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Gerhard Richter feels 'abused' by Germany's Oscar entry

Katharina Abel sh
January 22, 2019

Up for two Oscars, the film Never Look Away is officially about an artist of another name, but the German painter feels it's still too close to his life story and that it "grossly distorts" it, he told The New Yorker.

Werk ohne Autor
Image: Buena Vista International/Pergamon Film/Wiedemann & Berg Filmproduktion

The film Never Look Away, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is Germany's entry for the best foreign language film at the Oscars. After making it onto the shortlist of nine works in December, it was among the nominees revealed by the Academy on Tuesday. It also obtained a second nomination for best cinematography.

The film tells the story of a painter named Kurt Barnert, who grew up during the Nazi era. The artist celebrated his first successes in the GDR, and then escaped to West Germany to make a fresh start. The epic story is based in part on the life of German painter Gerhard Richter, who is one of the most expensive living artists.

As soon as the film was released in German theaters last October, Richter was quick to distance himself from it.

At the time, he told the German Press Agency dpa that he found it "too thriller-like," even though he also admitted he had not seen the film "for practical reasons." "At my age, I can't get through a three-and-a-half-hour film," the 86-year-old artist explained. However, he felt the trailer the director showed him was enough.

Now, in a profile of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck in the US magazine The New Yorker published ahead of the Oscar nominations, Richter sharpened his critique of the filmmaker best known for his 2006 Oscar-winning film, The Lives of Others.

Gerhard Richter
The artist Gerhard Richter Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Kahnert

'I told him clearly I would not approve'

The article details how Richter met with director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck several times before the film was made to talk to him about his life. The director claimed to have let Richter read parts of the script as well. According to Henckel von Donnersmarck, Richter liked it and even offered to make special paintings for the film.

But Richter has another story to tell: "…soon after his first or second visit I told him clearly that I would not approve of a movie about Gerhard Richter," the painter wrote in a statement requested by The New Yorker. "I also suggested that the protagonist might have another profession, like a writer or a musician for example, as the family history that he wanted to tell did not necessarily need a painter as such. He left all his options open and I gave him something in writing stating that he was explicitly not allowed to use or publish either my name or any of my paintings. He reassured me to respect my wishes."

Henckel von Donnersmarck shows understanding

Richter feels deceived by the director: "But in reality, he has done everything to link my name to his movie, and the press was helping him to the best of its ability. Fortunately, the most important newspapers here reviewed his concoction very skeptically and critically. Nevertheless, he managed to abuse and grossly distort my biography! I don't want to say more about this," he wrote to the magazine.

Henckel von Donnersmarck was surprised by this reaction, but also expressed understanding for the artist: "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, because it would be so close to these painful chapters in my life, or it would be painful because it was not close enough," he told The New Yorker. Richter's story is complex and difficult; Donnersmarck could not really blame him for wanting to stay in control. His conclusion: "Maybe the movie is for everybody except him."

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck Image: picture alliance/dpa/M. Balk