Don’t let its 3+ hour run time deter you; Never Look Away is essential viewing. Believe in yourself! If you can endure a 150 minute Avengers movie, you can make it through this. Despite its duration, this film from German writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck feels brisk and lean, with every minute important to the whole.
In looking for cinematic comparisons, I came up with two: Roma and The Lives of Others. Like Roma, Never Look Away is epic in scope. But Roma puts ten months of turbulent Mexican history under the magnifying glass, whereas Never Look Away broadly tells its story across 30 years in Germany, from Nazism, to the Communist East, to the capitalist West. Though 50 minutes shorter, and much as I loved it, Roma felt far longer.
The Lives of Others, von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film, is more particulate than Never Look Away, narrowly considering the corrupting impact of existence in the East German police state upon a Stasi officer, a playwright, and his actress lover. Like Never Look Away, von Donnersmarck’s earlier film has much to say about the degrading effect of totalitarianism upon art and artists. Both films also shine a hopeful light upon art’s redemptive power.
Never Look Away spans the youth and early adulthood of Kurt Barnert, as well as the lives of those in his orbit. (Barnert is a fictional figure heavily modeled upon the real painter Gerhard Richter, who reportedly is quite peeved about it.) The film opens in Dresden 1937, with a very young Kurt attending a “degenerate art” exhibit with his beloved Aunt Elisabeth. Soon after, we see the hyper-aware and musically gifted Elisabeth forcibly carted away to a psychiatric institution, following a psychotic episode.
1937 and the following years set the visual and musical tone for the rest of the film, with scenes that literally took my breath away (an uncommon occurrence, even for this not-yet-jaded critic). Max Richter’s score perfectly undergirds the onscreen events, in a balanced fashion that makes its presence known without Mickey Mousing the action. After the museum visit, Elisabeth prevails upon a group of bus drivers to sound their horns in unison; as she spins rapturously, their horns morph into Richter’s swirling, romantic accompaniment.
Soon after, from a hilltop, we observe with Kurt the Allied planes dropping strips of tin foil across the distant city. The metal mutes Nazi radar detection before the gargantuan bombing attacks of February 1945, conveyed through an image of a burning baby carriage fading into a panorama of the city turned to rubble.
After the war, Kurt enters Dresden’s art school, in what has become Communist East Germany. Nazi talk of degenerate art has given way to condemnation of western decadence, with instructors exhorting students to deploy Social Realism in service of the Volk.
While at school, Kurt meets his girlfriend and future wife Ellie. Initially drawn by her generosity – they first cross paths as she’s giving away western pencils that her wealthy family can afford – they stay together by virtue of their mutual goodness.
This is yet another aspect of Never Look Away that I treasure. So many biopics of artists (including the recent disappointing van Gogh tale, At Eternity’s Gate) tell stories of tormented geniuses, who alienate and self-destruct. In delectable contrast, Kurt’s saga is one of ascent despite family tragedy, totalitarian oppression, and poverty. His life is hardly cushy, yet by occasional good luck, by staying later at the studio than everyone else, and through the nurture of those around him, he succeeds.
Paralleling Kurt’s goodness, Never Look Away follows the life trajectory of an affluent Dresden gynecologist, Carl Seeband. Repeatedly insisting that everyone call him “Professor Seeband,” he is a genius in his field, but also a malign narcissist who shapeshifts and status climbs no matter the regime in charge.
I won’t give away how Kurt and Seeband’s courses repeatedly intersect in Dickensian fashion, one of the plotting pleasures of von Donnersmarck’s script. Seeband is played by Sebastian Koch, an actor evidently as protean as his character here, as he was also the winsome playwright in The Lives of Others. He has the middle-aged handsomeness of Antonio Banderas, and his nasty opportunist character knows it.
On the other hand, I wasn’t familiar with Tom Schilling, the actor playing the adult Kurt, though he’s been busy in German TV and cinema since the 1990s. He and Paula Beer, as Ellie, have excellent chemistry together and pull off one of the most difficult jobs in acting, how to appear virtuous without being sanctimonious or saccharine. Beer, unlike Schilling, I’ve gotten to know through her roles in thoughtful arthouse dramas in recent years. (Her articulate audience interaction during the Q&A after a Toronto screening of Transit, one of my favorite films from 2018, made clear that she hasn’t landed these parts by chance.)
Other tasks that Never Look Away achieves with magnificent dexterity are showing the creative process and the maturation of a personal artistic vision. We see the smothering effect of totalitarianism on Kurt’s artistry, which only blooms in a freer society and under the tutelage of an odd yet inspiring instructor in Dusseldorf (a splendid Oliver Masucci).
More powerfully still, von Donnersmarck, his editors, and his cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (whose résumé stretches as far back as The Natural and Hal Ashby’s Being There) communicate to us the alchemy of sight and thought’s transmutation into a finished painting. They do this by point of view shots that bring objects into and out of Kurt’s focus; by close-ups on Kurt’s eye and his strokes on the canvas; and by occasionally showing us the steps toward completion of individual works.
The title of von Donnersmarck’s film hearkens back to Aunt Elisabeth’s charge to the precocious boy Kurt. It also reminds me of words uttered by Akira Kurosawa (one of the few other directors who can make a three hour run time breeze past), in his 1989 Oscar acceptance speech: “To be an artist is never to avert one’s eyes.” It is thrilling to see Kurt absorb this wisdom across 30 years, to turn his defining life experiences into art, to become not a victim of history but a truth-telling witness. These are useful lessons for us all.
5 out of 5 stars