Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB. Germany/Italy, 2018. Pergamon Film, Wiedemann & Berg Filmproduktion, Beta Cinema, ARD Degeto Film, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Sky Deutschland, Rai Cinema, W.o.A. Film, ARTE. Screenplay by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel. Produced by Quirin Berg, Christiane Henckel von Donnersmarck, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Jan Mojto, Max Wiedemann. Music by Max Richter. Production Design by Silke Buhr. Costume Design by Gabriele Binder. Film Editing by Patricia Rommel. Academy Awards 2018. Golden Globe Awards 2018. Toronto International Film Festival 2018.
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck wanted to return to the success of The Lives Of Others with another tale of art and politics, this time setting out to make a biography of Gerhard Richter that was stunted by the subject’s refusal to take part in the project. Most filmmakers would be discouraged enough to scrap the project, and they’d be right to do so, but our stubborn auteur stuck to his guns and released a epic begging for prestige status despite this major central hiccup, telling, instead, a fictional tale of a Richter-esque painter named Kurt Barnert (played with winsome appeal by Tom Schilling). He survives a childhood in a destroyed Dresden and loses loved ones to the war, grows up in the socialist half of a divided Germany that stunts the intellectual growth of his otherwise developing skill as an artist while politics continues to take away people close to him. Falling in love with a young woman (Paula Beer) at art school, Barnert marries her and they make their way to Dusseldorf in order to see what capitalism has to offer. The purpose is also to get both of them away from her overbearing father (Sebastian Koch) who was, unbeknownst to them, a key player in the inhumane medical cruelties of the Third Reich. Barnert has no idea that his father-in-law actually has an important connection with his own family, but the journey he travels in this admittedly charismatic if shallow kunstlerroman that voyages through various political eras, cultural movements and his own understanding of his ability to express his skills, will take him to this connection through a quirky sense of fate. There are moments of lyrical beauty in this melodrama, at times the combination of the strong cast and Caleb Deschanel’s beautiful cinematography make a powerful impression in what is overall an engaging story, but von Donnersmarck doesn’t trust us to get the broader themes of the tale, that art can’t exist without truth, for instance, and frequently ruins a good moment by spelling things out in painfully broad exchanges of dialogue in which characters might as well speak directly to the camera. Removing the intended subject from the official finished work means that it isn’t worthy of its three hour running time and its grandeur should have been scaled back, but it isn’t torture to sit through either (except to Gerhart himself, who had some very unflattering things to say about it).