“Never Look Away”

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.

“Frantz”

Cinematographer Pascal Marti gives us cobblestoned markets, highly romantic lake scenes, and 1918 postwar strivings that are uplifting and haunting. A cemetery, a parlor, and a bar are reoccurring sites that are exquisitely filmed in gradations of gray. If the images and the story are lovely, this period piece is even more elevated by the acting of Paula Beer. Director Francois Ozon has centered his film on her, the German female protagonist, rather than the French soldier, Adrian ( Pierre Niney) , who attempts to gain solace as he claims to have been close school friends with her dead fiancé, Frantz Hoffmeister.

The source material for “Frantz” is the play, ” The Man I Killed”, by Maurice Rostand ( 1891-1968 ). In 1932, director Ernst  Lubitsch adapted  the story in his film ” Broken Lullaby”, starring Lionel Barrymore. Eighty years later, writer -director Francois Ozon collaborates with writer Philippe Piazzo using the same Rostand tale. Ozon films an anti-war themed romance that shows that forgiveness is more important as a virtue than nationalism.

We are in the small German town of Quedlinburg in the cradle of the German Reich. In the Bode River Valley, with the Harz Mountains to the South, Quedlinburg is one of the best preserved medieval and Renaissance towns in Europe. Marti makes good use of his lens in capturing the ancient facades of Abbey and stonework. Black and white with alternating color frames are used. Some flashbacks are in color, but I saw no pattern kept. Stark black and white and muted tints fade and bleed into each other, like the psychological scars of war.

Beer, only twenty-two, is stunning as the would-have-been bride, Anna.  She lives with her would-have-been in-laws as they all grieve their fallen soldier. A year has passed, and Anna is in resigned peace, more then emotional turmoil. She visits Frantz’s grave daily and leaves fresh flowers. She strides down cobblestoned streets with the clomp of a soldier herself.

Ozon, who has done erotic thrillers like ” The Swimming Pool” ( 2005) with Charlotte Rampling, takes a tender, Truffaut-like stubbornness to the screen here. Anna reminds me of his ” Adele H”, ready to sacrifice all for her man~ even one that may not be worthy of her. Edouard Manet’s painting ” Le Suicide”, will have a different reason to be included in ” Frantz”.

Anna has quit her studies and lost her will, yet she is self-possessed enough to use a sharp tongue toward Mr.Kreutz, an intrepid suitor. When Adrian regales her and Frantz’s parents with “stories from Paris”, he brings some comfort. In his hotel room mirror, he sees himself as Frantz.

Anna takes Adrian to the river bank where Frantz proposed. In a sensual scene Adrian stripes to his underwear and swims. Anna sees the scars of a wound on his stomach, and hears him say that his only wound is Frantz. Anna reads Adrian Frantz’s last letter to her, and the two silently reflect on the dead Frantz.  At this point in the film, I thought that Adrian may have been gay. As she reads her fiancé’ s description of a ” sea of corpses”, Adrian abruptly says he must go.

Later, Adrian reads poetry from Verlaine and plays the violin in sweet, high tones only to collapse in the Hoffmeister parlor. He leaves town, and Anna leaves to find him.

All of this mystery is superimposed on the guilt war brings: to the survivors, to the enemy , and to the fathers that urged their sons to serve the fatherland.

In France, older fathers sing “La Marseillaise” and with surface nationalism hiding deep  prejudice. Peace is not easily  made: War is not easily over. In juxtaposition, the German father has told his household that ” Every Frenchman is my son’s murderer.” When Herr Hoffmeister gives Frantz’s violin to Adrian, he says it is like giving his son’s heart to his friend. We find out that this is not the case.

Wind blows throughout the film, and the lies fall like leaves. One of the most beautiful scenes is again auditory. The letters from Frantz are read with both the Frenchmen’s  and the German’s voices merging. Humanity is humanity.

Anna does a Virginia Woolf, but is saved by Mr. Kreutz. Frantz’s parents respond by putting her to bed and saying, ” you helped us survive, now we must help you.” Anna goes to confession, and takes good advice from a priest, who does not believe that truth conquers all. Forgiveness is beset with ” return to sender” missives. A savvy French mother, a fragile artist son, and a fiancée named Fanny, and the proverbial train station scene keep us guessing until the end. And love makes us want to live. Enjoy this retro film, it has much to say that should not be lost.