Tag: Sebastian Koch

Never Look Away (2019)

Tom Schilling excels in this shadowy Gerhard Richter biography Never Look Away

Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Cast: Tom Schilling (Kurt Barnet), Sebastian Koch (Professor Carl Seeband), Paula Beer (Ellie Seeband), Saskia Rosendahl (Elisabeth May), Oliver Masucci (Professor Antonius van Verten), Ina Weisse (Martha Seeband), Rainer Bock (Dr Burghart Kroll), Hanno Koffler (Gunther Presueer)

In 2006 The Lives of Others propelled Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck to the fore-front of the European Arts Film circle. His follow-up, the Depp/Jolie starrer The Tourist was a disaster that sent him spiralling back. Now von Donnersmarck returns to German cinema – and the travails and divides of a country split for a large chunk of the 20th century into East and West – with Never Look Away a film heavily inspired by the life and work of famed German artist Gerhard Richter, with splashes of German history and it’s difficult relationship with both fascism and socialism.

Kurt Barnett is an artist growing up in Nazi Germany, living outside Dresden after his father lost his teaching job due to his reluctance to join the party. Barnett’s family is hit hard during the way – his two young uncles are killed, Dresden (and everyone he knows) is destroyed. Worst of all his inspirational artistic sister Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) is diagnosed with schizophrenia and is quietly killed during the Nazi programme of removing “unsuitable elements” from German society. That decision is taken by Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a natural survivor and amoral egotist who later makes the adjustment smoothly to living in the Socialist East. Barnett (played by Tom Schilling as a young man) meanwhile goes to East German art school, falling in love with a fashion student Ellie (Paula Beer), but struggling to find his own voice in an East Germany where all art must serve a social purpose. Will escape to the West bring freedom of thought?

Never Look Away is a mantra in the film, in an epic quasi-biography that explores the dark underbelly of German history, filtering the countries struggles to find some sort of freedom through the world of Art. It also has an unflinching eye for the losses and horrors of Nazi Germany, with the film never turning away from the brutal impact of the bombings of Dresden, the death of Kurt’s uncles on the Eastern front and (toughest of all) the shuffling of his tragic aunt into a gas chamber. 

But the film also works so well as a commentary on the silent repression Germany has suffered throughout the twentieth century, from the fear of stepping out of line with a contrary opinion in Nazi Germany, to the repression of individualist thought under Communist East Germany. “Never Look Away” are the last words Elisabeth speaks to Kurt – and it’s what fuels his eventual move towards Art that comments on reality with its blurred reproductions of personal snapshots and images (see Gerard Richter’s art). 

Von Donnersmarck uses art as a neat commentary for these ideas by showing how, in each era of Germany, the comments and views of art reflect each other. The film opens with the young Kurt and Elisabeth taking a tour around a Nazi “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Dresden, which suggests the likes of Picasso and Dali are either insane, moral degenerates, perverts or all three for their failure to create art that properly reflects nature. Later at the East German art school, the same artists are denounced again for failing to carry a proper and correct social message in their work. The tables are turned in the free Germany of the 1960s, where Modern exhibitionist art is all the rage, and paint and canvas is so passeas to be almost vulgar. Three different political spectrums, three very different dictates from society about what constitutes art.

How’s a man to find himself, and his personal expression as an artist, in the middle of this? Kurt is a gifted painter and drawer, but in every era his work is moved towards what is expected of him. As a boy in Germany he hides his impressionist sketches. In East Germany he becomes a famous painter of socialist images and murals. In the art college he tries to shift his style into the experimental alleyways of his peers – work that his professor (played with a neat mixture of pretension and earnestness by Oliver Masucci) recognises his not his true voice. It takes putting his own spin on images and memories of the past – of careful reproductions than subtly blurred to reflect our own imperfect memories (a visual trick von Donnersmarck prepares us for throughout the film with Barnett watching things move in and out of focus as they happen before him) works perfectly.

The film throws together this mix of art and German history with a thick streak of melodrama, which should be ridiculous but basically seems to work. Contrivance and coincidence bring together the fates of Barnett and Professor Seeband, the man responsible for the death of his aunt, and bounds their lives together forever. It’s a narrative development that could make you groan, but somehow the film gets away with it. It probably mostly works because Sebastian Koch is excellent as Seebold, even if the man is so base, selfish, lacking in shame and principle and coldly, uncaringly ruthless that he feels at time almost like a cartoon. No deed of greed and bastardy is beneath him, and the score frequently underlines his villiany with a series of unsubtle cues. 

But it works because Koch’s Seebold is also a marvellous commentary on the flexibility of so many in Germany. Seamlessly he turns himself from proud SS sterilisation and termination doctor, into proud East German Socialist leader and finally into centre-piece of West German society as a leading surgeon. Just as art is bent and shifted, so Seebold represents how people will allow their lives and principles to adapt and shift with all the rest. It’s worth a bit of melodrama and some plot twists that lean on the unbelievable (and are based far less on reality than most of Richter’s life). 

But the sections that focus on Barnet/Richter are just as fine, and von Donnersmarck brings energy, excitement and joy to the act of art creation in the way few other film makers have done. Tom Schilling continues his excellent run of roles, as a passionate free-thinker, yearning to have the chance to find his own voice and Paula Beer is just as good as his wife, whose artistic soul is just as strong, even if she does get a (albeit moving) can-I-have-babies plotline. The relationship between these two is striking for its loving affection and genuine warmth. And it gives the film a real heart.

Never Look Away isn’t perfect, but in its marvellous expression of the joys of artistic creation and the way that art is bent and used for the needs of government and society, it has a lot to say. With excellent performances across the board – Schilling, Koch and Beer are fabulous – it is also a fascinating commentary on the schizophrenic nature of Germany itself throughout much of the twentieth century. Melodramatic and obvious at times – and even I will say overlong at nearly three hours – a thudding mix at times of points made with too much force, it’s also a marvellous exploration of art and artists. Von Donnersmarck is back.

The Danish Girl (2015)

Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander struggle with questions of identity in the overly sentimental The Danish Girl

Director: Tom Hooper

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe), Alicia Vikander (Gerda Wegener), Matthias Schoenaerts (Hans Axgil), Ben Whishaw (Henrik Sandahl), Amber Heard (Ulla Paulson), Sebastian Koch (Dr Kurt Warnekros), Pip Torrens (Dr Jens Hexler), Nicholas Woodeson (Dr Buson), Emerald Fennell (Elsa), Adrian Schiller (Rasmussen)

Working out who you are can be a lifetime’s struggle for some people. Finding out that who you are is someone outside the bounds of what society considers normal or acceptable often calls for a special kind of bravery. That’s the kind of bravery that Einar Wegener had when he realised that he felt he was a woman, not a man. Einar became one of the first ever recipients of sex reassignment surgery, becoming Lili Elbe. It’s an inspiring true-life story, fudged in Tom Hooper’s syrupy, sentimental film.

Eddie Redmayne plays Einar/Lili, slowly realising his fascination with women’s clothing is actually part of a far larger realisation, that she identifies as woman rather than a man. Her wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), helps Lili explore her identity, herself journeying through pain at losing her husband to final acceptance and support as Lili begins surgery to complete her transition.

Tom Hooper’s film is shot and framed with the magnificence you expect from his previous films. Hooper’s mastery of framing not only presents people in striking contexts (he has a particular eye for positioning people artfully in a frame with fascinating walls behind them), but also uses the camera to drill into its protagonists (throwing backgrounds into soft focus) to help you begin to empathise with them. It’s a great way to build a connection with the lead characters. But the film never quite adds enough depth and real understanding to its beautiful visuals. I’m not sure it really gets inside the mind of Lili and gets a real understanding of her.

For starters, the structure of the film is confused. The main problem is that the dramatic thrust of the film is Lili realising she is a woman. The character’s emotional and psychological conflict is all bound up in struggling to accept this: the journey of the film is Lili’s internal journey to know and accept herself. Once this realisation is made the drama drains out of the film. Try as it might, it can’t make a series of operations to make complete Lili’s transition dramatically interesting. It also fails to really get inside the psychology of Lili at this point, making her feel more like an exotic, occasionally selfish, passenger through a series of treatments, rather than someone who feels like she has real dramatic thrust.

This is partly because the film splits the perspective more or less equally between Lili and Gerda. While the film follows the passage of Lili realising who she is, if anything more of its empathy and understanding (and interest) is invested in how Gerda reacts to this change. You can see the logic of some complaints that the story of this leading LGBT figure is filtered through the perceptions of their heterosexual wife. Gerda’s emotional journey – pain, anger, rejection, sorrow, despair, acceptance and support – is what really drives the film, far more really than Lili’s realisations. 

But this slightly skewed perception is all part of a film that never quite feels true. I appreciate that Lili moved in some bohemian circles, but surely more people would have been more outraged in the 1920s and 30s by this change. The only people in the film we see reacting in any way negatively are two doctors and a pair of thugs in Paris. Other than that, far from a struggle for acceptance, people seem to fall over themselves to tell Lili how wonderful her new identity is.

The most supportive figure of all is Lili’s childhood friend, Hans Axgil (played very well by Mattias Schoenaerts) – who’s the centrepiece of another major issue with the film. This wonderfully warm and kind man befriends and supports both Lili and Gerda. I left the film wanting to find out what happened in real life to this man who seemed too good to be true. Guess what: he was literally too good to be true. He didn’t exist. In fact no one in the film existed other than Lili and Gerda. Furthermore the timeline (and many of the events) of the film have been changed, as have some of the facts around their relationship. For a film pushing itself as an inspiring “true story” this feels more than a little bit like a cop out.

This is part of the film simply trying too hard. From lingering shots of Einar longingly fingering women’s clothing early in the film, to the syrupy music sore that hammers home as many of the emotional beats of the film as possible, it’s a film that wants to do things as obviously as possible for the audience. It wears its “importance” very heavily: you can tell all involved believed that the project they were working on was going to have an impact on viewers across the world.

Not that we should detract at all from two lead performances. Redmayne immerses himself utterly in the role and performs with sensitivity, giving Lili an early sense of fear that develops into an increasingly relaxed and confident determination. Vikander is equally good, running the full gamut of emotions: she probably is the movie’s heart (making her supporting actress Oscar feel even more like character fraud). Two fabulous performances – and plenty of striking visuals, well directed – but it’s a film that really never quite feels like it gets into the heart of its lead, and always feels like it’s pushing you into feeling an emotional reaction, straining for you to shed tears, rather than letting them come naturally.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance find common ground in the Cold War in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Hanks (James B Donovan), Mark Rylance (Rudolf Abel), Amy Ryan (Mary Donovan), Sebastian Koch (Wolfgang Vogel), Alan Alda (Thomas Watters), Austin Stowell (Francis Gary Powers), Scott Shepherd (CIA Agent Hoffman), Billy Magnussen (Doug Forrester), Jesse Plemons (Joe Murphy), Dakin Matthews (Judge Mortimer W Byers)

Steven Spielberg is perhaps best known for his cult block busters – and has indeed directed some of the finest popular adventure movies you are likely to see. But more of his output – particularly in recent years – is focused on intelligent, slightly old-school, handsome, period films that look to shed light on political and social issues of the past. Bridge of Spies falls firmly into this camp, an extremely well-made (if rather dry at times) prestige picture, blessed with a fascinating story and some very fine performances.

In 1957, Soviet agent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested in New York and put on trial. He’s the most unpopular man in America – except perhaps for the man plucked from a list of New York attorneys to defend him, James B Donovan (Tom Hanks). Donovan doesn’t endear himself to the American public by successfully defending Abel from the death penalty, but he’s proved right when U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over the USSR, and a prisoner exchange is set up for Abel and Powers, with Donovan negotiating the details in a wintery Berlin.

Bridge of Spies has an old-fashioned charm to it – you can totally imagine it popping up on a bank holiday afternoon. It’s what you might call “grown-up entertainment” in the sense that it tells a character-focused story. It’s made with an unfussy assurance that never allows its cinematic excellence to get flashy, and it patiently unfolds an intriguing character study that gives excellent opportunities to some gifted actors. 

It’s also got a vein of wit running through it – you can see the fingerprints of the Coen brothers, brought in to do a polish of the script. They are there in the touches of the absurd as Donovan goes behind the Iron Curtain, mixing with an eccentric group of East Germans pretending to Abel’s family. Their also there in the moments of chill around the East German forces who suppress freedom and endanger lives. But it’s brought to life because Spielberg is such a wonderful, vibrant director.

Spielberg knows where to bring the flash and where to settle and let the camera watch the actors at work. Despite the calm of the general shooting, the film is packed with some wonderful sequences of bravura film-making, told so skilfully and with enough confidence that they don’t need to draw attention to themselves with overly flashy camera work or editing. But sequences such as the one that begins the film with Abel unknowingly being followed through New York, or Powers’ U-2 flight being shot down, or a horrified Donovan watching luckless Germans try to climb the Berlin Wall while he rides a train expelling him from East Germany, are made with a confident, unflashy flair.

It’s a film which has a real understanding of the paranoia and knee-jerk prejudice of the Cold War (on both sides of the curtain, but particularly in America), that mixes this with a note of hope in the essential decency of those on the ground – Roger Ebert described it as like a John Le Carre if it had been directed by Frank Capra – and that’s a good description. Spielberg’s film casts Donovan as the “little guy” who has to do the right thing and struggle to be accepted by his fellow Americans. Donovan’s travails in East Berlin have a Capra-ish quality to them, as his straight-shooting decency and integrity come up against the oblique games and half-truths of professional diplomats and spies. Abel as well is basically a solid, stand-up guy with a very clear moral compass and a dry wit that points out the quirks of both American and Soviet systems.

Tom Hanks is perfect casting as Donovan. He’s much overlooked as a great actor, and Donovan plays to his strengths, using all his integrity and trustworthiness to great effect. His Donovan is an honest broker, a man who believes above all in the cause of justice and has a good-natured confidence that allows him to never be flummoxed or even to show too much impatience with those putting obstacles in his way, even as he works overtime to get his way. It’s a perfect Hanks part played by perfection.

The film also boasts an excellent, Oscar-winning, performance by Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. Embracing the movies for the first time, Rylance could probably play Abel standing on his head, and this acting heavyweight turns in a performance full of sparkle and wit. Rylance is softly spoken, with a combination of world-weariness, wry humour and a dry unreadability. Abel however is also a fiercely loyal and decent man – and it’s the contrast and bond that develops between him and Donovan that powers the movie.

In fact you can’t help but miss him in the second half, interesting as Donovan’s patiently done and labyrinthine negotiations between the KGB, Stasi and CIA become. At times this second half becomes slightly drier than the rest – as if Spielberg can’t quite manage to keep the sense of intimidation and danger in place for the whole of these protracted scenes of bluff and double bluff. It’s also probably a fraction too long. It’s not a perfect movie after all – Donovan’s family are a series of bland identities (“Honey stop trying to end the Cold War and come to bed”) and the film’s final coda of Donovan getting the approval of the American people on contrasting train rides is a little too trite in its “ain’t freedom great” tone.

But I really like Bridge of Spies. It’s calm, it’s assured, it’s very well made, it’s very well acted. There is a lot of quality on show here – it practically drips off the show – and it’s made by a director who knows he doesn’t need to wrestle your attention with every shot to keep it. Spielberg is a director so talented that he can excel at making intelligent, grown-up movies that have something for everyone. For all that it’s slightly overlong and can’t quite keep its momentum up, I really like it.