While talking about Vox Lux, director Brady Corbet presented an interesting view on the biopic. He said that imagining fictional characters as eyewitnesses of crucial events in history — or placing real-life personages in altered historical settings — is more useful than the traditional historical biography. “Because one is able to access the past without questioning the author about how they could provide such a detailed account of an event without having been present for the event themselves. Or if they had been present, in the case of a memoir, has their memory of past experiences not betrayed them?” In other words, this is a call for a rejection of the Wikipedia-style biopic — this happened, and then that happened — and, though this sounds contradictory, get at a semblance of truth through fictional means.
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck did that spectacularly with The Lives of Others (2006). He does it again, less successfully, in Werk Ohne Autor (Never Look Away; German), loosely based on the artist Gerhard Richter though, as with the earlier film, this is really a biopic of Germany. At the core lies the theory of eugenics. The Nazis want to eliminate every person with a physical or mental ailment, so that the forthcoming generations are strong and pure — and the narrative juxtaposes this reprehensible idea with the life of an artist named Kurt (Tom Schilling). The film opens with the Degenerate Art exhibition organized by the Nazis in Dresden, in 1937. The party wants a return to timeless values in art, where the sky looked like the sky and a bird looked like a bird. Even after the war, in East Germany, Kurt’s kindly art teacher scoffs at the avant garde, where individualism bursts free and it’s all about “me, me, me.” Kurt, thus, is reduced to making propaganda art. This is a form of eugenics, too. The things that make an artist unique are culled out in favour of the qualities that are deemed desirable for the nation.
For about two hours, the 188-minute Never Look Away is a frustrating experience. Too much time is spent on the romance between Kurt and Ellie (Paula Beer), and too little happens that’s truly surprising. Things come too easily to Kurt, whether it’s defecting to West Germany or joining the art school of his choice. And it’s hard to see if a larger point is being made. The villain of the piece is the Nazi-era gynaecologist (and Ellie’s father), Seeband (a superb Sebastian Koch) — he harms and humiliates Ellie and Kurt in many ways, and yet, the blank-faced Kurt doesn’t seem to resent him. Perhaps this is an indication that East Germans still felt intimidated or powerless in the presence of authority. Still, what could have been said in one scene goes on and on, and predictably so. You know Kurt’s mentor at the new art school, in West Germany, will reject his work and ask him to find his voice, his “ me, me, me.” Sure enough…
But the last hour, imbued with a mystical quality, really works. The film makes the case that even the most individualistic artist is at his best when he looks back at his nation’s history. Looking at photographs, a frustrated Kurt says, “Why does the most idiotic snapshot have more reality than my painting?” He begins to combine the two mediums. He interprets photos from the past in his own way, prompting one art critic to comment that “the leading artist of his generation is anonymous.” But that’s not true. The greatest artists have always used muses — maybe a model, maybe a sunset, maybe a field of flowers. It’s just that Kurt’s muse, like the director’s, is German history. Great trauma can result in great creativity. As a character points out, even the Wall is an example of landscape art.
This form of fictional/personal biography can also be seen in László Nemes’s historical drama Sunset (Hungarian). Just as Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck used his premise as an entry point to study Germany, Nemes trains his lens on Hungary on the eve of World War I. The synopsis sets the stage: “The Austro-Hungarian empire seems all powerful but… Dark forces are about to tear it apart.” Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) lands in Budapest in 1913, hoping for a job at the hat store her parents used to own. The choice of profession isn’t incidental. Nemes said, in an interview, “Before the First World War, everybody had their hats. Rich or poor, these objects that were sometimes of great sophistication conveyed so much about their owners and the civilisation they were living in. This layered world with codes and signs interested me very much.”
This kind of artistic signature works in a “small” story like The Age of Innocence, where the core is about three people trapped in a repressed era, with every gilded candlestick turning into the equivalent of a prison bar. But Sunset is large and diffuse, and it never comes together — or perhaps we could say that whatever Nemes wants it all to mean remains locked up in his head. Yes, Irisz’s progress from a demure woman trying on hats to a lost soul who becomes increasingly disheveled and frightened and paranoid does seem to point to the nation around her — but the film is all conceit, with very little by way of plot or character. This, again, may be intentional. You could put your film-theorist hat on and say something like “the lack of coherence in the narrative reflects the chaos around the protagonist.” But try sitting through it!
There are many mysterious characters, including a brother Irisz didn’t know she had. There are literal-minded pensées like “Evil hides in men, it feeds on them…” And the last shot, meant to be a thudding revelation, simply isn’t earned. What remains is the impressive making, with colours from Impressionist paintings. As in Son of Saul, Nemes employs a handheld camera that follows his protagonist from behind, mere inches from her neck. Usually, this style would suggest that what we have is Irisz’s (panoramic) point of view — that we see what she sees. But here, what’s in front of Irisz is barely visible — it’s blurry, like something seen through the corner of an eye, and it comes into focus as she approaches, and vanishes as she passes by. We are, thus, plunged into actions and people and events, without warning. Has there been another filmmaker who built such meticulous sets and resisted the temptation of establishing shots, or crane shots, or the impulse to showboat at least a little with regard to scene choreography? Sunset, then, is that strange thing, a movie you wouldn’t readily recommend, yet a must on the big screen.
Les Estivants (The Summer House; French, Italian), is written and directed by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, who also stars as Anna, a writer-director seeking money for her new project. Tedeschi’s real-life mother plays Anna’s mother. Her real-life daughter plays Anna’s daughter. And Anna’s screenplay is based on her dead brother. Guess what! The film is dedicated to Tedeschi’s real-life brother, who died of AIDS in 2006. Early on, we get a heavy-duty quote from German playwright Botho Strauss: “Divorce is one of the most cruel wounds life can inflict.” But despite Anna’s ensuing breakup, the incident seems almost an afterthought — too often, the tragicomic screenplay cuts away to other characters gathered in the family villa at the French Riviera: an eyebrow-dyeing brother-in-law, a frequently drunk sister (Valeria Golino), a caretaker struck by lightning and suffering from epileptic fits. Wine is drunk. Secrets are spilled. Old wounds are opened. But it all remains on the other side of a glass wall. But we do get one great truth, that cinema can give us the happy endings that life won’t.