A number of people have asked me over the past weeks if I have seen the “film about Gerhard Richter.” Having read the article about the film and its maker in the New Yorker some months ago, I was not expecting a film about Gerhard Richter, and had all but forgotten it until everyone started asking me. Encouraged by one of my film scholar friends, I thought maybe I should see Werke ohne Autor. I dutifully sat through over three hours of film in the middle of the heatwave, thinking at least I would be in the air-conditioning for a night. To be honest, there are few other reasons to see the film, and little to recommend it.
Werk Ohne Autor is not a particularly good film, it’s not a particularly interesting film, and it’s certainly not the kind of film that I am drawn to write on. Far from it. That said, I feel compelled to set the record straight about the film’s relationship to Gerhard Richter. Yes, it makes obvious references to the work and life of the artist, but I can’t imagine anyone interested in his work, or painting in general, or film as an art form for that matter, having any interest in Werk ohne Autor.
Before I elaborate, there was one scene I really loved. At the beginning of the second part (it was shown in two parts here in France), the young protagonist attends an open day at the Düsseldorf Art Academy in 1961. As the young man is guided by a would be fellow student through studios filled with paintings, sculptures, happenings and installations, we get a sense of the radicality of the Academy under Joseph Beuys at this time. The protagonist has been in East Germany, painting Socialist Realist murals, and as he steps into the Düsseldorf Art Academy, we see the weird and wonderful experiments of art students without limitations. The sense of excitement and possibility that is so diametrically opposed to art education in the Soviet sector of Germany in the immediate post war years is vividly captured in this one sequence. The striking contrast reminded me of how artists such as Beuys and later Richter, and for example, Sigmar Polke, really did change the face of modern art in their day.
This one sequence aside, much about the film irritated me, including the love story, the use of the child’s deliberate blurring of his vision as a preface to what we know will be a reference to Richter’s blurred paintings in later life. The idea that a particular moment in the young Richter’s life, or a particular way of seeing things somehow causally informed the photo-paintings is, of course, anathema to Richter’s whole aesthetic. The opportunistic use of events from Gerhard Richter’s life—such as the bombing of Dresden, his Aunt’s murder by the Nazis, and so on—blown up to become causal explanations of the main character’s artistic journey is, in fact, offensive. Even to call it an artistic journey is giving the film too much credit, because there is no real character development: the protagonist goes form painting benign and meaningless marks on a canvas to deeply emotional, profound images of German history – lifted from Richter’s own oeuvre – overnight. To be sure the whole film will grate on the nerves of anyone who knows anything about film, whether or not they know anything about Richter’s life and artistic development.
Even though the film liberally borrows some details from Richter’s life and totally misinterprets others, Werk Ohne Autor has nothing to do with Richter. In reality, the aesthetic, sensibility and interpretation of Richter’s oeuvre and individual works are built on ambiguity and continual evasion. These qualities have been reinforced by the artist’s reticence to talk about his work over a lifetime. All in all, Werk Ohne Autor with its romance, drama, feel good music and cause an effect narrative not only has little integrity as a film, but it has nothing to do with Richter’s life or his painting.