Sunday, September 3, 2023

looking well at "Never Look Away"

Hi, Lisa,

I saw ”Never Look Away,” after so many evenings when I wanted to, but couldn't fit 3 hours of viewing into available time. So, I'm glad that the occasion of your essay caused me to make the time. 

I didn't read your discussion of the film (or, rather, that scene) until today, since
I avoid reading about a film that I want to see, before I've seen it.

The film disappointed me, though again I'm glad I saw it. Auteur von Donner-
smarck did a masterful essay, as the film, about art in mid-20th century Germany, though anchored by cardboard characters' changing eras of life relative to box office-sure contexts of struggle and tragedy (as if Germany needs more), done with compelling cinematic expertise. It's great enter-
tainment! Von Donnersmarck did great service to art history. My disap-
pointment is no discredit to the film. (I want psychological depth—insightful plausibility between characters—beyond another proper indictment of satanic nazi minds.)

The opening scenes in the nazi museum are delightfully pathological, which reminds me of fascist Trump's routine of finding hoaxes everywhere else but his own mouth. The mid-film contrasts between Socialist Realism and German importations of New York Abstraction, Minimalism, Happenings, etc., is dramatic and fun, particularly as the phony, but entertaining, experimentalists in hallways surrealize the  difference between ”art” in Communist Germany and art in the Federal Republic. The dialogue on art is von Donnersmarck's best scripting. He provides a fine venue for distinguishing the work of art (working toward the artwork) as inquiry (experimentation with materials) and working as therapeutic (”working through,” in the remedial sense, relative to the German experience, in this case).

Not so insightful is his sense of what draws two persons to love each other, apart from dramatist convenience for drama-led story (distinct from character-driven drama). Particularly relative to psychological interest (your angle), von Donnersmarck is not very insightful about durable love, though he's a fine dramatist, well exemplified by the scene which you discuss (pp. 18-21). 

But who can gain any insight into why Kurt and Ellie are together, apart from normal romantic passion of youth? What's so special about Kurt to Ellie that she chooses him? Why is Kurt unsure that Ellie loves him, and insists that she verbally avow that she loves him? There is no ”I know you love me,” let alone
”I know you know, because it shows.” 

Oh, youth: so unsure about knowing anything about others...

There's a dynamic in the film which von Donnersmarck may not have realized—though I doubt that it eluded him (but wasn't highlighted by him in interviews?)—which isn't easy to represent, though the details are clear: 

Seebald's wife looks like an older version of Kurt's aunt Elisabeth, and Seebald's daughter looks like Kurt's aunt, but with dark hair. So, the woman in the critical photo would look to Kurt like aunt Elisabeth holding him as a boy, though it's a photo obtained from Ellie. The photo is actually (I presume) the Russian protector's wife holding the son whom Seebald delivered. 

So, there's a visual isomorphism there which belongs to von Donnersmarck, which he  expresses through his work. Is von Donnersmarck intending to help exorcize the archetypal witch?

Kurt's aunt, as she's being dragged from Seebald's office to be sterilized, begs for her life in desperate terms of being "as if" his daughter, who happens to actually look like the woman Seebald married—though he might be already fucking the housekeeper (evident later), and would want to disown recognizing that Elisabeth (who has the name of his own daughter) is like his "abandoned" wife: another woman too insightful to be left uncontrolled.

Seebald's misogyny—so tragically ironic, given that he's a gynecologist—is not a supplement of his nazi purism (defending against the impurity of his own fucking life). It's archetypal misogyny that drives his career which thereby welcomes serving Hitler, as both are participants in a Holy Roman Empire of excluding women from knowledge and power.

So, a theme of Ellie's liberation from daddy deserves to be matched with Kurt's liberation from his father's suicide. For the viewer, she channels a feminist revenge in the montage which Seebald sees baldly facing him, thanks to Kurt's love for Ellie which becomes Kurt's longing for his aunt's embrace of the “tone“ of all things considered to cohere. But that cohering belongs to the art—artist and viewer in the resonance of the event—not to Seebald.

Von Donnersmarck can be read to have channeled more than he admits. Or, at least, it's me finding a lot to note. (There surely is good reason to admire the film!) In any case, Kurt is on a path (as vehicle for von Donnersmarck's want of discoursing on art) which belongs to Kurt—to the art—apart from the ultimate irrelevance of Seebald's repetition (to German viewers) of German denial of commonplace guilt, which is a prop for von Donnersmarck's interest in the “I..,I..I” of emancipatory potential in art. Without Seebald's character, Kurt's journey of finding himself would have had just as much integrity. Seebald was indeed as ultimately irrelevant to Kurt’s odyssey as nazism was to art history.

Anyway, this reader of your discussion wonders what belongs to a fair reading of the scene discussed; and what belongs to your creativity.

You write: "One day Seebald comes to visit Kurt’s studio and encounters a series of paintings that seem to point toward Seebald’s role in the death of Kurt’s aunt." 

"Seems" to the viewer, of course. What Seebald recognizes isn't evident. But the numinous woman in the painting is from a photo of the Russian official’s wife whose suffering in childbirth was ended when Seebald, as imprisoned gynecologist, intervened, a small redemptive act which allows him to escape facing his own barbarity (and saves his own life). But the woman in the painting also looks like his daughter, whom he's deliberately caused to suffer from believing she can never have a child. 

But the woman in the image is not, to Seebald, Kurt's aunt. Another photo painting in the room shows Seebald with the hunted nazi official. Fatherly guilt (one photo painting) is assaulted by an exterminator’s terror (the other photo painting).

To Kurt, the montaged photo painting most likely suggests Ellie with magical child who points to Seebold as the one who kept the boy imaginary for Ellie and Kurt. Otherwise, it’s aunt Elisabeth with dark hair, holding Kurt. The godly viewer knows more, but neither Kurt nor Seebald have reason to intuit that.

"Deeply shaken, Seebald walks out of the studio and disappears from his daughter’s life." 

We don't know that. He disappears from the theater, like a Satanic figure ex-
communicated from the Church, because von Donnersmarck's script is made of extended vignettes, like random numbers which gain significance through juxtaposition by the god of random happenstance: Seebald might not have shown up at all, but the viewer is there—immersed in the lives of others, like all immersed readers—to witness a fortuitous accident which could have been absent, while the story would still have had integrity as Bildungsroman.

"Looking at Kurt’s paintings [which causes the viewer to be] remembering the young woman whom he had sent to her death," we have no textual reason to claim anything about what Seebald sees, particularly since (presumably) he sent so many blond young German women to their death. 

"Seebald can’t help assuming that the young man knows about his war crimes..." 

No, we can't help wondering whether Seebald can grant Kurt such perceptibility at all, this artist of "emptiness on emptiness" (to Seebold, if I recall correctly) who isn't worthy of his daughter. More credibly, we can claim that Seebald can't help assuming that his crimes will be discovered by the anticipated publicity of Kurt's art. His terror likely has nothing at all to do with thoughts about Kurt's appreciability.

So, a mindreading dynamic isn't credibly ascribable because the dramatic action involves much more than egoist Seebald's interest in what Kurt knows, which is irrelevant to the threat posed to Seebald by the image. Indeed, "Seebald [has no basis for an] assumption that Kurt knows his secrets," and there's no hint anywhere in the story that Kurt "stage[s]" scenes, though von Donnersmarck—god of scripting coincidences, as all authors are—is expertly staging due mortification of Seebald being found out as exterminator-in-cheif of intimidating women.  

"The superior knowledge seems to reside with the paintings themselves," but actually the richness of phenomenality between witnessed art and witnessing "writer" (in "reading") has created a mirrorplay of who's writing whom, which doesn't primarily involve the characters' relations to each other in the scene. That is, any mindreading which is ascribed is enscribed by the reader/viewer in phenomenal play with the author's very calculated presentation.

A delightful prospect, though, is your prospected cosmic justice of aunt Elisabeth having an afterlife presence, intending to mortify her crucifier through the boy-man she cherished like no other woman who ever entered Kurt's life. But that prospect calls for more than mindreading. It calls for supernaturalism. Aunt Elisabeth is certainly alive to Kurt in his artwork. No doubt, her "spirit" had a hand in his therapeutic odyssey. But supernaturalism isn't suggested. Your want of Magical Realism is.

When Gerhard Richter says that "my paintings know more than I do," know that he's patronizing the interviewer. He knows more about his paintings than a viewer is entitled to know; yet the artist learns more about his works' efficacy from viewer response than he anticipated. 

And yes, too, an archetypal process is involved in the mystery of the artist being thrown into self-discovery by obsession with the work which is on its way to the artwork: Deeper self is thrown by free release into the emerging artwork as venue of self-discovery, fabulously incompleted for the artist when the artwork is framed as "done" (as if).

The artwork goes into display. The work of art remains unfinished. It's enchant-
ing and true that the work of art is an odyssey for the artist which s/he gladly finds still mysterious. 

But what the artist knows is for the few and the rare, which Professor van Verten attests when he not only confesses to Kurt (among so few?) the suffering in his past, but alas, he takes off his hat (letting Kurt see his bald, scared skull) to the promising artist who is now close to finding his true calling.

To rightly note "the more relevant question...: What did his paintings know?" is a personification of what can be known in the resonant mirrorplay between text and viewer, troped by the event of presentation. "I," the viewer, authors the reading of the author having read her/himself into performing another authorship for the life of a work whose progeny of readings belongs to its times. 

No wonder that philosophers muse over whether personal identity is the same over time: youth before horror, life surviving time...Picasso performed "Picasso" as neo-Impressionisti, then performed as Cubist. And so on. Who/what is the singularity of the named artist? 

Gerhard Richter sits for an interview, a performance, giving the event its 15 minutes. "You" think it's candor.

Seebald's exit from the stage avows that the story was never about Kurt caring what Seebald saw (a moment in the film, there and gone), because the ultimate plot point is Kurt discovering the redemptive potential of art. "Kurt's life changes" when he gets the revelation of art's redemptive power.

What "I...I...I" wants is the truth of life itself, which art may grant. That's Professor van Verten's point in the film's main lecture scene, which is von Donnersmarck speaking: Art is freedom for the pursuit of truth (though von Donnersmarck gets phony with van Verten's adolescent enflaming of political posters).

Von Donnersmarck is the child of very, very privileged Germans who were part of the generation of denial after the war: in von Donnersmarck's growth, parents probably so conscientious about the German Condition that they lived survivor guilt which the auteur maybe sought to redeem through his own art. 

As Heidegger avowed, 1936—"Art is history, in the essential sense that it is
the ground of history" ("Origin of the Work of Art").