Foreign Contenders: Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck on Germany’s Never Look Away 

Attaining Oscar glory in the Best Foreign Language Film category back in 2007 with his first feature, The Lives of Others, German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck instantly became one of the most fascinating new talents in international cinema.

Hollywood quickly came calling, but not with an offer similar in tone to his debut. Instead, his initial foray into large-budget moviemaking would be 2010’s The Tourist, a romantic thriller starring A-listers Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp.

Nearly a decade after that financially successful studio bid, Henckel von Donnersmarck is back in the race with a German-language production, Never Look Away, a three-hour period drama set in his divided, post-war homeland.  At the heart of the visually polished and elegantly put together film is the so-called Nazi Euthanasia Program—a horrifying extermination practice targeting those with mental illnesses and cognitive and physical disabilities—as well as the firsthand repercussions it had on young artist Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling). 

Haunted by the memory of his aunt, an artistically minded woman who fell prey to the mass-murder policies implemented during the war, Kurt strives to develop his own passionate brand of creative expression while grappling with the unnerving possibility that his girlfriend Ellie’s (Paula Beer) father, Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), might be running from a sordid past. Thanks to the dynamic pacing and pitch perfect assembly, this sweeping historical work feels engaging and thrilling. 

Henckel von Donnersmarck, who’s based in Los Angeles, recently sat down with MovieMaker to dive into the idiosyncratic reasoning behind the way his films are written and edited, as well as the his thoughts on the ideal running time for a feature.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): It’s been almost a decade since your last feature, The Tourist, was the long gap due to any obstacles related to putting together Never Look Away or perhaps finding the right follow-up project?

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (FHVD): It was a long process to get this made—a film about a painter finding himself is not the easiest project to raise money for. It’s also a difficult time for cinema in general. Things take a lot longer; it’s become harder to make movies, for everyone. You see these gaps in filmographies becoming pretty length, filmographies of people who care about movies. I’m not quite ready to accept that it’s all OTT Media Services and Streaming yet, so it takes a while. It just takes longer to get the money together, to convince people that it’s the right thing to get the funds. There’s a world in which you could do it pretty quickly, and that’s in the very low-budget independent world. That’s not so much my world of comfort. I like things done in a way where you can really sculpt something.

MM: Was it a readjustment to go from a Hollywood production like The Tourist back into a more independent realm with a smaller budget but also less oversight?

FHVD: Money was a lot tighter than it was for something like The Tourist. Yes, that does make things a lot tougher, of course. It’s great when you don’t have to fight for every dollar, but that’s just the nature of independent cinema that that battle will never go away. It makes you think about what is important to you, in a way that might even be quite healthy. For example, it was important for me to have enough time to shoot this and not rush things. That meant you had to do away with some other comforts, and really focus on prioritizing what is most important. I said, “Okay, my priority is making the images as beautiful as they can be, and giving the actors the space to experience their full emotions.” 

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck stands with his cast Tom Schilling, Paula Beer, and Sebastian Koch.

MM: Did you know from the onset that the story you wanted to convey would need to be an expansive, three-hour historical piece?  

FHVD: I don’t think anyone ever knows really, going into a film, how long it’s going to be, unless you’re doing television and we know it has to end after 22.5 minutes, 45 minutes, or an hour. I had a feeling it was not going to be short, but I didn’t expect it to to be nearly as long as Schindler’s List. Eventually, you reach a point where the film is a certain length and, if you try and take out some scenes, it either makes no sense or makes the film seem even longer.

There is a right length for every film, and it is possible to find that. I don’t even think it’s a subjective thing at that point; I think it becomes objective. I remember being very impressed with Bryan Singer and Tom Cruise while they were making Valkyrie. They had already seemingly finished the movie when Bryan told Tom Cruise that he had changed a few frames here and there. Tom wanted to see the entire movie again from beginning to end. It was clear what the change was, but he still wanted to see the entire movie again, although he had already seen it 20 times. Experienced moviemakers know that if you change so much as a frame from a cut that worked, it might wreck the whole thing. 

Maybe saying a frame is exaggerating, but a few seconds can make a difference. Sometimes adding 10 seconds to a film can make you loose the connection with the scene, and it will no longer be truly compelling— you will lose the flow. We worked for quite a while until we reached the point where it had that flow. That turned out to be the running time that it is now.

MM: How do you tackle a screenplay like this, with multiple time periods and a narrative that appears to be segmented into very defined acts that still have to be connected? How long did it take you to conceive it?  

FHVD: I’ve always had this belief that under no circumstances should it take you longer than nine months to write a script. In the time that one human can create another human being, it should be possible to make a script. I always try to remember that, so it took me about that amount of time, which is quite long. First, I thought about putting it in a non-chronological order, so that it could be pieced together like a puzzle as you jump through different time periods, but it felt a little bit forced. 

I remembered that when Tarantino had first started writing True Romance, it was out of temporal sequence. Tony Scott then took it and put it into a completely straight storyline, which resulted in quite a powerful movie. I thought, “Okay, let’s try that.” Eventually, telling it completely chronologically made the most sense. 

It takes a lot of weaving. When a film is done—and I only do this it after a film is done—you do test screenings. We had one test screening, but it wasn’t to see what people don’t like so we could take it out. I don’t change anything after the test screening. What is really interesting is to see who responds to the film and who doesn’t. What is most important to me is walkouts—my aim is to always have zero walkouts, and so far I’ve always succeeded with that. People can like the story that’s being told or hate the story that’s being told, but they should be enveloped by it. That is a craft thing. 

For example, a scene should never come completely out of the blue. It has to be woven together with the previous scene, so that you’re immediately oriented. Making a film like that has great advantages because it will not allow the viewer to ever escape. The one disadvantage this has, however, is that if the film turns out long, it becomes very hard to cut pieces out. Everything is interwoven and the whole structure could unravel if you take too much out.

That was one of the most important things for me, and it also fit the story of the film, because it’s a film all about how the events in our life are interconnected. If we do it right, we can, at any point, use anything that we experienced in our lives to really excel at this specific moment. In a way, the structure of the film had to mirror the content. 

MM: Atrocities committed by the Nazis have been the subject of countless films, but their targeting of people with mental illness and their intolerance towards art is not often explored.  Why set your story around these specific policies and their victims? 

FHVD: I thought it was interesting to explore the line between art and madness. Much of contemporary art seem like objects of complete madness, such as someone creating a gigantic balloon animal for 30 million dollars. It seems crazy, in the making, in the paying, in everything. A really interesting example is a German sculptor who has a mental condition and is actually under governmental tutelage. The government then assesses her idea of making a 20-foot high sculpture of a flower, and breaks it down to judge whether her idea is actually craziness or art. 

Sometimes it’s impossible to say, and I thought it was really interesting to take this aunt, this beautiful strong woman who has an incredible artistic temperament, but somehow doesn’t have the constitution to make art out of it. The Nazis see it as only weakness and kill her. 

There was a really wonderful painter, Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, who was murdered by the Nazis in their so-called euthanasia program. I always found this story so shocking. She was extreme, in a way would call that strong, eccentric, idiosyncratic today. At that time these characteristics were seen by the Nazis as something that had to go. I also found it interesting that, if a government has a certain idea of what people are supposed to be, they also have a certain idea of what art is supposed to be. This is a very dangerous path to go along. 

The government should not have an opinion of what its people should be, and I thought it was interesting to explore that. The idea that if the government starts voicing an opinion about art; it’s an indication that other things might be happening also.  

Tom Schilling paints his canvas as Kurt Barnert

MM: What elements were directly from historical accounts and how did the historical context influence your understand of the story? 

FHVD: There is nothing in the movie that doesn’t have a historical equivalent. This isn’t a biopic of this one guy, but it uses a lot of elements from the life of one German painter, Gerhard Richter. He had an aunt who was killed in the so-called “euthanasia program” by the Nazis, and went on to make a painting of his aunt holding him as a little boy. 

I was always fascinated by this painting, because it gave the victims of this euthanasia program a face. He had a long and successful career. As an old man he was able to, thanks to the research of a journalist, find out that the father of the woman that he ended up marrying—whom he knew very well and even lived under the same roof as—had been one of the murderers of the sick and had just gone undiscovered. 

I thought, “Wow, that’s an interesting starting point for a story: how two people could live under one roof, a victim and a murderer, loving the same girl, one as the father and one as the husband.” It triggered a lot of ideas of what could go on, and how this person could free himself through art

MM: Editing must be a crucial stage in realizing your vision, especially since you are dealing with a grand drama. How do you approach editing in a cohesive manner? 

FHVD: One thing that really makes it painful for me to watch movies is when I feel that the editing rhythm is not quite right. I actually find every cut hurtful, as if someone is cutting me. I spent a lot of time thinking about editing as a student, trying out various editing techniques.

For this movie, I experimented quite a bit before finding a really great French editor with the very German name of Patricia Rommel. I saw her films at various festivals and thought they were incredible. Every cut was beautiful! I also found a really great editor elsewhere, Patrick Sanchez. He had done a little animatic for me for something else, and I realized he was quite talented and I brought him on board as well.

Patrick Sanchez and Patricia Rommel both edited this movie with a very similar philosophy about what a proper cut is. It’s not a totally arbitrary thing; there is a certain rhythm that the images will dictate, and certain images that go together well. For example, Patricia has this really interesting philosophy. People always say that, if you do a dissolve, the images really have to match but she approaches every single cut as if it were a dissolve. She said that every cut is a dissolve in our head. That’s how I approached my direction as well. 

My cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel —a director himself for Twin Peaks, and Crusoe with Aiden Quinn— is someone who’s very good at shooting with editing in mind. We would sit there and talk about how to edit this film later on. The way we make images on set are so suggestive that normally the editor doesn’t even need to read my notes because it’s so clear how it has to be put together. 

Editing is the most powerful tool we have at our disposal, because it creates connections. The only thing that I’ll sometimes mix the edit up for is music. We worked with composer Max Richter, who is an absolute genius. If you have a few minutes, go online and listen to three pieces. One is called On the Nature of Daylight, another is called November, and the third one, is a piece of music for the television series The Leftovers called Dona Nobis Pacem 2 (Grant Us Piece). If you listen to it, you’ll be blown away by the incredible power of music. And then read the comments that people write underneath them, where they say things like, “Oh my goodness, this music makes me realize I’m wasting my life.”

Sometimes, when Max develops a theme, and I know that that needs a little more space, I make an exception to tell him, “Okay, I’ll expand the edit a little bit to give the music the space that it needs.”

Never Look Away is Germany’s Oscar Entry for Best Foreign Language Film, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics. All photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

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