Never Look Away
2019, R, 189 min. Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Starring Tom Schilling, Paula Beer, Sebastian Koch, Oliver Masucci, Saskia Rosendahl, Ina Weisse, Lars Eidinger.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Feb. 22, 2019
This third film from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who struck Oscar gold in 2007 with his debut German-language feature The Lives of Others, finds the filmmaker returning to Germany after the disappointment of his sophomore effort The Tourist, starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. Von Donnersmarck again presents us with characters whose lives are swept up by the political tides that defined this country (or countries, as in East and West Germany) during the 20th century.
We are first introduced to Kurt Barnert (Schilling), the hero of Never Look Away, as a child of Dresden, born in the mid-1930s. The film is a bildungsroman that follows Kurt, who wishes to become an artist, from his childhood to his early manhood, and we watch as he learns the tools of the artist’s trade and explores several blind alleys while searching for an original mode of self-expression. The only other sustenance he needs in life is the love of his eventual wife Ellie Seeband (Beer). In the film’s opening sequence, Kurt is with his aunt Elisabeth (Rosendahl) on a museum tour of the now-infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition organized by the Nazi Party in the Thirties. While the museum docent hectors the group about the many ways in which these modernist works insult German ideals, Elisabeth conspiratorially whispers to Kurt her affection for the condemned paintings of Otto Dix and Wassily Kandinsky. Alas, her rebellious influence is soon quashed when she’s overtaken by mental illness and undergoes the Nazi treatment of sterilization and eventual extermination.
More tragedies befall Kurt over the years, but after the war he’s able to gain work as a commercial sign painter, and his freehand agility gains him entry into art school. A young woman in the fashion school soon captures his attention, at first for the striking resemblance she bears to Aunt Elisabeth. Ellie is smitten with him as well, and even the diabolical strategies her father, professor Carl Seeband (Koch), employs to separate the pair do not work. Kurt is also unaware (although the audience knows better) that his father-in-law is the very same doctor who sent Elisabeth to the gas chamber. Unhappy with their situation and the works of Socialist Realist art that Kurt was forced to churn out by the Russians now in charge, the couple escapes to West Germany. They land in Dusseldorf, where Kurt attends school at the city’s hotbed of conceptual art. We watch as he tries countless approaches until he arrives at his signature art form: photorealism.
The character of Kurt is based loosely on the life of the artist Gerhard Richter, and his teacher in Dusseldorf is a dead ringer for Joseph Beuys. The sheer accumulation of events and the film’s running time of three hours and nine minutes make the journey feel epic. Yet the insights and lessons gained by the characters feel puny and inconsequential. Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography (nominated for an Oscar, in addition to the movie’s inclusion as a Best Foreign Language Film nominee) is handsome, as are the characters. But the film lumbers toward a conclusion that lacks resonance. Never Look Away seems as self-satisfied with itself as its fictional artists are with the works they produce. Pardon my disgruntlement, but after three hours, my tendency is to desire a more resounding ending and something less solipsistic.