Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s ambitious three-hour pre- and post-WWII epic has the rare and curious distinction of opening with a villain-speech that’s actually supposed to inform your experience of the film: a Nazi docent’s lecture during a 1937 exhibit in a Dresden museum focusing on so-called Degenerate Art. Why degenerate? For one thing, it fails to "elevate the soul" by upholding the "timeless values" that built Western civilization — well, German civilization, anyway. This gets at the film’s great theme, the thing that makes it ambitious: what is art for? (Our eventual hero, who attends the exhibit as a child, spends his young life as a painter grappling with the question, first as a Soviet propagandist and later as a capitalist huckster.)
But then the docent makes things personal: why would anyone paint a yellow sky when the sky is clearly blue? Such artists, he contends, are either sick or perverse: either they see yellow where there is actually blue, or they are willing to lie about what they see. Madmen or bad men; either way, there’s no sense is paying attention. This does raise the question of why the high-minded docent is giving a tour of perverted work to the public, but never mind that. Focus instead on the historical sweep, the high melodrama, the tender romance, the banal evil, and the eventual triumph of the human spirit. It turns out art is for processing and sharing human experience - who knew?
If that sounds a trifle dismissive, it’s only because the film doesn’t quite live up to its lofty aspirations, even as it ties its artistic considerations in with nightmarish decisions such as sterilizing and euthanizing mental defectives. (You know, the sort of people who might say the sky is yellow. Or breed burdens to society.)