How did Caleb Deschanel end up being the cinematographer on “Never Look Away,” Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s three-hour-plus German-language film?
“I had known Florian for a number of years because we had been on some various committees at the academy,” Deschanel shared at Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Cinematographers panel, moderated by this author (watch above). “He had met with Gerhard Richter, the painter, and he had done a lot of interviews with him and he was really fascinated by his life. He then called me and we met and we sat down for about four hours and he sort of told me this story and it was before he had written the script, but I was really fascinated by this character.”
Inspired by Richter’s life, “Never Look Away” tells the fictional story of a painter, Kurt (Tom Schilling), who grew up in Dresden, Germany, during World War II, and struggles to find his artistic voice in post-war East Germany. Along the way, he falls in love with a fashion student, Ellie (Paula Beer), unaware of their shared history: Her father, Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a renowned gynecologist, had sent Kurt’s schizophrenic aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) to her death under Nazi eugenics policies.
SEE Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (‘Never Look Away’ director) on the resilience of art and the rise of right-wing nationalism [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]
Despite the dark elements of the story, the film, shot like a painting, glows with luminous lighting throughout, including the first section, which takes place in Nazi Germany. Deschanel — a five-time Oscar nominee for “The Right Stuff” (1983), “The Natural” (1984), “Fly Away Home” (1996), “The Patriot” (2000) and “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) — didn’t want to use a dark palette because evil “lurks underneath things.”
“The first scene is in this Degenerate Art exhibit. Hitler had deemed a lot of the great art of the 20th century to be degenerate art and didn’t want to have anything to do with it and was much more interested in representational art. It kind of sets the stage for where things go,” he said. “Just like you don’t expose evil in an obvious way as evil. It sort of lurks underneath things in a way. The evil really comes out of the characters in the way they behave and that was the core of what the film is about.”
Kurt eventually has his artistic breakthrough at the end of the film in an extended sequence in an art studio that involves paintings, photographs, projectors and large window shutters that he — and the wind — repeatedly opened and closed. And it was as complicated to shoot and light as it sounds.
“That was the part that really scared me when we were starting the movie. How were we going to do that? It’s a long sequence and to this day I still get goosebumps when I see it and the way Florian put it together with the music and everything else,” Deschanel said. “When we finally did it and got all the pieces, I mean, it took days to get because it took so many pieces of painting to tell that story and you’re always worried about some critic at some point seeing the movie going, ‘It’s like watching paint dry’ or something. Because it is about painting, but it’s about discovery in painting and it’s kind of the joy of the discovery of who you are as an artist after a long struggle with a lot of failed attempts.”
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