful example of how he plays with Richter’s past is shown with one of Kurt’s teachers, an idiosyncratic Prof. van Verten Oliver Masucci), who is a clever facsimile of another noted German artist, Joseph Beuys, who was, indeed, an instructor at the Dusseldorf school.

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

(The film is rated “R” and runs 188 mins.)

(February 2019)

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

Everybody Knows

Just two years ago (Hill Rag of February 2017), I predicted that Iranian director Ashgar Farhadi’s latest film, “The Salesman,” was “an excellent bet to be on the short list of the five films nominated for Best Foreign Language motion picture” of that year. Not only was it nominated, it won the Oscar in that category, the second time Farhadi had gained that honor (his first was the superb family drama “A Separation” in 2012). Since “The Salesman,” he has been working on a film in Spain starring those two glories of Spanish cinema, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. That film has now opened on DC screens.

“Everybody Knows” (Todos lo Saben) is new territory for Farhadi, filmed in Spain in a new language and within a new landscape. Still, it has earmarks of his trademark style. It is a contemporary domestic drama involving several complex family dynamics, lacking any obvious political overtones, and eschewing any violent acts on screen. Still, it builds palpable tension and includes a late-blooming reveal that re-casts the whole plot.

Laura (Cruz) is Spanish woman long settled with her family and two kids in Argentina who has come home to her hometown to participate in 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 her husband Fernando (Eduard Fernandez) and other family members. Tied closely to the family is Paco (Bardem), a local vintner whose family were servants in Laura’s household, and his striving wife Bea (Barbara Lennie). The bustle of wedding preparations leads into an exuberant, colorful wedding party lasting into the night.

Then this simpatico atmosphere turns dark. The lights go out, and Laura discovers that Irene (Carla Campra), her teen-aged daughter, is missing from inside a locked bedroom, and the whole family—even the whole town--is gripped with the kidnapping and who might have done it. Also, Paco, ex-lover of Laura (an affair about which “everybody knows”) is concerned for her and throws himself into the search. In a note that weakens the drama, everyone agrees to keep the police out of it, though Fernando does consult with an old friend Jorge (José Angel Egido), a retired policeman. The plot thickens when phone messages are received from the kidnappers, demanding a daunting ransom, and Laura’s troubled husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin) arrives from Buenos Aires, looking for divine intervention.

The film’s feel for Spanish life and relationships is a complement to Farhadi, given that he’s working in an alien tongue and culture. Also, his typically intricate plotting is in full evidence once again, pulling the viewer into his story effectively. More problematic, however, is the dénouement, where what becomes a whodunnit ends with a whimper rather than a revelation. Where Farhadi still retains his touch, however, is in the handling of his actors. He fluidly guides a very accomplished, well-rounded cast headed by his two stars Cruz and Bardem (married in real life) and exuding their usual chemistry. By the way, the two do not really have “star turns” but are fully blended into the ensemble. Cruz gets a chance to transform herself from radiant to agonized while Bardem convincingly shifts gears from hail-fellow to village avenger, both very believably.

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

(The film, rated “R” for mature themes, runs for 123 minutes.)

(February 2019)

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

They Shall Not Grow Old

New digital technology can do some wonderful things as well as nefarious ones, but in the case of the new World War I documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old,” an amazing manipulation of images creates a thrilling reimaging of the past. It is for now a unique work, one which might prove a model for future looks at history .

New Zealand director Peter Jackson, he of “Lord of the Rings” fame, created this stunning enterprise. He was approached four years ago by the Imperial War Museum (IWM) of London to craft something out of a mass of WWI material they held. The Museum had more than 2,000 hours of film footage from the conflict along with 600 hours of interviews with more than 250 war veterans recorded by the BBC in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Jackson and his team spent a year and one-half listening to these eyewitness accounts then married them with his trove of images to fashion, as he says, “an average man’s experience of what it was like to be an infantry soldier in WWI.” His amalgamation of the material is singular.

As Jackson himself explains in a spoken introduction to the film, he made some important decisions up front. The story would be told only be from the viewpoint of the British Army (infantry and artillery) because that was where the bulk of the footage came from (no naval or air units or other Allied footage). His version would eschew the details of dates and campaign locations but rather tell one chronological account of the war experience of most British soldiers, from enlistment to Armistice, using those voices (not identified on screen) from the BBC tapes.

Jackson calls “They Shall Not Grow Old” his most personal film because his grandfather was in World War I, and the family library was full of books about it. In describing his project, he said he “was focused on the technical stuff for a long time...but when it all came together, what really hits you is the humanity of the people on the film. They just jump out at you, especially the faces. They’re no longer buried in a fog of film grain and scratches and shuttering and sped-up footage. You just understand that these were human beings.” Those smiling, innocent faces are never more poignant than when, in a long montage sequence, they are grimly juxtaposed with horrific scenes of battle.

The chronology begins in tight frame, with black-and-white footage of the war’s beginnings, followed by ample testimony from eager recruits (many of them underage) anxious to join the fray and fight “The Hun.” This is followed by a lengthy chronicle—shot in slightly larger framing—of the six weeks of training camp is all its detail and drudgery. The black-and-white footage continues as the troop boats cross the English Channel, and the young men land in besieged France, after which...

...the film bursts into wide-screen color (and 3-D), and we are thrown into the trenches with these men (and boys). It is a breakout as stunning as that 80 years ago when “The Wizard of Oz” exploded with color once Dorothy landed in that enchanted land. Yet this land is hardly enchanted but all too palpably dismal, full of mud and dirt and thudding shells and corpses on wires and, again, more mud. The dreariness and monotony of trench warfare is intimately described, down to the intricacies of impromptu tea-making, lice-picking, latrine business, and the hunting of the ubiquitous rats. Yet, surprisingly, Jackson also incorporates many positive remarks by soldiers about their war experience, usually in terms of triumphing over adversity, finding unique camaraderie, or discovering their own manhood.

The narrative describes what appears to be one long campaign, ending with victory in hand-to-hand warfare in the trenches. The last attack sequences, lacking actual footage, are effectively portrayed in a dizzying display of WWI images taken from posters and magazines of the day. The finale also includes images of captured German soldiers, just as callow and bedraggled as their conquerors, and sympathetic for that.

The film is also enhanced by its astute use of sound effects, recalling the work of documentarian Ken Burns in his masterpiece, “The Civil War,” with the steady rhythms of wind, horses’ hooves, bombs, rifle fire, and trench sounds plus an imaginative inclusion of the snatches of the men’s voices, sometimes matching the actual images in original accents. Perhaps most effective of all is the film’s digital enhancement. Jackson and Co., through painstaking trial and error, smooth out the action by stretching out the frames-per-second from the original hand-cranked camera’s imagery to a consistent 24 frames-per-second, thus converting jerky silent footage to an even flow on the screen. It’s a technique that should be used on any future silent movie material.

In the introductory remarks mentioned above, Jackson noted: “It is a film for non-historians made by a non-historian.” Indubitably, because it is made by an artist.

(The film opens at the Smithsonian’s Warners Theatre on January 31 and then opens more widely; it runs 99 minutes and is rated “R” for graphic visions of a brutal war)

(February 2019)

WWI British infantrymen relax in a reconstructed image from Peter Jackson's “They Shall Not Grow Old.”
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.