Film Review: Never Look Away

Gorgeous, engaging drama that takes its painter hero from Nazi-era youngster through the Cold War years and goes even deeper into the complexities of art and creativity than into Germany’s troubled past.
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Filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose 2006 The Lives of Others won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, has a follow-up hopeful with Never Look Away, Germany’s official selection for that same prize. With its sweep across tragic decades in recent German history from the Nazi era and through much of the Cold War period, this ambitious production suggests another deep dive into the hell of those years. But the director’s deeper motivation, as the production notes maintain, was to pose questions like “What is the defining quality of the Germans?” and “Where does art come from?” An answer eludes the first question, only suggesting that as in all countries, Germans run the gamut from the good to worst in humanity.

But the roots of creativity (innate talent, drive, luck, obsession, determination—take your pick) are more clarified, thanks to the film’s portrayal of its gifted artist protagonist Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling of Woman in Gold and Suite Française).

Introduced early as an eight year old, he is very close to his beloved young Aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl). She takes the boy to nearby Dresden to see Germany’s infamous 1937 traveling exhibition “Entartete Kunst” (“degenerate art”), launched that year in Munich to much fanfare. The show offered key modernist works the Nazis banned, from such ultimately celebrated artists as Otto Dix, Kandinsky and many others whose creations, to become highly valued in the post-war years, were labeled as “degenerate,” generally meaning not timeless pieces that celebrated beauty (of the Aryan race, specifically).

Elisabeth displays some delightfully whimsical but sometimes really “off” behavior—ordering a parking lot of idled buses to sound their horns simultaneously (a detail not to be ignored) or playing piano in the nude or getting inexplicably destructive. But she imbues her nephew with a dash of whimsy and sensitivity to art. In fact, little Kurt displays his own artistic gift, secretly sketching nude women (there’s nudity aplenty, female especially, throughout the film), but it’s Elisabeth’s extreme behavior that causes concern.

She comes to the attention of SS doctor/professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch, who starred in The Lives of Others), based in nearby Dresden’s gynecological hospital. He’s an enthusiast of the Nazi directive to purge the population of physically or mentally deemed “undesirables,” an edict handed down at a high-end 1940 Berlin meeting of doctors that he attends.

Thus, on doctor’s orders, Elisabeth first undergoes forced sterilization and is then transported to an unknown facility. As her van pulls away, she tells her nephew to “never look away,” a lesson subject to interpretation that he will always carry with him.

Following orders, Seeband next signs Elisabeth’s death warrant leading to her demise along with other similarly diagnosed women in a gas chamber disguised as a shower room. Like the rest of his family, young Kurt is unaware of the horrific details of this episode or the perpetrator of this tragedy.

In 1945, Dresden and the outlying area are bombed to bits. The Russians capture Seeband and throw him into prison. But luck steps in when the leading Russian officer’s pregnant wife, near term, struggles to deliver the baby that is poorly positioned in her womb. Seeband realizes the problem and oversees the safe delivery, which also results in his own safe delivery from punishment by the Allies.

Kurt, in his village in 1948, experiences an epiphany in the beautiful fields, claiming to his parents that “I understand everything!” Two years later he works for a company where he paints signs and where his father (Jörg Schüttauf), poor like so many post-war German men, is relegated to cleaning the stairs. Kurt is the only employee who can do the painting freehand, without stencils. And when is boss sees the drawings Kurt does after hours, he suggests Kurt apply to the art academy.

He’s accepted, but with the Soviet-inculcated notions infusing Germany’s Communist-controlled German Democratic Republic come orders to leave the “I” or the individual out of art and only serve the state. Hence, one propagandistic style in Germany replaces another as Communism’s social realism supplants Nazi Germany’s notion of degenerative art (at least in the East). For Kurt the artist, this means that personal, individual expression is suppressed like so much in the outer Communist society.

Young and a pragmatist, Kurt goes with the program for a while until he is “awarded” the task of painting a massive propaganda mural celebrating the workers and oppressed. More significantly, he meets and falls in love with Ellie (Paula Beer), who works at the Academy but is from a well-off family. That Ellie, who lives in a nearby mansion, is the daughter of Dr. Seeband, still in his high-level position thanks to his Soviet benefactor, is a mid-film reveal to be followed by much more (inevitable considering the film’s well over three-hour length).

Tables turn and consequences arise when Seeband’s protector is returned to the Soviet Union, Ellie becomes pregnant and informs her parents of her intended marriage to Kurt, and the two escape to the West at a time in the late ’50s when the East/West border is more porous just before the Wall goes up.

In West Berlin at this time and into the early post-Wall years, Kurt discovers provocative art exhibitions and the West’s Academy that celebrate (again take your pick) a free-for-all, libertarian, outrageous, ridiculously contemporary, anarchic approach to art—the complete opposite of the rigid Nazi and Communist standards. Many of these creations are as artistically debatable as works seen in such eye-popping recent art-themed docs as The Price of Everything and Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World and the remarkable contemporary art-themed narrativeThe Square. The Academy’s Professor Antonius van Verten (Oliver Mascucci) is an often amusing embodiment of the new cynicism and anarchy that damn the artistic dogma of the past as they rescue, if not art itself, at least the creative spirit and instincts behind it.

Here, Henckel von Donnersmarck betrays his obsession with art as he delivers multiple references to modern painters and continues to show Kurt working meticulously at canvases (no, there’s no “as boring as watching paint dry” here). Of course, the big dramatic thread of the bad doctor Seeband, his involvement in Elisabeth’s murder and that of many others kicks in, and more surprises ensue with a final, ironic coda that should delight viewers.

Never Look Away, a cohesively integrated collage of many genres (history, war, crime, medical drama with romance and spectacle), is also a feast of fine acting and magnificent visuals. But with so much going on, viewers, as if confronting impressionistic paintings or pixel-based photorealistic portraitures, need to step away to get a better picture.