Film Review: Never Look Away (2018), Dir. Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck
If the title is a challenge to the audience or the film, I submit that both will rise to the occasion. At slightly over three hours, it never lost me or felt less than fully engaging. The historical sweep encompassing pre- and postwar Germany from the 1930’s through 1960’s is rich with fascinating, dramatic socio-political material which is the background for the romantic human drama which unfolds before it and entwines itself within it. This is a beautifully-crafted, well-told unabashedly romantic love story. The sheer gorgeousness of the production, lighting and cinematography, perfect casting and uniformly excellent performances make it a superb visual banquet which does not leave the head or the heart out of the feast.
The protagonist, Kurt Barnett (Tom Schilling), a young artist, whose trajectory is loosely based on the experiences of Gerhard Richter, whose first exposure to art is with his free-spirited aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), who takes him to a Nazi-sponsored exhibition of “Degenerate Art”, which they both secretly enjoy. After his aunt is taken away by the Nazis, never to be returned, and suffers a cruel end, Kurt is able to pursue his dream as an artist and attend art school. Under the authoritarian government of a divided Germany, the only acceptable form of art in the east is social realism. Nonetheless, Kurt proves himself to be phenomenally gifted and effortlessly adept and is rewarded with large commissions from the government. He paints large patriotic murals in public spaces, which gives him a successful career and a high profile.
He also meets a beautiful art student, Ellie (Paula Beer) with whom he falls madly in love and manages to move into the house of her wealthy family, masquerading as a tenant. Her father, Professor Seeband (Sebastian Koch) is an esteemed gynecologist enthusiastically embraced by the new regime and whom we recognize from an earlier scene with Kurt’s aunt Elisabeth before her unexplained disappearance years before when he was part of the Nazi regime. He has managed to obtain protection from prosecution for his war crimes as a result of saving the life of a family member of the head of the new regime. When Ellie reveals her pregnancy to her father, his evil past rears its ugly head and turns on his own daughter. We know what none of the characters in the film know yet.
Kurt’s dissatisfaction with the restrictions on his life and his artistic expression in east Germany finally embolden him to move to the west and he is able to persuade Ellie to go with him. They decamp to Dusseldorf and a liberal art school which initially overwhelms him with the limitless possibilities. There is a not-so-subtle skewering of radically liberal art institutions with their proclamations, manifestos, and runic pretensions. The school is presided over by an artist clearly based on Joseph Bueys (Oliver Masucci), whose only requirements are attendance at his lectures, very self-indulgent, opaque affairs, and no requests for him to look at the work. The final part of the film is devoted to Kurt’s struggles to find his mode of expression and his subsequent success, which slyly pokes the contemporary art establishment, its posturing, and the art-speak which surrounds it. Kurt’s relationship with Ellie, as well as the recognition of Ellie’s father’s evil past and how it impacted them both becomes tantalizingly evident and it is left unclear as to how much they finally choose to recognize.
The opportunities for drama and lyrically beautiful cinematography are mined to wonderful effect, especially the love/sex scenes which are extended dances of tender eroticism. The struggling artist sequences are the only element I have even the faintest issue with. Although, much of the art school milieu rings fairly true, it also reveals a certain wry irony from the director. The ravishing lighting, superb cinematography of Caleb Deschanel and the lush score by Max Richter (occasionally a bit intrusive), and an extremely attractive and convincing group of actors combine to make a high-calibre film which feels like a traditional Hollywood production. And I mean that in the best way possible. In the grand Hollywood tradition. I did not want it to end.
You can watch a trailer for the film here