After following his Oscar-winning masterpiece The Lives of Others with the Johnny Depp/Angelina Jolie infamous flop The Tourist, Florian Henckel van Donnersmarck returns to soaring form with Never Look Away – a drama spanning three eras of German history through the eyes of Kurt Barnert, a character based on the acclaimed artist Gerard Richter.
Opening in 1937 Dresden, the 6-year-old Kurt visits Joseph Goebbels’ Degenerate Art exhibition with his freethinking Aunt Elisabeth; played by Saskia Rosendahl in a short but affecting performance. She advises him to “never look away” from horror or beauty because both contain elements of truth. When Elisabeth shows signs of mental health issues, she is taken away to be ‘sterilised’ by the horrifying Nazi Euthanasia program – a tragedy that will have a profound and latent effect on Kurt and his artistic aspirations.
We then follow Kurt’s (played as an adult by Tom Schilling) career arc through Nazism, the Second World War and Communist occupancy in Germany. It also details his romance with fashion student Ellie (Paula Beer) – a relationship resented by her father (Sebastian Koch) who harbours an unforgivable crime.
Koch, who featured in The Lives of Others, is brilliant as Professor Seeband, a revered physician who refers to his daughter’s boyfriend as being not of “the genetic material I want for our descendants”. His nuances of behaviour are captured so well that you can feel his hatred for Kurt emanating from the screen.
Although a familiarity with Gerard Richter is not necessary, it does bring interesting weight to the film. Donnersmarck was inspired by an investigative article on Richter and the true nature of his photorealistic painting period and mysterious ‘blurring’ technique. After meeting with the artist over the course of several months and forming a friendship, he came up with the eventual script for Never Look Away. Richter has since gone on to publicly disown the film for grossly distorting his biography. Which is rather appropriate, given that the film’s German title translates to “Work Without Author”.
Despite his subject’s disapproval, Donnersmarck’s 189-minute film covers substantial moral ground and addresses a totalitarian society whereby people, even monsters, reinvent themselves to assimilate into its changing landscape and ideologies. This is what permeates Kurt’s journey, as he moves from socialist realism in East Germany to modern art in West Germany and begins to channel repressed memories and generations of trauma into his work.
Praise must also go out to Caleb Deschanel’s gorgeous Oscar-nominated cinematography; from POV shots of a young Kurt trying to obscure traumatising sights with his hand, to a flowing single take through the avant-garde Kunstakademie Academy in Düsseldorf.
Regardless of whether you take on board the parallels to Richter’s life (Donnersmarck has recently remarked that the film is perhaps ‘for everyone except him’), the irony of the film’s title is that you’ll be glued to the screen throughout its epic running time.
Never Look Away stands as both a stirring historical drama and meditation on creativity and art, flanked by outstanding direction and intimate performances.