Friday, November 06, 2020

Schwochow’s The German Lesson

The National Socialists were harsh art critics, whose tastes were highly suspect. Now it is a badge of honor, but the artists whose work they dubbed “Degenerate” faced professional hardship and even personal peril. Max Ludwig Nansen is one such artist. He has been officially prohibited from painting and his old friend Jens Ole Jepsen willingly enforces the edict. The resulting resentment, tragedy, and bad karma will envelop everyone close to them, especially Jepsen’s son Siggi, in Christian Schwochow’s English language adaptation of Siegfried Lenz’s classic post-war novel, The German Lesson, which releases digitally today.

The war is over and twenty-something Siggi is undergoing some strict rehabilitation. As part of the program, he must write an essay on the joys of duty, with respects to German citizenship (hence the title). The disgraced Siggi embraces the task, with excessive and obsessive zeal. Most of the film flashbacks to the war years, to explain how he reached this point.

As a child, he considered Nansen, the gifted but suspiciously bohemian artist more of a father-figure than his own martinet father, a true-believing local National Socialist official. Nansen was once close friends with his father. The artist even saved the latter’s life years ago. However, the elder Jepsen almost fetishizes authoritarian conceptions of duty and loyalty, so he consequently turned against his friend. Yet, in their small northern coastal town, it is hard to avoid each other, especially when the rest of Jepsen’s family maintains bonds of friendship with Nansen and his ailing wife. Of course, bitterness builds in all quarters when the elder Jepsen suspects the Nansens of harboring his oldest son, an army deserter.

At various junctures, young Siggi’s naivete and carelessness make matters worse for Nansen. Yet, he retains a love of art (especially the modern variety) instilled in him during their painting lessons. He is not his father’s son, so to speak, but his dysfunctional formative years take a toll. Frankly, he could probably use some kind of rehab.

Lenz’s source novel enjoys a lofty reputation in Germany, but it is not so well-known here in America, giving us a fresher slate to judge Schwochnow’s adaptation, written by his screenwriter mother, Heide. In terms of theme and subject matter,
German Lesson sounds comparable to Never Look Away, with a Max Beckmann-figure (at least in terms of  style) replacing the Gerhard Richter-Sigmar Polke composite, but Donnersmarck’s film was grander and far more emotionally resonant.

In contrast,
German Lesson is a darker, murkier exploration of the German national character, during its worst historical moments, like The Reader, but with a better developed moral-ethical sensibility. There is never any sympathy expressed for the abusive elder Jepsen. Indeed, the film’s depiction of censorship and the confiscation of art produces visceral outrage.

Tobias Moretti and Ulrich Noethen are terrific as Nansen and Jepsen. The clash mightily, but like all characters from high tragedy, they are often their own worst enemies. Yet, they are both comes across as tangibly real. You can tell by watching them they represent hundreds of Germans, who were very much like them. They definitely give the film its fire and fury, while Johanna Wokalek adds poignant pathos as Nansen’s long-suffering wife, Ditte.

The German Lesson
is an easy film to admire and a hard film to love. It is an uncompromising indictment that leaves little for viewers to put their faith in, except maybe the enduring value of art. Schwochow’s international rep is on the rise, but his best work has still been produced for television (namely The Tower and Bad Banks). Respectfully recommended, The German Lesson releases today (11/6) on VOD.