‘A gross distortion’: Why Germany’s 2019 Oscar nominee is caught in controversy

A German film has been nominated in the Academy Awards - but the German artist it's partially based on is caught up in a debate with the director about just how true to life the movie actually is.

'A gross distortion': Why Germany's 2019 Oscar nominee is caught in controversy
Tom Schilling as Kurt Barnert. Photo: DPA

Never Look Away (called 'Werk ohne Autor' in the original German) has been nominated in the Oscar's Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography categories.

But the director and the real-life artist the film is partly based on are caught up in a public spat regarding the accuracy of the film

The film's director “managed to abuse and grossly distort (my) biography,” says Dresden-born artist Gerhard Richter.

The film follows Kurt Barnert – played by Tom Schilling, and is partly based on Richter – who experienced various family traumas as a result of World War II, including his aunt being euthanized by the Nazis. 

Richter, like the film´s main character, found initial success in East Germany before eventually defecting to the West to build a life there.

Shilling's character Kurt Barnert in 'Never look away'. Photo: DPA

Room for creativity?

Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck told The New Yorker that Richter´s experiences during his adolescence and eventual success as an artist showed great resilience and demonstrated the power of art.

“It gives us that wonderful feeling that our suffering can be of use,” Donnersmarck told the magazine. Richter, according to the director, openly shared more of his story when they met in 2015.

Donnersmarck, with Richter´s permission, recorded their meetings.

Donnersmarck, who also wrote and directed the famous GDR-based drama The Lives of Others, admitted to The New Yorker that he left some room in his script for creativity.

“I didn’t want it to be a bio-picture per se,” Donnersmarck said. “Sticking exactly to every fact and chronology tends to weaken something. Citizen Kane would be a lesser film if it were called ‘Citizen Hearst.’”

Richter refutes this.

In a letter to the New Yorker, journalist Dana Goodyear, the Cologne-based painter said he told Donnersmarck after October last year, however, Richter told the German Press Agency (DPA) that he found the film too “reißerisch,” or 'sensational'.

Donnersmarck said he told Richter he would not say which events featured were true and which were fiction, forcing the public and journalists to have to guess. The tactic would also provide Richter some privacy.

'A spiritual biography'

“Whenever the conversation turns to you, I will say that it is specifically not a bio-pic of Gerhard Richter but the story of the fictional painter Kurt Barnert,” Donnersmarck wrote to Richter in a letter provided to The New Yorker.

Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck at the premiere of the film. Photo: DPA

He also proposed to the Oscar-winning director that the protagonist´s profession change to a different artistic field, like a writer or musician.

Richter claims to have written to Donnersmarck that he did not have permission to use his name or paintings in relation to the film. Donnersmarck, he told the New Yorker, had agreed to this, but his actions spoke otherwise.

“In reality, he has done everything to link my name to his movie…he managed to abuse and grossly distort my biography! I don’t want to say more about this,” Richter wrote to Goodyear.

In the magazine profile of him, Donnersmarck appeared understanding of Richter´s discomfort, but also expressed disappointment that he did not see the film.

“I put in a lot of what computer-game programmers call Easter eggs, things only he would be able to decipher, little love letters to him,” Donnersmarck told Goodyear.

“It’s too bad he didn’t see it, but I can understand it a little bit. If I imagine someone taking my life story and putting a spin on it, either it would be super-painful.”

When asked by DPA on Tuesday what the Golden Globes and Oscar nominations mean to him, Donnersmarck did not address this specific controversy.

However, he said, “Such (nominations) may be even more important than they were 10 years ago because the world we live in has just become very loud – so much media, so much content.

Also speaking to DPA, the actor in Never Look Away and The Lives of Others, Sebastian Koch, said on Wednesday he hopes the Oscar nomination gives his latest film a second chance in Germany. He also addressed what he views as unfair criticism of the film.

“Nobody has to like the film. But it should be treated with respect. And unfortunately that wasn't the case here,” Koch said.

Never Look Away is still showing in some cinemas in Germany and the 86-year old artist it partly depicts is still exhibiting his work in Germany and throughout the world.

Richter´s art is currently on display at C / O Berlin, Galerie Thomas Zander in Cologne, and Galerie Ludorff in Düsseldorf among other locations.

The all-star Oscars ceremony takes place on February 25th in Los Angeles.

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7 ground-breaking German movies made by female filmmakers

To celebrate the works of women in the German film industry, and at the conclusion of this year's special outdoor Berlinale, we have compiled a list of seven must-watch German films directed by women. 

7 ground-breaking German movies made by female filmmakers
A scene from System Crasher. credit: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Peter Hartwig

This year’s Oscars marked the first time in its almost 100-year history that two female filmmakers – Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell – were nominated in the Best Director category. Only five women have ever been nominated for this award. Zhao took home the gong, becoming just the second woman ever to do so.

In 2021’s Berlinale Festival, 60 percent of the films in the Generation category were directed by women — with 75 percent of female filmmakers making up the Kplus selection (a category for younger audiences).

Here is a look at seven films by some of the most influential female directors in German cinema.

Never Sleep Again (1992) — Pia Frankenberg

Featured in Berlinale’s Retrospective series, meant to showcase female filmmakers, this film is written, directed and produced by Cologne-born filmmaker, Pia Frankenberg.

The film follows three female friends through post-unification Berlin, who are making their way to a wedding when their car breaks down. They wander through the streets of former East Berlin, roaming in and out of bars meeting men. 

The dilapidated sites of the former Cold War frontier city, still scarred by World War II, become a place for sheer endless personal experimentation where the women begin to reconfigure their lives and loves.

Frankenberg’s impressionistic portrait of three women in the city reflects on the state of the newly unified Germany, where for a moment all possibilities seemed radically open. (Available on Mubi, Binged)

The German Sisters (1981) — Margarethe Von Trotta 

Considered one of the classics of the New German Cinema movement, The German Sisters tells an intimate story of Germany. 

Based on the real-life story of the Enslein sisters, it is an expression of director Margarethe Von Trotta’s combination of the personal and the political. It’s the story of Juliane, a feminist journalist and her sister, Marianne, who is a terrorist revolutionary. The film, which won six awards at the Venice Film Festival including the Golden Lion, was Margarethe Von Trotta’s third film and first collaboration with Barbara Sukowa. The director-actor duo went on to do six more films together. (Available on Mubi, Prime)

Margarethe Von Trotta on set in 1975. Photo: dpa | Bertram

Toni Erdmann (2016) — Maren Ade 

Toni Erdmann is a German-Austrian comedy which was directed, written and co-produced by Maren Ade. The film, which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, was named the best film of 2016. 

Meant to showcase the intricacies of a father-daughter relationship, the film pairs carefully constructed, three-dimensional characters in a tenderly funny character study. A hard-working woman reluctantly agrees to spend time with her estranged father when he unexpectedly arrives.

As a practical joker, the father does his best to reconnect by pretending to be her CEO’s life coach. (Available on Mubi, Kanopy, Prime, Vudu)

I Was at Home, But (2019) — Angela Schanelec 

I was at home, but (Ich war zuhause, aber) is a 2019 German drama film directed by Angela Schanelec. At the Berlinale that year, Schanelec won the Silver Bear for Best Director. 

The film is a story about a 13-year-old student, Phillip, who disappears without a trace for a week and suddenly reappears. 

It maps the existential crises his mother and teachers are confronted with that change their whole view of life. The film features several plots, which tell the stories of several people who are all connected to Phillip in some way. It has scenes with long silences, to contrast ones with heavy dialogue, which critics believe makes this film a cinematic masterpiece. (Available on Apple iTunes, Google Play Movies, Vudu, or rent on YouTube).

The Audition (2019) — Ina Weisse

This film has been described as a symphonic study of human behaviour. It’s the story of a violin teacher, who takes great interest in mentoring a student for an audition. Anna, the violinist and teacher played by Nina Hoss, shows plenty of compassion toward the boy at first, but their relationship becomes much more strained as the date of Alexander’s audition nears and Anna begins to put him through musical torture. Come the day of the exam, events take a tragic turn. (Available on Amazon Prime Video)

Pelican Blood (2019) — Katrin Gebbe 

Pelican Blood is written and directed by Katrin Gebbe, who won the 2014 Preis der Deutschen Filmkritik (German Film Critics’ Prize) for her first film.

It tells the story of a woman who trains police horses. She adopts her second child, a severely traumatised five-year-old girl. When the girl shows violent and anti-social behaviour, her new mother becomes determined to help her.

The film has been described as raising fascinating questions – how do you draw boundaries for a child who seems to ignore them or even takes a perverse pleasure in overstepping them? What can you do as a parent when you realize that your love and protection aren’t enough? (Available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime)

System Crasher (2019) — Nora Fingscheidt

Another film about a rebellious child, System Crasher picked up a whopping eight German Film Awards after its release in 2019.

The film has a powerful political message about the inadequacies of the universal child care system. The protagonist, Benni, is a violent nine-year-old girl who suffers from psychotic episodes. Her key social worker, Frau Bafané, tries to get Benni into special schools or facilities; dozens turn her down and Benni is too young to be effectively sectioned as an inpatient.

In an interview with The Guardian, Fingscheidt says, “There’s a very German dimension to the film in the obsession with bureaucracy, with rules that need to be adhered to. Rules like, ‘this child cannot stay in this home because they are getting too emotionally attached,’ when that institution may be the first place where a child has begun to open up.”

The film has received an incredible amount of international recognition, garnering 45 international awards. (Available on Netflix)