VENICE, ITALY - The maker of The Lives of Others returns to divided 20th-century Germany in Never Look Away, a film that premiered in Venice on Tuesday and is already being talked about as his second potential Oscar winner.
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose last film, The Tourist, starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, was panned by the critics, is back with Never Look Away, about a struggling artist in Nazi, and then Communist, eastern Germany.
The three-hour epic begins in 1930s Dresden where a young boy's innate artistic talent is spotted by his sensitive aunt, whose own free-spiritedness proves too much for the Nazis.
The boy, Kurt, survives the oppression and the bombing of World War II, but as a grown-up artist in East Germany is forced to conform to Socialist Realism — painting murals of revolutionary peasants singing the praises of the Motherland.
After fleeing to the West he is equally unimpressed by the fatuous conceptualist art then in vogue, and struggles to find his own vision.
At the heart of the film, which spans four decades, is his love for Ellie, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy family with which, he later realizes, his life is already fatefully entwined.
For Henckel von Donnersmarck, who was born in West Germany in 1973 and grew up in the United States, World War II and the subsequent division of Germany provide rich pickings.
"Our country was actually divided, and then our capital was again divided in two. It was like one of those Russian dolls," he told Reuters in an interview.
"So I thought: Let's go down right to an actual family and see how within one family drama you have the murderers and the victims, and the Nazis and those whom they abused and killed and destroyed, living under one roof — because that's a little bit how it was in Germany [after the war]."
Language as weapon
Sebastian Koch, who since acting in The Lives of Others has appeared in Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies and the TV series Homeland, plays Carl Seeband in Never Look Away, a supercilious doctor who even when being interrogated by the Red Army insists on being addressed by his title "professor."
"His language is a weapon — he can destroy people with language," Koch told Reuters. "That is intriguing to play, as it's the opposite to what I am like. ... This is quite fascinating as an actor to build such a person without slipping into a caricature."
Germany has selected Never Look Away as its entry for next year's Foreign Language Oscar, which The Lives of Others won in 2006.
Henckel von Donnersmarck, who finished the film only days before its world premiere, said the pressure is now off him, and any awards prospects are out of his control.
"I feel happy and honored, of course," he said. "But, you know, I'm confident that we don't stand a chance!"
Never Look Away is one of 21 films vying for the Golden Lion, which will be awarded at the end of the Venice Film Festival on Saturday.