"The Silence of Innocence" – the Artist Gottfried Helnwein

"Helnwein - The Silence Of Innocence" (Claudia Schmid, Germany 2008, 116 min), has been selected for the 24th international Munich Documentary Filmfestival. Uncompromising, shocking images that bore deep into our collective subconscious and confront our greatest fears – the unihibited creative talent of artist Gottfried Helnwein.

For more than 30 years, Gottfried Helnwein has been one of the best-known and, at the same time, most controversial German-speaking artists of the post-war period. His works are in demand at the world’s most renowned museums and his exhibitions attract large numbers of visitors. Ranging from hyper-realistic depictions of tortured girls in the 1970s to the paintings and photographs of today, his work shocks, fascinates and moves a global public.

Gottfried Helnwein is an artist of clear statements, uninhibited and idiosyncratic. He almost always confronts observers with the dark sides of human nature, the manifestation of violence and power. His central theme is the child as an injured and abused being. The artist uses the fate of the child to bring before our eyes the human capacity for suffering and makes the observer a passive, and indeed active, accomplice. In his self-portraits, he represents the artist as a martyr allied with the child. His images penetrate into the subconscious and awaken the individual horror images of both the beholder’s own, and collective history. The viewer can hardly escape the fascination evoked by the detailed precision of the photography combined with the inner light of the old masters.

Gottfried Helnwein, born in 1948, grew up in the sombre Vienna of the post-war period. His childhood was marked by strict Catholicism – a world full of mises-en-scène for guilt and penitence, torture and blood, wounds and martyrdom. For him, colours initially only existed in the Catholic Church’s depictions of torture and suffering, until he discovered the colourful stories of Donald Duck and Duckburg that would change his life. Helnwein led the life of an outsider, giving repeated offence and receiving no answer to his questions about life. Society’s silence about the National Socialist period and the associated burden of guilt fascinated him even as a child. As a schoolboy, he occupied himself insistently with the National Socialist legacy and the cruel mechanisms of fascism. As an artist, he then designed an installation relating to the Kristallnacht, using children’s faces.

Gottfried Helnwein is a political artist. Confrontation with history and current politics and society pervades his entire work: global wars, Americanism, globalisation, capitalism, genetic engineering and violence in the virtual worlds are central themes in his works, which unite extreme contradictions: The triviality of Disney culture, for example, alternates with eschatological visions. The purity of the child is contrasted with horrific representations of child abuse. Despite the suffering, his later pictures exude a silence full of poetic beauty. In addition to drawing, painting, photography and installations, Helnwein has also designed stage sets and costumes for theatre and opera.

The filmmaker Claudia Schmid accompanied Gottfried Helnwein for two years and observed him in various creative processes in his castle in Ireland and his studio in Los Angeles. The film provides a sensitive insight into the intensity of the artistic process and into Helnwein’s personal environment, which also includes the friendship with the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is among the collectors of his work. The combination of observation on film with discussions about art, politics and society creates a compact portrait of a radical and uncompromising free spirit of today.

Director: Claudia Schmid
Photographer: Susu Grunenberg
Sound: Jens Krähnke
Editor: Kawe Vakil
Production Manager: Monika Mack
Producer: Birgit Schulz
Commissioning Editor: Reinhard Wulf (WDR)