Never Look Away review – powerful Gerhard Richter-inspired drama

A German boy who witnesses Nazi horrors grows up to become a painter in this overcooked but affecting melodrama

At a key early moment in German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s acclaimed art-drama/suspense-thriller hybrid (which reportedly received a 13-minute standing ovation at the Venice film festival last year), a young boy confronted by a terrible sight holds his hand in front of his eyes. At first, we think he’s doing it to blot out the spectacle of his beloved aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) being bundled into an ambulance in Nazi Germany. But the truth is more complex. As young Kurt (a wonderfully wide-eyed Cai Cohrs) holds his palm a few inches in front of his face, we see what he sees – the hand coming into close focus, rendering what’s behind it slightly blurry. When his hand drops down, the awful truth beyond remains momentarily fuzzy – creating the impression of seeing at one remove. As the ambulance doors slam shut, Elisabeth makes eye contact with her nephew and repeats an instruction that has become her mantra: “Never look away…”

That phrase, which echoes throughout the film’s three-hours-plus running time, became the English-language title. It’s quite different from the German original Werk Ohne Autor (work without author), a phrase once used by critics to describe the works of German artist Gerhard Richter, whose early life inspired the story (though Richter has pointedly distanced himself from the film).

Yet the words “never look away” cut right to the heart of the matter; this is a story about seeing and not seeing; about looking and looking away – often at the same time. Whether it’s the grotesque operations carried out under a veneer of civility by Nazi doctor Carl Seeband (played with chilling detachment by Sebastian Koch), or the monolithic ideologies of fascism and communism against which budding artist Kurt struggles equally (if covertly), the film is centrally concerned with ways of seeing. That it should approach such an esoteric, thorny subject through the crowd-pleasing format of an overcooked melodrama is perhaps surprising, addressing, as it does, lofty aesthetic concerns through old-fashioned conservative film-making techniques. What’s even more remarkable is that it succeeds more often than it fails.

The film opens, appropriately, with an out-of-focus image of a Nazi-sanctioned “modern art” exhibition aimed to denounce “decadent” works in which “mental illness is elevated to a defining principle” by “people who see fields as blue, the sky as green, and clouds as sulphur yellow!” “Don’t tell anybody, but I like it,” whispers Elisabeth, as she and Kurt stand transfixed by a condemned Kandinsky. Soon, Elisabeth’s artistic temperament will result in her being sterilised and worse, damned by a flick of Professor Seeband’s sword-like pencil.

Tom Schilling as the older Kurt.
Tom Schilling as the older Kurt. Photograph: Buena Vista International

Years later, the adult Kurt (Tom Schilling) falls for fellow student Ellie (Paula Beer), which unwittingly draws him into the orbit of Seeband, whose past remains occluded. Having saved the unborn baby of a Russian officer (“Because I can,” he declares pompously, words that Kurt will, significantly, repeat), Seeband has escaped imprisonment and flourished in Soviet East Germany, nimbly swapping one authoritarian order for another – a point the film makes without resort to subtlety. As for Kurt, he progresses from sign writing to mural painting, producing supposedly uplifting portraits of workers wielding approved tools until a defection to the west finally offers him artistic freedom. But at what price? Having thrown off the shackles of the old order, Kurt finds himself becalmed, bereft of inspiration, desperate for direction – a new way of looking.

Never Look Away is Henckel von Donnersmarck’s third feature. After making his mark with the Oscar-winning Stasi-drama The Lives of Others, he co-wrote and directed The Tourist, a lavishly empty romp in which Hollywood stars Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie swanned around Venice to no one’s amusement but their own. With Never Look Away, released in Germany last October, the film-maker has regained his mojo, helming his second foreign language Oscar contender, which also earned a deserved nomination for cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. While the direction may be deceptively unfussy, Deschanel does brilliant work bringing Kurt’s worldview to life, enabling us to understand his progress towards an artistic breakthrough, represented here by paintings conjured by (among others) Richter’s former assistant Andreas Schön.

A superbly affecting score by Max Richter (no relation) helps to negotiate the divide between the occasionally clumsy contrivances of the on-the-nose narrative and the aspirations of a populist movie that strives with some sincerity to celebrate the healing power of art. As that early shot suggests, it’s only by looking away that we can actually see the truth, using obfuscation to achieve clarity – albeit with added popcorn.

Watch a trailer for Never Look Away.


Mark Kermode

The GuardianTramp

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