Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: 'I believe fiction can bring you closer to truth than facts'
Oscar-winning director discusses his third feature film which chronicles the life of a talented painter in East Germany under Nazi rule
'I try and choose movies or what to pursue based on what I think will make me feel alive while I make them,' says Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. With his third movie, Never Look Away, opening in the UK this week, the German director has already enjoyed a considerable ride. His masterly 2006 debut, The Lives of Others, about Stasi surveillance, won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Movie.
Then he made The Tourist, a much-reviled action-romance with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. To his credit, Donnersmarck hasn't disowned it. He'd wanted to do something light after the death of friend and Lives… star Ulrich Mühe, he explains. 'The highly cultured critics came into it expecting another Lives of Others,' he laughs. 'They're expecting a main course and they're being given a dessert! Problem is I hadn't been taking any orders!'
At 6ft 9in tall, and with a shock of curly hair, the 46 year-old Donnersmarck is as flamboyant-looking as his name suggests. But as a man that speaks five languages and traces his noble ancestry back 600 years, he's also the real deal. Never Look Away, a three-hour epic drama that returns him to German-language cinema after The Tourist, was again Oscar-nominated – for Best Foreign Language and Best Cinematography.
The story spans 30 years of mid-20th Century German history, telling of artist Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), who falls for Ellie (Paula Beer) whose father, Professor Carl Seeband (Koch), is a former Nazi eugenicist. The twist – revealed early – is that, unbeknownst to Kurt, the not-so-good doctor was responsible for signing off on the sterilisation and murder of his schizophrenic Aunt Elisabeth during WW2. Intriguingly, the plot took inspiration from the life of the 87-year-old painter Gerhard Richter.
Introduced to Richter's art by Mühe, Donnersmarck later met Richter biographer Jürgen Schreiber. Famously depicted holding him as a baby in 1965 painting 'Aunt Marianne', Richter's own aunt was 'killed by the Nazis' 20 years earlier. Shockingly, it was only through Schreiber's 2002 book that Richter discovered his late first wife's father 'was part of this euthanasia programme', adds the director. 'But if you look at his paintings, it's all there.'
Approaching the aged Richter, Donnersmarck – who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and children – spent time with him in Cologne. 'He thought it was an interesting project, because it wasn't a biography but inspired by some facts by his life.' But more recently, Richter has turned his back on the film. In a New Yorker article, when quizzed, the artist referred to 'my dislike of both the movie and the person [Donnersmarck].'
It's hard to know what rubbed Richter the wrong way. Dubbed 'highly intelligent, so smart, so sensitive' by Koch, Donnersmarck is also honest about his intent in using Richter's story as a springboard. 'I believe in fiction. I believe fiction can bring you closer to truth than facts. Facts are a little bit messy and too much subject to coincidences,' he says. 'I wanted this to be a more general story about our country [Germany], about life, about art.' Now his canvas is ready for everyone to see.
Selected release from Fri 5 Jul.