'Never Look Away' Asks: Why Make Art? Who Is It For?

Mar 6, 2019
Originally published on March 6, 2019 12:41 pm

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new film "Never Look Away" is about an artist, a painter, who's first exposed to modern art as a child growing up in Nazi Germany. He's taken by his aunt to an exhibit of modern art that was curated by the Nazis to show what degenerate art looks like - the kind of art the Nazis are banning. By the time the boy is an art student, the Russian Communists have taken over East Germany, where the boy lives. And all art is expected to be propaganda, showing images of happy, working people.

As a young man, he flees to West Germany and attends an art school known to be avant-garde. The artists there consider representational painting, the kind of painting he does, to be obsolete. Implicit in the movie are questions like, why make art? What is art for? And who is it for? The movie is inspired by the life of Gerhard Richter, one of the most famous German painters of his generation.

My guest is the film's writer and director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. His 2006 film, "The Lives Of Others," won an Oscar for best foreign language film. That film was set in East Germany, about a playwright and an officer of the Stasi, the state secret police, who spies on the playwright. The new film "Never Look Away" was nominated for an Oscar.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, welcome to FRESH AIR. The film starts with an exhibit of degenerate art. It's Dresden, 1937. The Nazis have taken power in Germany, and this was an exhibit that actually happened in Nazi Germany when non-representational modern art was considered a threat, was considered subversive, was considered a sign of mental illness. Tell us what you know about this exhibit of degenerate art.

FLORIAN HENCKEL VON DONNERSMARCK: You know, it was one of the most successful exhibits ever staged. Over 2 million people came to see the exhibit. And it was the German government - Goebbels - going into the individual museums - he and his people - and finding art that they considered didn't match the aesthetic ideals of Nazi Germany. So anything that didn't show beautiful, realistic landscapes and people, anything that they didn't consider uplifting was pulled out. And the least craft-like of those artworks were shown in this exhibit for people to make fun of. And in a time of great poverty in Germany, they would put next to each artwork a number of marks that it had cost - so they said, oh, you know, this individual painting here, which only consists of lines and blotches or a blue horse or something ridiculous like that - a guy who can't even get the color of a horse right was paid 2,000 marks for this painting at times where you guys were all starving. It was supposed to really create a hatred of people who didn't toe the party line in arts in Germany. And I think - you know, many people did see it that way.

But one thing that you also find in the biographies of some artists is that many people used it as a last chance to see great and free art because this was amazing art. And then - actually, after that exhibit was done and over 2 million people had seen it, the Nazis sold what they could in Switzerland, and the rest they destroyed. So a lot of these paintings were actually destroyed. And I always felt that it was such a massive cultural loss. And so our painters worked with the archives of these persecuted painters to try and reconstruct the paintings that were shown at that exhibit. So we rebuilt them from little black and white photographs, trying to figure out what colors people had used. And so we really made all those artworks come to life again. So actually, you know, although it's a fairly short scene in just the first few minutes of the movie, it was actually a very complicated production.

GROSS: Because you had to make all the art.

VON DONNERSMARCK: We had to make the art. And actually, now we have to destroy this art. The crazy agreement that we have with the Collecting Society is that after we're done filming, so they don't suddenly appear somewhere as forgeries, we actually have to destroy them again. So I haven't yet found in myself the strength to do it, so they're still in my mom's cellar in Berlin. But at some point, I'm going to have to go down there and destroy them.

GROSS: Why is it so hard for you to destroy - I mean, they are - they're fakes.

VON DONNERSMARCK: Yeah, but they're as close to the real thing as we have. And that's also why they have to be destroyed - because in 50 years' time, someone could find them and think, oh, great. Here is Otto Dix's "War Cripples." It wasn't destroyed after all. Here's the real thing. And suddenly, you have a forgery in circulation. And that's why they want it destroyed. But, you know, I still feel that, you know, there's something - this - these paintings have been destroyed once before. And how we've reconstructed them at great - with great love, and now we have to destroy them again - it's a little sad.

GROSS: What really just strikes me as so odd about the Nazi degenerate art exhibit - I mean, in the - there were very famous artists in there. I think Picasso was in there - right? - and Kandinsky and Paul Klee. How crazy is it to warn people about how horrible this art is when it's, like, great art, and you're exposing people to it who never would've seen it otherwise?

VON DONNERSMARCK: No, it's - I mean, it really is one of the crazy, crazy chapters in art history - I mean, in human history, all of everything having to do with what the Nazis did. When these - for example, the expressionists between the two world wars showed the crime and depravity and despair that was in Germany and made paintings of, you know, prostitutes and terrible living conditions and of murders and of, you know, war cripples. The Nazis said, oh. Well, look. This is what these artists want for our country. This is what they consider beautiful. This is how deranged these people are that that is actually their agenda for Germany, when of course, they were - this was a cry of sorrow and despair. So it's so interesting that they could not even imagine that other people had a completely different philosophy. Not only did they persecute people who thought differently, they couldn't even imagine what it was that led to those different thoughts.

GROSS: But, you know, the thing that you have to say, too, about the degenerate art exhibition is that it showed that the Nazis thought art was really powerful and that that power had to be banned when it was in the hands of artists who they considered, you know, deranged or mentally ill or not politically correct, to put it in today's terms. And it's instilling a lot of power in art when a lot of people are so indifferent to art, they wouldn't have cared one way or another.

VON DONNERSMARCK: No, I mean, I think that's one thing that you find. I mean, in all dictatorships that I've looked at, I find that they have exactly what you're talking about - this fundamental belief that art is something that has to be kept under control. And I thought for a long time, why did these primitive people take art so seriously? It's the last thing that they care about. But I think that in their incredible survival instinct, these dictators know that art has the power to change the way that people see the world. I mean, I've almost come to find that that's the definition of art.

GROSS: Well, you know, a contrast that you make and a similarity that you draw is, you know, that the Nazis are trying to ban art and control art and keep art to, like, realistic, uplifting paintings. And the World War II ends, and then the Russians move in, take over East Germany. And it's very similar. And so the main character, the artist in your movie - first, he sees the German - you know, the Nazi exhibit of decadent art. And then as he becomes an art student, the only thing you're allowed to paint is, like, uplifting things in service of, like, the people with capital letters. And instead of, for instance, like, a nude model for the art students to draw to learn anatomy, they're drawing a man and a woman. One of them's holding a sickle, and the other has a handful of wheat because they're showing, like, the people working in the fields, you know? And so, like, you're - you know, they're in opposition, the Nazis and the communists. They were at war together - you know, the Russians and the Germans. But their attitude toward art is pretty much the same.

VON DONNERSMARCK: Yeah, it's really interesting. I think as soon as you try and control art, art disappears. And, you know, the Nazis had this terrible philosophy of art. And then the communists came to power and said, well, look. We're going to do things all differently from the Nazis. And actually, now, if you look at some of the Nazi paintings and some of the communist paintings, it's almost hard to tell the difference. And they were so convinced they were doing the exact opposite. But what they were doing was just keeping tight control on art and thereby destroying it.

GROSS: And - so there's a third view of art in your movie. You know, the character who is born in Nazi Germany comes of age in East Berlin, then flees to West Berlin. And he goes to an art academy there. He goes to an art academy in Dusseldorf, which is known for being avant-garde. And there he's told painting is passe, especially representational painting. And that's what he does - is representational painting. And the artists there are doing things like art with potatoes or art where you, like - you take an object, and you just nail nails into the whole outside of it so it's a sculpture of nails or taking a canvas and slashing it with paint kind of coming out of the slashed end. And some of this is based on real art. But do you consider that part of art - like, an opening up of art or another version of a shutting down of art because, again, it has a philosophy. And, you know, the philosophy is, in part, anything goes. But the philosophy is also, representational art is dead.

VON DONNERSMARCK: Yeah, I mean, it's - after 1945, for a while in Germany, there was complete confusion over how art could even continue because everything was tainted. There was no way that artists could continue in the tradition of what had come before 1945 because, you know, that had either been tainted by those 12 Nazi years or had been something that led up to those 12 Nazi years.

So I actually saw an exhibit recently of German art from 1945 to, I think, about '55. And it's really one of the most depressing exhibits I ever saw because there was nothing interesting there. And so then the first person, I think, who really changed things around was this great sculptor, philosopher, shaman Joseph Beuys, who said, you know, let's not just throw content overboard. Let's also throw craft overboard. Let's - you know, that might be tainted, too. You know, if you cut out a cancer, you don't just cut out right around the cancer. You go as far as you have to make sure it never comes back.

And so he created a new style of art and then, actually, became a professor of monumental sculpture in Dusseldorf. But these were truly very strange sculptures that were very closely tied to his biography. So one of the stories that he told was that he was shot down as a pilot in World War II and was nursed back to health by indigenous people that found him and wrapped him in felt blankets and covered his wounds with animal fat and grease. And then he made these huge sculptures out of rolls of felt and mountains of animal grease and told this story and, in a way, made you feel his universe the way that he felt it. And that was a very liberating approach. And so people started flocking to Dusseldorf, where he became professor.

And he was this hugely controversial figure. Even when he died in the '80s in Germany, I remember the main headline in the biggest German tabloid paper read (speaking German) - Germany's greatest charlatan has died. So he was this controversial figure, but he encouraged people to use whatever they had. And I think that he became a very important figure in helping Germany rediscover its identity. And, you know, a lot of the great, great names who really mean a lot in the German and now international art world went to Dusseldorf to study there. And the place was greatly influenced by him. And over time, people realized that this philosophy was maybe even useful for places outside of Germany, even if the country had not committed such terrible crimes or if - it was still important to find out who you really were and free yourself from any kind of art historical or government or fashion influence.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. And his new film is called "Never Look Away." He also made the 2006 movie "The Lives Of Others," which won the Oscar for best foreign language film. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is screenwriter and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. His new film "Never Look Away" is set in Germany between 1937 and 1966. And it looks at the life of one artist who is inspired by the German artist Gerhard Richter.

We were talking about Joseph Beuys as being this kind of, you know, radical figure in German art. You have an art professor in your movie in Dusseldorf, who's so modeled on Joseph Beuys that he's even dressed in the kind of khaki vest that you always see in Joseph Beuys photographs with the brimmed hat that he always wore. And he tells the story in the film that you told about being saved by nomadic Tatars after getting shot down in a plane during World War II and getting wrapped in felt and animal fat.

My favorite shot in the movie is when he's delivering a lecture to his lecture class of art students. And on either side of him is an easel - an art easel. And on each easel there's a poster. On one side is the poster of the SPD party and the other side of the CDU party, the opposite - the opposing party. Apparently, there's an election coming up. And the professor asks, who will you vote for, the SPD or the CDU? Then he answers his own question by telling them, never vote for a party again. Vote for art. Only in art is freedom not an illusion. After the Nazi catastrophe, only art can give people back their freedom. If you aren't completely free, then nobody else will be. By making yourselves free, you are liberating the world. You are priests, revolutionaries, liberators. Make your burnt offerings.

And he takes out a cigarette lighter and sets each of these political posters on fire. And so my favorite shot is of the professor with his hands on his hips, standing in the middle of these two posters that he set on fire. Flames are shooting out of the poster. And he's just standing there, staring at his class. And you hold the camera on him for an extended period while that happens. When he sets the posters on fire, did you worry about the fire catching onto anything else?

VON DONNERSMARCK: You know what? It was really - I wanted to hold it really, really long. And I said to the actor, you know what? And, obviously, we had firemen there and people checking the temperature and all that so the actor wouldn't really hurt himself. But I said, you know, try and stay as long as it really doesn't start hurting you because I just really wanted to feel the heat. I wanted to, you know, make it very real. And it was a wonderful theater actor who's been through a lot worse on the theater stage. So...

(LAUGHTER)

VON DONNERSMARCK: He was game for staying quite a while.

GROSS: So you grew up in Germany. I mean, you're German. You live in Germany and LA now, if I have that right.

VON DONNERSMARCK: Actually, no. I live only in LA at the moment.

GROSS: OK.

VON DONNERSMARCK: But for the past two years, I was living in Germany, making this movie.

GROSS: Right. OK. So you were born in 1973 and grew up in West Germany. So you're post-World War II. And your childhood is during the era of the Berlin Wall. And I know you had family in East Germany. So having become an artist yourself, how did the Nazi history of Germany and the communist present of East Germany affect the kind of art you were exposed to and the attitudes toward art that you were exposed to, 'cause attitudes don't die even when regimes change.

VON DONNERSMARCK: Yeah, I mean, it's - in Germany - growing up in Germany - and I grew up mainly in Berlin, so yes, it's, you know - the western part of Berlin, but it's right in the middle of the East. So to get anywhere, you actually have to drive through the East. And you live with the constant presence of the Berlin Wall. You know, you're living with history at every moment. You are - you know, yes, I'm - I was born in 1973, so almost 30 years after the end of the war. But the war is present every single day.

I mean, actually, you know, my first art exhibit was in the Martin-Gropius exhibition hall. I saw a big Picasso show there in - I think it was 1982 or so. And that was still destroyed by the war. The building still had real bomb damage, and the wall went right by there. And you walk through any street in Germany, and you still see the scars of the war everywhere. So you have that present. You live with history in a way that I think you don't in - or with the recent history that I think that you don't in other places that have been around for many hundreds of years.

GROSS: So your movie "Never Look Away" is inspired by the life of the German artist Gerhard Richter, who developed a style of, like, photorealism in which the realism was - I don't know what word to use - a little modeled, a little distorted in the final part of the process. But he has objected to the film. Apparently, you interviewed him for many hours. And once the film came out, he did his best to distance it - distance himself from it, saying things like, you know, it's...

VON DONNERSMARCK: Well, he hasn't seen it. I mean, that's the thing.

GROSS: Oh, he hasn't seen it. Oh. Oh.

VON DONNERSMARCK: No, he hasn't seen it. He didn't like the trailer. That was what I showed him. He didn't like that because he felt it was, you know, kind of too loud or so. I mean, he - I really tried to get him to see the film. I said, you know, you can't judge a film based on its trailer. I mean, he - I kept him informed every step of the way, even read him the script when I was done with it. So - but I'd been warned by his biographer that he always turns on people after opening up to them. The same thing had happened to the biographer, so I was a little bit prepared. I thought it wouldn't really happen to me because I just kept him informed every step of the way, but it did happen.

You know, I think it's too bad he didn't see the film. But in a way, I also understand him because it's about a lot of traumatic things, many of which have happened in his life, also. And if I put myself in that position, quite honestly, of thinking, OK. I'm offered by someone to relive the greatest trauma of my life on screen. I don't know if I'd - if I would want that, you know? You know, would I maybe want to talk through those things with someone who was really interested in getting to the truth of my feelings? Yes - probably yes. So, you know, maybe the film is for everybody except for him.

GROSS: My guest is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, writer and director of the new film "Never Look Away." After we take a short break, we'll talk about how the Nazis forced sterilization program figures into the movie, and we'll hear about von Donnersmarck's family. He comes from a line of counts. His grandfather had a castle, and his uncle was a Cistercian monk. Von Donnersmarck wrote his first screenplay at the monastery. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with screenwriter and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. His first film, "The Lives Of Others," won an Oscar for best foreign language film. His new film, "Never Look Away," is set in Germany between 1937 and 1966. The main character is first exposed to modern art as a child growing up in Nazi Germany, where modern art is considered degenerate and is banned. By the time the boy is an art student, the Russian Communists have taken over East Germany, where the boy lives. And all art is expected to be propaganda. As a young man, he flees to West Germany and attends an art school known to be avant-garde. But the kind of representational painting he does is considered obsolete.

So your movie "Never Look Away" is inspired by the life of the German artist Gerhard Richter. Richter's aunt was killed by the Nazis. And as the aunt is depicted in the film - and you could tell us if this was similar in real life - she suffered from schizophrenia as...

VON DONNERSMARCK: Yes - could've been schizophrenia or a form of bipolar disorder. I mean, all her medical records are still there, but it's not completely clear which of those two illnesses it was.

GROSS: And at the time, the Nazis had a program in which if you were not considered fit for reproduction because of any kind of, you know, mental health issue. Whether they thought that you were, you know, mentally deficient, cognitively, or if you had, like, a mental illness like bipolar or schizophrenia, they would sterilize you so that you couldn't reproduce and ruin the German bloodline. And then often, they would kill you afterwards just to make, like, double sure that you didn't infect, you know...

VON DONNERSMARCK: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Infect Germany. And so you have this happen to her. Did you do a lot of research into this forced sterilization program?

VON DONNERSMARCK: Goodness, yeah. I mean, it was - that was really a very depressing chapter of this. And you know, it only takes up a small part of the film, but it was an important premise. I mean, I took the whole crew to the place where these people were murdered, for instance. You know, it's a research center now, and there are wonderful historians researching this also. I mean, it - number-wise, of course it doesn't approach anything that - of the, you know, murders that came later where the Nazis ended up, you know, committing the greatest history of mankind in murdering the Jewish people.

But this was a little bit of a - you know, like, a miniature dress rehearsal for that. They actually developed a lot of the techniques which were then later used in the Holocaust. They developed those in targeting those who were, you know, mentally disabled and...

GROSS: Like the gas chamber.

VON DONNERSMARCK: ...Also - yes - and also discovered through this that they had to completely keep everything in the hands of the SS. And when this - there was a lot of protest against this murdering of people with these hereditary mental disabilities. And they had to officially shut it down. Of course unofficially it went on, but then they realized, OK, we don't - it's not enough to have it in the furthest eastern corner of the Reich. We have to actually move it further east - and moved it into Poland and put everything in the hands of the SS when they went on to what their main goal was, the murder of Jewish people.

GROSS: So the gas chamber was one of the things that was started for people with mental illness.

VON DONNERSMARCK: Yes. They - that's where they developed all the techniques. Even the exact, you know, crematoria and all that - it's something which has only been - being researched now. But there's a government-funded research center there at Pirna-Sonnenstein. And we had all the historians work on our film, and we reconstructed those things exactly.

And when we shot that one kind of really tough scene of the murder, we actually had those historians there. And we shot it on the day of the remembrance of the victims of the crimes of the Nazis and said, look; let's build a monument to - let's build a monument to these to these victims.

GROSS: You grew up in Germany - in West Germany. Your family, though, was from a part of Germany that became East Germany. When and how did they get out?

VON DONNERSMARCK: So actually I encountered the chapter of how my father got out of - in a massive way while shooting this film because we shot part of it in Poland in an area that's - used to be Germany, is now Poland. And it was a state called Silesia. And when the Russians pushed forward to that part of Germany in 1945, they put up notices because they knew that they wanted to give that part of Germany to Poland as reparation and said - it was at - you know, the morning they put up the notices that anybody who hasn't - who's German and hasn't left this part of the country by noon going west towards the other parts of Germany - and, you know, will be killed.

And you were allowed to take one backpack with you of less than 20 kilograms, and you had to leave the key to your apartment or house or, in the case of my grandfather, castle from the outside in the door. And you were not allowed to take anything. So that's how from one day to the next - my father was 10 years old at the time - you know, lost his whole life and fled to the west. And he actually got lost in this in this chaos. They actually lost him. So he had to make his own way to Bavaria by foot in the craziness of the war. So that was a really very difficult chapter for him. After the war, he lived in - they suddenly lived in really great poverty. And with my mother, it was, you know, not quite as dramatic but also quite dramatic. They also had to flee. So basically I'm from a family of fugitive immigrants within their own country.

But you know, it had one very positive aspect to it in that it really built a lifelong positive attitude towards the United States in our family because my - the Americans, when they took over parts of Germany in 1945, went into the schools and checked the German children for signs of undernourishment and found that my father had these massive signs of undernourishment and actually then came back for a period of two weeks every single day and force fed these children so that they wouldn't die on their watch. And so my father has this, you know, incredibly romantic - or had - he's been dead for 10 years - but this very, very romantic approach about how humanely people can be treated after a war. And I think many Germans experienced that at the hands of Americans.

GROSS: You mentioned your grandfather had a castle...

VON DONNERSMARCK: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: ...Which the family had to flee. Your grandfather was a count.

VON DONNERSMARCK: Yes, that's right. You know, so the - you know, theoretically the monarchy was abolished in 1918. So when my grandfather was 8 years old, he officially lost that title because he was - well, actually, no, a little older - he was from 1905. So when he was 13 years old, he lost the title. But de facto it went on. I mean, even in my passport is still the title graf, which means count.

So I mean, it was played on as a game. You no longer had any legal privilege. We couldn't send people to prison anymore (laughter). I don't know what privileges my great grandfather still had. But you know, he still had the castle, the lands, all the property. And so he was a very, very wealthy man and then from one day to the next became incredibly poor because he truly had everything there in Silesia - the - all of the family's mining industries and agriculture and other companies and real estate. Everything was in Silesia.

In fact shortly before the war, they'd even sold whatever they had in other parts of the world and concentrated all fully in Silesia because it seemed so promising in the industrial age to be right there. But of course then that was lost to Poland. And you know, he knew really what it was to go from great riches to great poverty.

GROSS: Does the castle still exist?

VON DONNERSMARCK: I mean, he had he had a few castles. One of them is still there. The main one was actually destroyed because they were such symbols of a capitalist era - that many of them were just destroyed so as to not remind people of (laughter) a chapter that they wanted to also forget.

GROSS: What was it like for you - what is it like for you to come from a family that was connected to the monarchy and that many people saw as being, you know, an expression of capitalism? I mean, that doesn't strike me as what defines you (laughter), either capitalism or a monarchy. But...

VON DONNERSMARCK: Well, no, no.

GROSS: But you're connected to it.

VON DONNERSMARCK: Yes. I mean, it - I think the one thing that it really does is it gives you a very live aspect, you know, or look into history. So, you know, an aristocratic family is no older than a non-aristocratic family. It's just the one difference is it has been recorded what people did over the centuries. So I can, you know, trace my ancestry back hundreds and hundreds of years and not just, you know, names. But, you know, I have the portraits and, you know, photographs as far as they reach back.

And I know what these people did, what their positions were, how they felt about - I don't know - let's say a war that was going on, how they - I don't know - rebelled against the king here and, you know, were - how - in a way, whenever there's a chapter in European or world history for that matter, I can go back and look, what did my ancestors do at that time? And, you know - and they weren't unbelievably important people. You know, they weren't kings themselves. But they were close to all that. So it gives me a really interesting perspective into history.

GROSS: Since your parents had to flee with just, like, a satchel, who saved the portraits?

VON DONNERSMARCK: (Laughter) You know, it was actually - even though the aristocratic lords were portrayed as these savage exploiters, the population, actually, was very, very happy with the rule of my grandfather and my great-grandfather and, you know, as far back as we can go. And so, actually, the population around there saved these portraits and just hung onto them. And many of them only came back to us after the fall of the wall - can you believe it? - where people then from the communist parts would come and say, hey, look. We saved this portrait for you because my, you know, my grandfather still remembered how kindly you treated him and so on. And some of them came back - even were smuggled back out from the Eastern Bloc even during the Cold War.

So every one of those portraits has a very, very adventurous story. And again, you know, it's living access to history. And just - in a way, if you have that access, you will never fall victim to cliches, you know, because you can always access, you know, historical archives or family stories that have been told over the generations. You can compare them with real history. It gives you a really interesting, I think, perspective, for which I'm grateful. So even if the money's gone (laughter), at least there's that other great treasure.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. He's a screenwriter and director who made the new film "Never Look Away." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEO BLECKMANN & FUMIO YASUDA'S "DIE ALTEN WEISEN")

THEO BLECKMANN: (Vocalizing).

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is screenwriter and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who made the new film "Never Look Away," which is set in Germany from 1937 to 1966 and follows one artist whose life is inspired by the real artist - the real German artist Gerhard Richter. That film was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film. And his first film "The Lives Of Others" won the Oscar for best foreign language film. So, you know, you mentioned your grandfather was a count and had a castle. Is this the same grandfather who was specializing - was a doctor of philosophy and specializing in the work of the Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas?

VON DONNERSMARCK: Yes, yes.

GROSS: And so I read that when - that he was conscripted into the German army. And the first opportunity he had, he surrendered to the Americans. What's the story?

VON DONNERSMARCK: You know, it was just - so he - his industrial and agricultural enterprise was, you know, considered important for the survival of that whole area. So he wasn't conscripted until the very last moment, where they just took in, you know, anyone, including children and senior citizens. And he - you know, he was really - I mean, he was the most peaceful, benign person imaginable. You know, in all the time that I knew him and all the stories that I've heard about him - since no one has ever managed to pick a fight with him. You know, he never - he was just one of those people who was constitutionally incapable of ever being anything other than polite and gentle. And so it was unimaginable to him, you know, to just be involved in any kind of war actions.

And the Americans had a good reputation for treating officers kindly. He was automatically drafted into the army as an officer just by - because of his level of education. And then he - you know, as soon as he was put in uniform, he just - together with a cousin of his, they were - they just, you know, looked on the map to see, where were Americans stationed? - because you didn't want to be caught by Russians (laughter). They had a very different way with German prisoners of war - and made their way through the lines until they found American troops and surrendered to them. That was a fairly common thing at the time. But, you know, luckily, that way he was never in any kind of dangerous situation and, actually, made friendships with his American captors that lasted to the present day.

GROSS: You wrote the first draft of your first film "The Lives Of Others" at a Cistercian monastery in the Vienna woods, where your uncle is the emeritus abbot. And my understanding is that this is an order that practices silence. And I imagine there's a lot of - it sounds like it's a pretty cloistered, you know, monastery. And I'm sure there's, like, some, you know, chanting or meditation involved.

VON DONNERSMARCK: All the time.

GROSS: So what was it like for you to write a film there? And were you - did you observe the silences and meditate and pray with the monks?

VON DONNERSMARCK: Well, you know, it's really a beautiful and magical place, this monastery that was founded in the 12th century and has existed in the exact same way right to the present day. And there has not been a day since - what was it? I think 1190 or something like that where you did not have the exact same routine every single day. Actually, it almost died under the Nazis. They had arrested every single one except one of the monks. But he still kept that going. And then right after the Nazis were driven out, it all came back to full power. So there's an incredible power about the continuity of that observance there. And nothing has changed about the way that they live in those, you know, almost - you know, in those 850 years.

And it's really a perfect place to work. I was given a monk's cell. And all these guys do is work and pray. And no, I didn't pray with them during the time that I was writing it there. But sometimes, I did go to the Gregorian chant prayer. But I said, you know, my prayer is going to be writing this screenplay. And my work is going to be writing this screenplay, but at least I won't be completely alone. You know, I'll get the food that the monks eat there. Monks eat quite well or at least a lot because they don't have that many other sensual pleasures that they can engage in. So very few of them are actually, you know, lean. So I enjoyed that part since I'm not all that lean myself.

And it was a very good place to write. You know, there are just no distractions. You can't go to - I don't know - this dinner party or to, you know - I don't know - that interesting exhibition because there's truly nothing there. And it was a perfect way to focus. I recommend it to anyone. If you know a Cistercian somewhere, they actually have to - the great thing is it's part of the rule of St. Benedict that they have to take in guests. So if you go there and say, hey, will you invite me, they have to say yes. So they're very generous and very nice people. And hospitality is part of their code. So they will take you in. So if any of you want to write a symphony or a screenplay or a novel or just your dissertation, then go to a Benedictine monastery now.

GROSS: Do you think that's better than a writers' colony? (Laughter).

VON DONNERSMARCK: I've never tried a writers' colony. But I could imagine that there would be some kind of - I don't know - you know, let's say competition or dynamics or who is more important or, you know, is this person writing more than I am? In a monastery, you know, they're all praying more than you're writing, so...

GROSS: (Laughter).

VON DONNERSMARCK: You're - you've been outdone from moment one anyway.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the director of the new film "Never Look Away." He also made the 2006 movie "The Lives Of Others," which won the Oscar for best foreign language film. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. His new film "Never Look Away" is set in Germany from 1937 to 1966 and follows one artist whose life is inspired by the real German artist Gerhard Richter.

So I read that you're a sleepwalker. Does that interfere with your life...

VON DONNERSMARCK: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Or your work?

VON DONNERSMARCK: Wow, you really researched very well. I mean, it certainly means that I don't sleep a lot because I'm always vaguely afraid of, you know, just running around or doing crazy stuff in my sleep. So you know, I still have the hope that at some point I'm going to cure that completely, but I haven't fully solved it yet. So yes (laughter), it does interfere with my life.

GROSS: Do you remember sleepwalking episodes, or do they disappear?

VON DONNERSMARCK: Oh, yeah. I mean, you know, it's - I mean, sometimes it's really led to very embarrassing situations. Like, my wife was - headed the international efforts of a big organization called Creative Commons that - you know, for example, Wikipedia is licensed under Creative Commons licenses. And she once had a conference where she invited people from all over the world who were adapting those license that they developed to their respective jurisdictions. And the conference was in Rio. And I went along as a babysitter. This was before "The Lives Of Others."

And we were all staying in this hotel, and I had, you know, my two children in the hotel room. My wife was out at a conference dinner with all these important lawyers from all over the world. And she was coordinating all this and giving the keynote speeches and all that. And suddenly, you know, then I fell asleep and had some kind of sleepwalking incident where I actually left the hotel room in my underwear and went down into the lobby and then found myself really waking up there in the lobby...

GROSS: (Laughter).

VON DONNERSMARCK: ...And had - you know, had nothing on me - no - obviously no identification - couldn't get back into the staircase - but as I'd gone up throughout the staircase because it was closed from that side. So I had to go to the receptionist. I was so praying that none of these lawyers would just show up there and then tell my wife that her husband is crazy or has disgraced her in some form. And then just had to convince them that - and it was also very dangerous. I had my two little children up in the room. And it was - then, actually, finally, I convinced them that they would come with me, you know, to bring me up there. And just as I thought that I'd escaped without anyone seeing, actually, the head of my wife's Japanese team came back early from that dinner and got into the elevator with us and, you know, to his credit, never told my wife a word. But now she knows.

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GROSS: That sounds really horrible.

VON DONNERSMARCK: Yeah, I don't know. I mean - so, you know, it leads to a lot of embarrassing situations. I mean, I never - even as a kid, I was never - you know, freedom we had - at a house that we had, there was this beautiful large, flat roof where - the other kids would sleep up there, and we'd have sleepovers and all that. And I obviously could never stay there because it was just, of course, much too dangerous. And, you know, I like to stay on the ground floor, maybe one floor up so that if something totally crazy happened, you know, at least I wouldn't be dead or something. So, you know, it's a little bit of an annoying thing to be a sleepwalker. But I - you know, I - there's an American comedian who actually had a show. I think he made a movie out of it called...

GROSS: Mike Birbiglia.

VON DONNERSMARCK: Exactly - called "Sleepwalk With Me." And I went to that show because - and, you know, not a single one of the experiences that he describes there was - I mean, I'd been through every single one of those experiences. So I know that I'm not completely alone. And obviously, Birbiglia has never solved it. So, you know, maybe I will. But if not, it's - it gets a little less as you age - a little bit. You know, I used to have it several times a week. Now, maybe I have it, you know, maybe once a month or so.

GROSS: All right. It's been so great to talk with you. And congratulations on your film.

VON DONNERSMARCK: Oh, thank you very much, Terry. I really enjoyed our conversation. Thanks.

GROSS: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck wrote and directed the new film "Never Look Away." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer. Her new article is about the close relationship between Fox News and the Trump White House. One of her revelations is that Fox News killed a story right before the 2016 election about Trump's relationship with Stormy Daniels. The story was squashed to help Trump win the election. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.