Brush Folks

Tony Pipolo on Never Look Away and At Eternity’s Gate

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Never Look Away, 2018, DCP, color, sound, 188 minutes.

TWO NEW FILMS ABOUT ARTISTS offer contrasting approaches to the biopic, a genre arguably subject to greater scrutiny of its claims to truth than any other. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away coerces biographical details to augur the future genius of its painter protagonist, scrambling events to connect the dots and keep the story moving. Repudiating such conventions, Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate is a deeply personal portrait of painter Vincent van Gogh, its handheld camera immersing us almost physically in the man’s anguished compulsion to paint in a way no previous film has dared.

Von Donnersmarck bypasses questions of authenticity by not naming his painter after any known artist. Set against the history of Germany during and after World War II, the narrative plays to our enduring fascination with the Nazi era and its aftermath, fertile ground for what the director—who also wrote the screenplay—claims in interviews is his real focus: that art inspired by great loss often converts trauma into something positive. Though hardly a unique insight—presumably gleaned from Gerhard Richter—this theme, ostensibly untethered to any particular artist, drives the director’s protracted, three-hour-plus historical opus. Yet, the biographical parallels between Richter and Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), the film’s protagonist, are blatant. Like Kurt, Richter was born in Dresden in 1932, where he studied at the Art Academy before attending the one in Dusseldorf. Like Kurt, he too produced remarkable photo-paintings before pursuing “color charts,” which Kurt declares is his next interest. Even Richter’s “blurred” 1966 painting Ema (Nude on a Staircase) is evoked when Kurt photographs his wife nude walking down an imposing set of stairs. So, if the indelible bond between art and trauma is von Donnersmarck’s real focus, he has hardly bothered to conceal his primary model, a figure whose art and life are widely known. It’s like trying to have one’s cake and eating it too.

Despite the film’s workmanlike cinematography (Caleb Deschanel), musical score (Max Richter), and production design, Never Look Away fails to escape the clichés endemic to the biopic. Incredulous plot contrivances drive the narrative: The events that wrench six-year-old Kurt’s (Cai Cohrs) beloved, slightly mad aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) from his life are linked to the Nazi gynecologist Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), who signs her death warrant in accord with the notorious policies of the Reich to purge the feeble-minded. This same man, having evaded postwar arrests of Nazi collaborators, shows up years later—unregenerate, as his behavior proves—as the father of the woman Kurt marries, also named Elizabeth (Paula Beer) and bearing an uncanny resemblance to his aunt. It’s clear that Kurt’s attraction to her is enhanced by erotic memories of his aunt, whose eccentricities included sitting nude at a piano and cradling the boy like a breastfeeding mother. Few loose ends remain untied.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Never Look Away, 2018, DCP, color, sound, 188 minutes.

Notwithstanding its calculated arc, the film’s first thirty minutes, from a purely dramatic viewpoint, effectively capture the emotional trauma these events have on the boy and the determinant role they play in his artistic breakthrough. When his aunt is institutionalized, young Kurt, covering and uncovering his eyes in turn, stands transfixed as she whispers from the van driving her off, “Never look away.” The words foreshadow his later fascination with the photographs and news headlines exposing Nazi crimes, which lead not only to his realization of their connection to his past but also to his inspired grasp of the very means that will transform his memories into art. The moment this all comes together is chilling, even moving—quite unlike the film’s mundane put-downs of such perverse marriages of art and politics as the Third Reich’s repudiation of modernism and the simplemindedness of socialist realism. In a droll footnote to the former, Kurt and his aunt attend an exhibition of “degenerate art,” where a guide’s blistering critique prompts the six-year-old to remark that he may not want to be a painter after all.

When the past finally catches up with Kurt’s father-in-law, the film, rather than belabor the obvious, allows the moment to speak for itself. And so, when he casually enters Kurt’s studio, Carl freezes—speechless for the first time—before the magnified face of his Nazi cohort on his son-in-law’s canvas, blurred by the painter’s brushstrokes into the enduring resonance of art. No less stunned and speechless, Kurt only now begins to comprehend what he has achieved.

Unfortunately, the film’s strongest passages do not redeem its indulgence in Nazi caricatures and prettily staged sex scenes. Part historical epic and part biopic, Never Look Away is mostly lukewarm melodrama. But unlike filmmakers who channeled the resources of that genre into subtler visions—such as Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder—von Donnersmarck is neither bold nor transformative in his approach. His method lacks Fassbinder’s ingenious weaving of the personal with the political, not to mention Sirk’s overarching irony and the genuine pathos he could wring from the melodrama’s tropes. As he proved with The Lives of Others (2006), von Donnersmarck is not a risk-taker. Despite the seriousness of his subjects, his films are an amalgam of the obvious, the safe, and the marketable—the perfect formula to please crowds and win awards.

Julian Schnabel, At Eternity’s Gate, 2018, DCP, color, sound, 110 minutes.

JULIAN SCHNABEL’S AT ETERNITY’S GATE, an offbeat, sublime take on van Gogh’s life, is woven of entirely different cloth. Forgoing grandiose historical reconstruction, it is a cheeky hazard of one painter to summon to life the spirit and body of another. Less concerned with narrative and psychological exposition, the film, in the spirit of the American avant-garde, charges the camera itself with getting inside the painter’s skin and tormented spirit. Cinematography is just one of the film’s elements, along with production design and acting. Handheld and geared to the protagonist’s physical and psychic being, the camera, even when it is not moving, is at the heart of the film’s conception. Shivering like a nervous system on drugs, every frame stuns with conviction and immediacy. If avant-garde giant Stan Brakhage had made narrative movies, this is how they might have looked.

As if held by some precocious child of the nineteenth century, the camera is turned upside down and spun round like a newfangled toy—much like Vincent, who hurries about, fumbling with his brushes and tubes to compel what he sees to life. When his friend Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) tells him to calm down and paint from memory, he shouts that a painting must be done with one “stroke” in the moment. It’s as if he carries the restless gene of a future war photographer, squirming to be released. We feel the air Vincent breathes and hear the wind rustling past. His discovery of a landscape is ours, his sense of color and light as intense and as bound to the passing moment as it must have been for him. The restive camera stalks him down streets and across fields, rushing up behind like some nagging demon or riding the wind to follow him from afar. It can’t stop because he can’t stop. “If I can’t paint, I’ll murder someone,” he declares to his devoted brother Theo.

Without warning, the first shot pulls us into Vincent’s world, as the camera, from his point of view, hurls toward a peasant woman on the road. Its awkwardness conveys both the impulse that drives him and the stranger’s fear of assault. He wants to sketch her, she asks why; he is impatient, she is wary. It will not go well. This exchange and the prologue that precedes it tell his story. “I just want to be one of them, to sit down and talk about anything, have tobacco or wine, and ask, ‘How are you today?’” Unlike his need to commune with nature, his need for companionship often backfires.

Julian Schnabel, At Eternity’s Gate, 2018, DCP, color, sound, 110 minutes.

Filming in Arles, the asylum at St. Remy, and other parts of southern France, cinematographer Benoît Delhomme seized the moody light of the region, as it moves amid the places where van Gogh spent the last two years of his life and completed seventy-five paintings. Even when the camera pauses, we feel its itch to bolt in the wonderfully off-kilter shots and countershots of the exchanges Vincent has with others, including his sitters, such as Madame Ginoux and Doctor Gachet, as vivid here as they must have been for him.

At one point, Theo visits Vincent in a hospital and, without pause, climbs into his bed. The two men hold each other in a tender embrace that speaks volumes about Vincent’s fragility and Theo’s basic decency. While their closeness is conveyed in Vincente Minnelli’s fever dream Lust for Life (1956), Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh (1991), and Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo (1990)—all good movies—this moment in Schnabel’s film nails the intimacy of their bond like no other. That it falls into place so easily and credibly is a tribute to Willem Dafoe’s Vincent and Rupert’s Friend’s Theo.

No less telling is the framing and editing of Vincent’s conversation with a priest (a riveting Mads Mikkelsen) at the asylum, where he’s sent after disturbing the peace. As they’re seated against the outer wall of the church rather than opposite each other, a classic shot/countershot exchange is precluded, along with the confrontational effect of that style. This is fitting: The priest, genuinely puzzled, asks Vincent why he paints as he does. The painter’s response—raw, childlike, and true—is that he knows no other way, that he’s never been good at anything else, and that God is responsible for how he paints. It seems as if he’s never been asked such questions before and that we, despite what we know—or think we know—about the artist, are hearing them for the first time. No caricatures of the misunderstood genius and the dimwitted lout drive the scene, just unsettling wonder at something peculiar and mysterious, which baffles both artist and inquisitor. Perhaps, Vincent muses, he is painting for people who have not been born yet.

Releasing Vincent from the asylum, the priest, like the film, implies that we cannot reduce oddness to illness. This is less an evasion or romanticizing of mental disease than a refusal to indulge in trite explanations of van Gogh’s persona—the very kind of neat packaging typical of the biopic that Schnabel chooses to avoid. The exchange is characteristic of screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière’s tendency to replace bland chatter with brisk candor, as if questions and answers—though inspired by the artist’s voluminous correspondence—had just sprung to mind. Such give and take contrasts with the pretentious banter heard in cafés and even in Gauguin’s declaration that the proper way to paint is from memory. There may be more than a little dig here about the rules of filmmaking and those who break them. As a rule-breaker himself, Schnabel shows us what it feels like to be the outsider.

Never Look Away premiered at the Venice Film Festival on September 4 and will open in limited release on November 30. At Eternity’s Gate is in theaters now.