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Never Look Away: A flawed masterpiece about life in WWII-era Germany

directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Epic drama captures an artist navigating the upheavals of Nazi and post-war Germany.

“Entartete Kunst.” The sign hangs above the gallery door in Dresden, an invitation for guests to scoff at what is inside – paintings by Paul Klee, Otto Dix, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian. It’s “degenerate art, works that are at odds with the aesthetics of National Socialism. The year is 1937, and a pretty woman is leading a young boy past the canvases. “Don’t tell anyone,” she whispers to him, “but I like it.”

The boy is Kurt Barnert (Cai Cohrs); the woman is his aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) and, later, she will issue a commandment to him: “Never look away.”

It’s an instruction that Kurt will obey as he navigates the upheavals of Germany in the middle years of the 20th century. Even as the Nazis sterilise and then destroy Elizabeth (she is mentally unwell, deemed to have a “useless life”), the Soviets shoot his uncles, Dresden is razed by fire and his father hangs himself, the focus of his electric-blue eyes never wavers.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Never Look Away is directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who made the extraordinary, Oscar-winning Stasi-surveillance thriller The Lives of Others before delivering the Angelina Jolie-Johnny Depp bomb The Tourist. His latest, though, is astonishing in its scale and sprawl – it’s three hours long. It’s a film committed to the liberating power of art, but is, perhaps ironically, confused in its vision.

Part of the confusion comes from the fact that von Donnersmarck has based this film on the life of renowned German painter Gerhard Richter, who really did endure all of the above – and more. The second half of the film roughly matches Richter’s biography: Kurt (now played by Tom Schilling) attends art school first in East Germany, where his talents are corralled into the propaganda of socialist realism, then in West Germany, where he is confounded by the avant-garde.

Along the way, he falls in love with Ellie (Paula Beer), the daughter of physician Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a man with a dark past. It’s here, in the sumptuous romance of the second act, that the traps laid in the first are skilfully sprung.

Richter has always been reticent about sharing his story. The director, apparently, knows the truth, but cannot reveal it fully. Thus, Never Look Away feels, at times, too allusive, too restrained by what remains unspoken.

By the end, you yearn for a necessary revelation, a reckoning, a moment at which the curtains draw back to let the light in – a moment that never comes.

If there is such a thing as a flawed masterpiece, then Never Look Away is certainly that.



Video: Sony Pictures New Zealand

This article was first published in the June 15, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.