Never Look Away: A Cinematic Masterpiece for Our Times

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the German director of the film The Lives of Others (2006), has produced another masterpiece. It is entitled Werk ohne Autor (or Never Look Away in the United States) and was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography, but it was the best movie of 2018. Perhaps unintentionally, it is also a libertarian cry.

A young man who aspires to become a painter, Kurt, traverses the atrocious sequence of twentieth-century Germany: Nazism, the destruction of his city and family during the war, East German communism, and his country’s partition, which forces him to flee to the western side.

During that journey, Kurt experiences the chilling fate of the citizens of countries marked by totalitarianism and violence on a massive scale, in which any relationship can intertwine the lives of victims and perpetrators without their knowledge. Such is the case of Kurt (whose close aunt and mentor was murdered when he was a child, under the eugenics program conducted by the Nazis against “defective” beings) and Ellie (his girlfriend and wife, who studies fashion design and whose father was in charge of that policy in a Dresden hospital).

All the political and social systems through which Kurt passes want to regiment his vocation, turning his craftsmanship into a political or social instrument and suppressing his creative sovereignty.

In West Germany, to where he flees, Kurt also has difficulty finding his own artistic voice, although not because of totalitarian imposition. Instead, the prevalence of avant-garde fashions encouraging the unbridled expression of each artist, but which involve meaningless “happenings” and little art, ironically exert a collectivist pressure on anyone who tries to explore a path away from those fads.

Kurt is also limited by his own inability to transform the traumatic experiences that have opened a deep wound in his sensibility into personal, authentic works of art.

But one day, finally, he breaks through the inhibitions and oppressive social pressures, thanks to one of those intuitive moments that bring forth the genius, that most genuine expression of individuality, in a creator. Kurt finds a way to transform his wounds into art by apparently copying on the canvas black and white photographs of beings related to his painful experiences—images he then blurs with just a thick brush to give them a personal touch and make them somewhat less accurate than a photograph.

We will never know, because of the film’s masterfully manipulated ambiguity, whether Kurt uncovers his father-in-law’s secret and that character’s dark connection with the family tragedy of his own childhood, or whether the painting in which he portrays his aunt murdered by the Nazis and his father-in-law speaks to us more of a coincidence, a brilliant intuition, not a revenge.

Werk ohne Autor is a film about the twentieth century, but it is equally relevant to the twenty-first century because it celebrates the struggle of the individual against all forms of collectivism that limit, inhibit, and hurt him or her. Many oppressive regimes and medieval customs survive today and grind daily the sensibility of artists like Kurt; in the free West we also suffer, with the sinister populisms of the left and the right; the dictatorship of political correctness in academia, politics and the media; and campaigns of coordinated stupidity in the social media—collectivisms that seek to abort the specificity, the singularity, of the individual.

A deep theme of Werk ohne Autor is what Kurt’s schizophrenic aunt tells him as a child: “Never look away because everything that is true is beautiful,” a phrase echoing Keats’ famous “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Only when Kurt understands this after his tortured, years-long search, does he manage to extract art and beauty from the depths of his experience of evil. In depicting this breakthrough, the film also explores another profound theme that is pertinent to our times: the rebellion of the individual against all the forms invented by ideology, society and fashion to put down his fire.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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