Over three hours long, “Never Look Away” is good enough that one never wishes to glance away. Immersive in scope and mesmerizing in tone, this film covers a timeframe from 1937 Dresden to 1966 Düsseldorf. German director and writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck bases his tale loosely on painter Gethard Richter. Though this art-themed-thriller-cum-love-story is not a bio-pic, Richter chose to distance himself from the film. Ironically, his natural reticence can be seen in the film’s ending interview scene.
Philosophically, “Never Look Away” becomes a treatise on how to confront evil through the truth of art. Our protagonist, Kurt Barnert, is six-years-old. He still has his baby teeth when his Aunt Elizabeth takes him to see the abstract art of Russian Wassily Kandinsky and other expressionists. Elizabeth wants to encourage and inspire. The docent giving the tour mocks the art as degenerate. The 1933 Exhibition is titled “ Degenerate Art” and shown to tout the superior values of the German State. Their art outing sets up the social divide: Nazi social realism versus free expressionism. One of my favorite frames is when the young Kurt, played extraordinarily by Cai Cohrs , stares into the deep recesses of a sculpture’s eyes. The docent remarks that this art just ” pesters the nation with non-sense.” Soon Nazi nonsense is mocked by Johann, Kurt’s father, as he substitutes ” Heil Hitler” with ” Three Liters” when forced to salute.
Saskis Rosendahl is equally mesmerizing as Kurt’s Aunt Elizabeth May. Her nude scenes are remarkable. Her schizophrenic joy with her flashing eyes and devilish smile are memorable. Her surface feelings so acute that bus horns produce a twirling dervish of ecstasy .
Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel captures this all in a warm, water-colored blur that is a symphony of art itself.
If Elizabeth is an unstable sensualist, her head-banging and straight-jacketed ambulance ride lead us back to the film’s title, “Never Look Away”. Eugenics and forced sterilization, institutionalization and euthanasia, power and responsibility, and life and art are all thematic elements.
Sebastian Koch is former Nazi Carl Seeband. He escapes international trials by successfully delivering a distressed baby for a Russian commander. Having saved the Russian’s wife and child, the former S.S. Commander, Carl, is allowed to escape punishment.
The two lovers Ellie Seeband ( Paula Beer) and Kurt Barnert ( Tom Schilling) center the film. As the designer seamstress and art student romance, Ellie’s father finds Kurt’s genetic line dotted with mental illness and suicide reason enough to abort their child. Ellie and Kurt marry, anyway, and finish school. Ellie tells Kurt that his paintings will be their children. They escape to West Germany, where Kurt’s mentor tells his artists that they are liberators, priests, and revolutionaries.
Ellie’s father torments Kurt by commenting on his still being a student at thirty. He takes on a part-time job as a janitor, as did his father. He struggles with his art. Blank canvases ensue. His father-in-law labels them ” allegories of emptiness”. Retribution comes when Nazi hunters find Doctor Carl and label him as one of the ” murderers of the sick”, judge of ” meaningless lives”.
Max Richter’s score is transcendent. Art becomes a way to confront evil. ” Never Look Away” leaves you in a trance-like state that promotes the creative life.