NEVER LOOK AWAY. Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl, Oliver Masucci. Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. 189 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, sex, nudity and violence).
After a brief dalliance with Hollywood with 2010’s limp Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie star vehicle ‘The Tourist’, writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck returns with fanfare to the arena that first bought him success. Like his intimate yet epic drama ‘The Lives of Others’ (which won him the 2007 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film), ‘Never Look Away’ carefully unfurls a deeply personal story against the backdrop of a divided post-war Germany. Handsomely made, richly acted, and wonderfully scripted, this is the rare three hours-plus movie that leaves you wanting more.
Von Donnersmarck’s screenplay is loosely based on the life of renowned German artist Gerhard Richter. Our protagonist, Kurt Barnett (Tom Schilling, serious but wryly charming), is a skilful painter unable to find his voice while working under the mandated Socialist Realism movement taught at his art school in Dresden. Kurt was bought up in a family that self-identified as degenerates (per the Nazis’ use of the term); his father was a unwilling member of the party, responding to an obligatory “Heil Hitler” with an audibly indistinguishable “Drei Liter” (literally, “three litres”), while Kurt’s beautiful young aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) was committed to an asylum after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. Years earlier, Elisabeth took a young Kurt (Cai Cohrs) to an exhibit of Degenerate Art, the memory of which became strongly linked to his love for his aunt. Rosendahl, a bewitching cross between Margot Robbie and Michelle Williams, is well cast, leaving a luminous glow lingering over the film long after Elisabeth is callously euthanised by the Nazis’ eugenics program.
While at art school, Kurt falls in love with fashion student Ellie (Paula Beer). Shortly into their whirlwind romance, Ellie convinces her parents to let Kurt rent their spare bedroom, though her parents soon begin to suspect their romantic involvement. Her father, Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a former high-ranking member of the SS medical corps, is strongly opposed to the entangling of their family trees. However, before Professor Seeband and his wife Martha (Ina Weisse) can successfully break up the young couple, Kurt and Ellie flee to the West, where Kurt is accepted into the Düsseldorf Art Academy under the tutelage of the brilliant but enigmatic Professor Antonius van Verten (Oliver Masucci). Here, in the mafia-esque world of modern German art, Kurt confronts the ghosts of his past and the secrets of his present as he strives to find his own artistic voice.
As the sprawling description above suggests, there’s a lot of plot packed into these 189 minutes. ‘Never Look Away’ aims to be a biopic, an examination of the impact of war and evil, an exploration of art and its purpose, and a ravishing romance. Despite dividing its attention broadly, it succeeds in each endeavour. In adapting Gerhard Richter’s story, von Donnersmarck ensures that Kurt’s journey is epic in scope, richly satisfying and ultimately uplifting. The film’s cool assessment of the Nazi machine as it rolled through rural Germany is both crisply detailed and frightening. When von Donnersmarck turns his gaze to the bombing of Dresden, he conjures the horrific human cost from a shockingly intimate perspective, his stationary camera observing the burning bedroom of a young girl as it collapses around her. Kurt’s introduction to the art world by his exposition-delivering friend Günther (Hanno Koffler) and his laboured journey towards finding his artistic niche is never short of engaging and often funny (maybe even satirically so). If you’re familiar with Richter’s style then you will know Kurt’s creative destination, but the road that takes him there, presented in several tidily edited montages, feels authentic in its portrayal of genuine inspiration. Kurt’s relationship with Ellie is intensely romantic and emotionally resonant thanks to the commitment of its performers. Tom Schilling and Paula Beer have a believable, lightning rod sort of chemistry such that – when their relationship begins to bleed into and inspire Kurt’s work – it can withstand the weight of the artist and muse bond that the narrative thrusts upon it.
The screenplay’s only real drawback comes in its one note handling of the film’s ostensible villain, Professor Seeband. From his affair with the family’s maid to the disturbing lengths to which he goes to destroy Kurt and Ellie’s romance, Seeband is portrayed as irredeemably awful. The against type casting of Sebastian Koch, a fine German actor who played von Donnersmarck’s idealistic hero in ‘The Lives of Others’, is the sole concession made to humanise the character somewhat, using the actor’s innate decency and charm to add some potential sympathy to the Professor. But that’s a minor complaint in the scheme of this wonderful film, which is also expertly crafted.
Rightly nominated for an Oscar, Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography is nothing short of spectacular, using crisp focus and the interplay of light and shadows in visually stunning and interesting ways. Deschanel captures the precise period details and set dressing with painterly framing and a clear eye, which helps the film feel timelessly relevant. Composer Max Richter, whose contributions are judiciously employed by von Donnersmarck, lends the film extra impact, particularly towards the end with its series of denouements (it juggles a handful of plotlines throughout). Just recalling the narrative and creative elements above makes me wish that there was more of the movie. Alas, I may have to settle for seeing it again.
The film takes its title from a mantra that Kurt’s aunt teaches him; “Never look away”, Elizabeth tells a young Kurt, because “everything that is true is beautiful”. Perhaps it’s the truth at its core that makes ‘Never Look Away’ such a pleasurable filmgoing experience; not only the true elements of Gerhard Richter’s story, but also the universal truths about life, death, love and art that it grapples with. It’s superfluous advice in this case though, because you won’t want to look away from the screen for a second anyway.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out June 20.