Young artist Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) has fled to West-Germany, but he continues to be tormented by the experiences he made in his childhood and youth in the Nazi years and during the GDR-regime. When he meets the student Ellie (Paula Beer), he is convinced that he has met the love of his life and begins to create paintings that mirror not only his own fate, but also the traumas of an entire generation.
Wiedemann & Berg Film
User Reviews: I wouldn’t recommend this film to everyone: the storytelling is a bit heavyhanded, and in my opinion it didn’t need to be as long as it is, but I did enjoy the comparisons of the East German and West German art worlds, many of the performances, and most of the production design.
To give one example of what I mean by heavyhanded, the protagonist’s first visit to the Düsseldorf Art Academy coincides with a student show, and the various works are all extremely avant-garde, to the point where the movement is affectionately satirized–this probably does not reflect what real students were actually showing that year. Conversely, the students in East Germany are all shown doing nothing but exaggeratedly Social Realist propaganda pieces, which again I suspect is not 100% true. But the scenes serve as shorthand guides to some basic differences between the two systems. I appreciated that the director did make one of the professors in East Germany somewhat sympathetic, and did not immediately dismiss the idea that maybe there is something constrictive about the West’s demand for constant innovation and "heroic" individuality in art. Still, the film’s obvious belief is that its main character, Kurt Barnert, and the avant-garde teacher, Professor Antonius van Verten (obviously based on Joseph Beuys, though I was glad the director changed the name) are heroes. (I completely disagree with Prof. van Verten’s contention that artists should never vote in elections.)
Some of the scoring seems aimed at manipulating the audience’s feelings, but those moments were done in such an obvious way that they only served as Brechtian distancing devices to me.
I was a bit confused by the film’s treatment of women. The director obviously has sympathy for the female characters. But even the most prominent, the main character’s wife, is completely separated from the hero’s artistic career, which is the most important thing in his life. She is shown creating her own work as a fashion designer, but we never learn anything about it, and the protagonist never once talks to her about her designs…and she never talks to him about his paintings, even though they are partly about her family. To the director’s credit, female art students are shown in both East and West Germany, but none of them have any lines. We learn what happens to Kurt’s father, but, unless I and my companion both missed some bit of dialogue, his mother simply disappears from the story.
In addition, the film’s POV is classically "male gaze:" if the director has any excuse to show a naked breast, he will, even when it could be argued that it’s inappropriate. The only full-frontal male nudity involves artists who are completely hidden with paint–maybe the German cut of the film is different? There’s even a perhaps unwittingly humorous moment when three of Kurt’s male art student friends are transfixed by a nude portrait of his wife. The camera hovers above the painting, so that we don’t quite take on its POV, but we see their stunned faces; the wife’s opinion is never addressed.
Of course, after I saw the film I looked up the real-life events it is based on, and I was surprised to see that the person who inspired the Aunt Elisabeth character was much younger than the onscreen version–only 14 at the time of some of the important events shown in the film. I can’t help but suspect that one reason the age shift was made was so that the director could sexualize the character–the film implies that Kurt finds a parallel between his aunt and his wife. The aunt’s nude scenes are justified by the story, but they still seemed played for sexiness, even at the worst moments–as if the director feared the audience wouldn’t sympathize with the character’s plight unless she was sexually attractive at all times. (Incidental costume note: Aunt Elisabeth’s anachronistic long hairdo and unseasonable outfit highly irritated me for the first few scenes of the film. But most of the production design I liked, except for the artificially blue eyes of some of the actors.)
I would recommend the film, with qualifications, to people who have a particular interest in the art world, or in Germany during the 1930s-60s, but probably not to anyone who doesn’t.
Historical note: before any American goes away from this film feeling smug about our government compared to the Nazi government, please look up the 1927 US Supreme Court ruling, "Buck vs. Bell."