I spent most of the film’s duration questioning what is true and what is not. Going into the film and only knowing that it is based on the life of German artist Gerhard Richter, I was confused as to why they were referring to the protagonist as Kurt Barnert, instead of Gerhard Richter. I knew little about the artist and assumed this name to be a pseudonym of sorts and that the name Richter would later emerge. But it is never uttered. Richter didn’t allow it. He, along with director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck agreed to never reveal what is truth and what is fiction.
This film was to be about Germany before, during, and after WWII and the way art and artists shaped and responded to the world around them. The protagonist is based on Richter and his work — but it isn’t about him, at least not always. Untangling what actually happened and what is made up, or who existed and who did not, is part of the experience the film offers, and partly why it is frustrating — in an oddly satisfying way — to think and write about. Because of this, I may refer to Barnert/Richter as separate identities, as the fictional or real respectively, or as a single identity - when fiction and reality collapse and become inseparable and unknowable.
In many ways, both Richter and Donnersmarck are polar opposites. The latter is a storyteller who uses the medium of cinema to clarify narrative truths while the former has dedicated his life on making work that is about unclarity. Richter became famous for his photo paintings in which he would take images from a family album, a magazine clipping, or a newspaper article and then repaint them. He became a master in painting photorealistic paintings through his work as a social-realist propaganda painter in East Germany. In the film, this job didn’t grant Barnert/Richter artistic satisfaction so he escapes to the West to study modern art.
A few hopeless attempts at finding his artistic voice leads to a breakthrough shown in a scene that is without dialogue, relying only on actor Tom Schilling (as Barnert) to convey these revelations with his revealing facial expressions. He physically rejects the notion of “realism” by blurring his photorealistic repainting with a dry brush. The image is given the texture of a fading memory. A quality that perhaps makes the image more truthful. When these paintings were exhibited Richter said that the subjects were random and were not autobiographical. Barnert maintains this reticence in the film. But this is untrue.
A painting, in this blurred photorealistic style, is initially given the generic title of “Mother and Child”. It shows a young woman with an infant on her lap. It was later retitled by Richter as “Aunt Marianne”, revealing the personal history behind the image. He later discloses that the baby in the picture was him. And this is where the film begins with Barnert as a little boy witnessing his Aunt Marianne get dragged away by the Nazis for being mentally unstable. Donnersmarck is looking for the story behind the pigments and canvas. Richter’s paintings and his life become fodder for fiction. Donnersmarck transposes Richter’s story within a film that is explicitly fictional, in other words, it’s a narrative that is removed from reality because it is tethered to the conventions of genre: biopic, romance, war movie — so that when Barnert has an artistic revelation, it is Richter’s “artistic revelation”, or when Barnert falls in love, it is Richter “falling in love”.
There is an artificiality to this depiction, a deliberate and necessary contrivance that works to serve the story by making it more compelling. In this way, the narrative is engrossing and well-oiled; it flows well and the competing genres and tones work harmoniously. This approach may not work in most movies but with Donnersmarck’s careful and precise direction, moments of melodrama (complete with crescendoing scores and dramatic reveals) can sit next to confronting scenes of wartime inhumanity which then makes room for lovingly rendered scenes of art-making and love-making. The film’s fictive qualities work because Donnersmarck knows where the drama lies. With a film that is over three hours long, he uses this time to uncover the curious aspects of each character for the audience to care enough so that we are willing to suspend disbelief. He weaves real life with fiction to produce drama and uses the paintings themselves as kernels for stories, imagining who the subjects are and their significance to their painter.
A part of me would have liked Richter’s paintings maintain their aura of mystery but in Donnersmarck’s attempt at elucidating them, making the paintings unreticent, making them alive through cinema, he has achieved the opposite — he has added to the accumulation of myths. By adding layers of half-truths, he further disguises what is actually true. Like Richter’s photo paintings, the film is a simulacra of Richter’s life. The real thing, like with any retelling of a person’s life, is out of our reach — guarded fiercely by the person themselves.
That is not to say Donnersmarck’s film is futile - just that their approach in finding the truth are radically different. The subject and the filmmaker are treading on bifurcated paths. One is in search of truth by coming out of focus: unclarity, abstraction, ambiguity. While the other is coming into focus: clarity, actuality, explicitness. Both approaches are legitimate. What one sees with their own eyes may not seem truthful or “real” but it is important to keep looking, because perhaps unbeknownst to the beholder in that instance and, perhaps by chance, they have actually come face-to-face with the truth.