Just nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign-Language Film and for the extraordinary cinematography of Caleb Deschanel, Never Look Away concerns itself with love and war and the limitless reach of art. These are big themes and easy to bungle over the course of this three-hour-plus epic from German writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. In his third film, after the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others and a misbegotten 2010 merging with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie to create The Tourist — a mega-flop for the ages — von Donnersmarck returns triumphantly to form.
The film moves through three decades of German history, from the rise of the Nazis to the war itself and the division of East and West Germany. The connecting link is Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), a fictional artist based on Gerhard Richter, whose photorealistic paintings now sell for millions. Richter has stated his dislike for the film, claiming it distorts his life. But von Donnersmarck makes no claims to strict biographical accuracy. Never Look Away chases the intangibles faced by an artist in the act of inventing himself and finding his place in the world. Whatever its failures as memoir, the film compels as a search for abstract truth.
The story begins in 1937 when Kurt (Cai Cohrs), still a child, is taken to Dresden by his beautiful Aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) to visit an exhibition of what the Nazis call “degenerate art.” Fascinated by what he sees, Kurt is frightened by the vehemence with which a Nazi guide (Las Eidinger) condemns the works of such foreign artists as Picasso, Chagall and Kandinsky. Kurt’s desire to be a painter is fueled by his aunt’s insistence that “everything that is true is beautiful.” She instructs him to “never look away,” even when things scare him, including his aunt’s impulses toward self harm or sitting naked at a piano.
It’s not long before the Dresden hospital director, professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), from The Lives of Others), condemns Elizabeth to the concentration camps as mentally unfit. The impact on Kurt extends to his adulthood, a feeling that following your real artistic impulses can get you killed. After the war, in communist East Germany, Kurt adheres to the new dogma that permits art only if it adheres to socialist realism.
During this time that Kurt meets and falls hard for a fashion student (a terrific Paula Beer) who reminds him of his aunt; she’s also named Elizabeth. She is also the daughter of Seeband, who takes an instant aversion to his daughter’s attraction to Kurt and takes medical action to make sure Elizabeth will never mix her genetic makeup with the impurities inherent in Kurt. Seeband is conceived, rightly, as a monster. But Koch, a great actor, plays him as someone more mysterious, with enough vestiges of humanity left to render his surrender to savagery all the more tragic.
The last third of the film is taken up with Kurt and Elizabeth decamping to West Germany in 1961, just before the Berlin Wall is erected. The lovers remain unaware of how the past connects them, but art provides the clues. At first, Kurt is disillusioned to find that Nazi ideology hasn’t so much disappeared as taken new forms. Elizabeth supports his experiments in form, but Kurt finds true inspiration in Antonius Van Werten (a superb Oliver Masucci), a teacher at an avant-garde academy who pushes him to put something original on canvas. In a scene of stunning technical bravura, Kurt uses a projector and an open window to find meaning in something his peers first dismiss as painting over old photographs. It’s in the art of making art that the film shows how the creative spark can illuminate the beating heart of history.
Lit with a poet’s eye by Deschanel and given dramatic heft by von Donnersmarck, Never Look Away lunges at the primitive forces that define our lives. Even when it trips up, it’s never less than exhilarating.