****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 3.25 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SKIP IT/SEE IT. A flawed and uneven film that explores some fascinating themes and boasts solid yet understated acting. Due to its long running time (3 hours and 8 minutes) it isn’t good enough to see in the theatre but is worth checking out on Netflix/cable for free.
Run Time: 3 hours 8 minutes
German with English subtitles
Never Look Away, written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is “inspired” by the life story of famed German painter Gerhard Richter, and follows his life from childhood under the Nazi regime to his adulthood under communism and recounts both his personal and artistic travails. The film stars Tom Schilling as Kurt Barnert - the character loosely based on Richter, and boasts supporting turns from Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl and Sebastian Koch.
Never Look Away, nominated for Best Foreign Picture at the upcoming 91st Academy Awards, is director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s third feature film. Von Donnmersmarck’s first feature, The Lives of Others (2006), won the Best Foreign Picture Oscar in 2006. Never Look Away is a more vast and ambitious artistic undertaking than The Lives of Others, but it is nowhere near as good as that sublime study of Orwellian life and love under communist rule.
Never Look Away attempts to cover an expansive period of time, from the late 1930’s to the 1960’s, in a deeply personal and intimate way, this is no sweeping historical epic, but more an Artist’s Guide to Historical Totalitarianism.
The best part of the film is the opening act, that gives us a glimpse of the cold-hearted collective madness of Nazi Germany, where only the insane would tell the truth and where the truth was truly insane. In this section, the lead character Kurt, who at this point is a small child, finds his muse in his painfully beautiful and beautifully pained aunt Elisabeth May, played with exquisite aplomb by the beguiling Saskia Rosenthal.
Elisabeth, like Kurt, is an artist at heart, and for her, life under the Nazis is a lie her spirit won’t allow her to tell. Her one split second interlude with Hitler causes such a psychological tsunami of archetypal energy that her psyche (and skull) is literally unable to contain it and she is obliterated by it. The physical, mental and emotional destruction left in the wake of the Nazi archetype and accompanying armageddon leaves Kurt with a unique view of the world and a distinct eye through which to observe it.
In Kurt’s art school years he finds another muse, Ellie, played by the luminous Paula Beer. While this section of the film is compelling, it is also where the film begins to occasionally fall into standard Hollywood plot territory, which is disappointing since it’s a German film.
As the film wears on it loses a great deal of momentum as the dramatic potential from the film’s beginning dissipates and never fully blossoms. Watching Kurt struggle with his artistic demons is in theory interesting but in practice less than enthralling and the film’s various sub-plots never gather enough steam to be dramatically worthwhile.
It is either a sign of von Donnersmarck’s great success or great failure that after watching the film for its staggering 188 minute run time (which for those not mathematically inclined translates into 3 hours and 8 minutes) I was left wanting…either more of the film or more from it.
While I found the plot and its surface twists and turns to be unsatisfying and at times frustratingly so, what kept me engaged were the compelling themes upon which von Donnersmarck meditates. Totalitarianism in all its gruesome faces plays a feature role in this film, and that beast’s corrosive effect on humanity in general, and artistry in particular, is front and center.
In a weird bit of synchronicity, as I sat in the theatre waiting for Never Look Away to begin I got an email from a reader who was commenting on an article I had written last year. The article was titled “Echoes of Totalitarianism in #MeToo and Russia-Gate”. I had no idea what Never Look Away was about when I read that email and subsequently re-read my piece…but after viewing the film the synchronicity became clear.
The thing that was so striking to me about that theme, in both the film, the email and my article, is that totalitarianism is now the ascendant, if not dominant, energy of our time, especially in art, or what passes for art in our hyper-capitalist society.
As I have said previously, “wokeness kills art”, and the suffocating and stultifying conformity of our current culture and its ever present demand for political correctness, is remarkably similar in its totalitarian instincts to the insistence for Romantic Realism in Nazi Germany or Socialist Realism under Soviet communism and avant-gardism in the post-modern art world.
As Elisabeth tells young Kurt, “never look away because everything that is true holds beauty in it”. Truth is an enemy of totalitarianism and the totalitarian will gauge their eyes out in order to avoid looking directly at it. In totalitarian cultures, artistic quality is eclipsed by adherence to political orthodoxy. The artist’s political ideology must be impeccable and if it isn’t impeccable and deviates in any way from political orthodoxy, that artist and his/her work will be disappeared regardless of its quality and worth.
The current wave of political correctness with its accompanying cries for “diversity and inclusion” is just another form of the totalitarian impulse, no different in its intent to banish the idea of an artistic meritocracy or to stifle dissent than Nazism or Soviet communism, although it is hopefully much less blood thirsty.
True artists, not the corporate whores in Hollywood, have a fundamental, if not biological, need to see, know and tell the truth. Totalitarians, whether they be in Berlin, Moscow, Washington or Hollywood, in turn love lies and loathe the truth. Thus the true artist in a totalitarian system is a most dangerous person. This is why the frantic need to silence artistic dissenters or disappear heretics who have sinned against the prevailing orthodoxy of political correctness/diversity/inclusion has spread like a wildfire and is now an inferno engulfing our popular culture. Look no further than Liam Neeson’s recent demise at the hands of the mob or the painfully middling Black Panther’s ascension to an Oscar nomination for proof that truth has no place in our current culture.
In Never Look Away, Ellie’s professor father Carl, played with German precision by Sebastian Koch, is symbolic of the totalitarian instinct, in that no matter what ideology under which he lives, he thrives through a combination of aggressively unthinking and unfeeling conformity and a startling level of righteousness. Carl is the totalitarian leopard who may change trees but never changes his spots. Like Nazi rocket scientist Werner von Braun, Carl is interested in getting to the moon, or at least his own version of it, and will shut off whatever part of his brain or heart is needed, and will play whatever role is demanded, in whatever totalitarian political play going on around him, in order to make that happen.
As Never Look Away shows us, the lies of the totalitarian will collapse under the enormity of their own blatantly obvious and clearly observable falsity. One can only hope that the Trumpian totalitarians and their equally totalitarian counterparts on the “social justice left” and in corporate America, will suffer the same fate as the Nazis and Soviets and be left on the ash heap of history. At the moment I must admit…my confidence is at an all-time low.
Another theme in the film that was intriguing although never fully fleshed out, was the pseudo-mystical idea of all things being connected. Kurt’s aunt Elisabeth cracks the code of the world playing a single piano note and finds connection in the in-between place of blaring bus horns. Kurt experiences the same feeling high atop a tree as the German countryside reveals itself to him in all its glory. Those fleeting moments of transcendence are the fuel that propel Kurt to his ultimate destiny and ultimately reveal not just his truth, but THE Truth.
It is this odd concoction of both mystical yearning and political warning that I found so compelling in Never Look Away. Von Donnersmarck shows an artistic daring rarely seen in American films when he explores these themes so unabashedly, in the process even touching upon explosive issues like abortion in less than flattering ways. In this sense, Never Look Away is a form of artistic courage and truth-telling in and of itself and the movie and its themes have stayed with me since I left theater.
That said, the film also is cinematically flawed. As stated, it loses momentum about halfway through its very long run time, and also loses dramatic intensity as well. The film also has some perspective issues that it never fully resolves. The movie is also burdened by a distractingly cloying soundtrack that was much too conventional for my tastes and to me revealed a lack of confidence on the part of the writer/director.
Never Look Away’s cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, a long time veteran of the industry, is nominated for an Oscar for his work on the film. I actually felt the cinematography was, a few nicely framed shots aside, rather mundane and not worthy of a nomination. Deschanel’s work isn’t bad, it just isn’t noteworthy, and I can think of numerous other films that were more deserving of a nomination (like You Were Never Really Here, Widows, If Beale Street Could Talk or First Man among others).
The performances were strong across the board. Tom Schilling, who plays Kurt, has a lot of heavy lifting to do in this film and none of it is flashy. Schilling is able to carry the weight of this movie without ever making it all about him, and that is a pretty rare skill for an actor. While Schilling has no explosive scenes upon which to hang his hat, his deft and subtle work is entirely in the service of the script and the character.
Sebastian Koch also gives a very focused and refined performance as Professor Seeband. Koch has one scene that I won’t give away, that is so critical for the film and he absolutely nails it. While Koch’s work in that scene is extremely detailed and specific, it is all of the precise work he did leading up to that made it all worthwhile.
Paula Beer does impressive work as Ellie, never failing to be magnetic on screen. Beer and Schilling’s chemistry makes this long movie very compelling to watch even when it dramatically falters.
Saskia Rosendahl is absolutely fantastic as Kurt’s aunt Elisabeth, as she never falls into the trap of caricature. Rosendahl imbues Elisabeth with a palpable energy and intentionality that jump off the screen. Elisabeth goes through a series of twists and turns and Rosendahl imbues her with a combustibility and fragility that never fails to be genuine and vibrant.
In conclusion, Never Look Away is a good, but not great film. The more I think of the film the more I think the story would be better served as a miniseries on Netflix rather than as a three hour feature film. Even the long run time does not allow the entirety of the story to be told with adequate depth and nuance. That said, the film is propelled by interesting themes that have kept me thinking since I left the theatre and solid performances that kept me engaged. As the movie teaches us, totalitarianism is on the rise and it is more imperative than ever that we never look away from that truth.
It is for this reason that I think Never Look Away is ultimately worth seeing for the truths it reveals about its world and our current one too. Due to the long run time I recommend you watch it at your leisure at home on Netflix or cable when the opportunity arises…that way you can “look away” by having some bathroom breaks and intermissions when you like and not actually miss anything, or you can stretch the film out over multiple nights, a sort of do-it-yourself mini-series. Never looking away is vitally important nowadays and is a hard discipline to master, and a good place to start your training in that practice would be with Never Look Away.