Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away is an epic film, and not just in terms of its running time (188 minutes). It has the sprawling scope of a 19thcentury novel like Dr. Zhivago, in which the human stories are embedded within a period of dramatic change and the film’s real subject is the grand sweep of history. In this case, Henckel von Donnersmarck’s subject is the history of Germany from the Nazi period through the East/West partition following the second World War. Because this film is an epic, the norms of naturalism don’t apply, so there’s no point in getting upset about amazing coincidences or excessive cleverness: instead, it’s best to keep your mind on the big picture (which of course doesn’t preclude enjoying the very human stories placed on screen).
When we first meet Kurt Barnert (Cai Cohrs), he’s a quiet and observant six year old on an outing with his aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl). She’s brought him to see the traveling exhibition of “Entartete Kunst” (degenerate art) organized by Nazi officials to demonstrate to the German people how dreadful modern art really was. You’d have to be congenitally incapable of detecting irony to not wonder if a public exhibition of works by the likes of Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Franz Marc, and Paul Klee might have the opposite result of what was intended—that when people got to see these works for themselves, they’d think they were interesting or intriguing or meaningful, rather than accepting the condemnation delivered by a humorless museum guide (Lars Eidinger). Aunt Elisabeth, just the kind of subversive thinker that likes to draw her own conclusions, whispers to young Kurt: “Don’t tell anyone, but I like it.”
Kurt is an artistic child, and we soon see him sketching a nude woman with remarkable accuracy. The source of his knowledge is also Aunt Elisabeth, who appears before him completely nude, and tells him “Don’t look away, Never look away, Kurt. Everything that’s true is beautiful.” It’s a prophetic phrase that Kurt will follow throughout his life, and that will allow him to stay true to his own artistic sensibilities through Nazism, Communism, and the avant-garde nonsense of the West German art world in the 1960s. For the record, Gerhard Richter is undoubtedly a source of inspiration for this film, but it’s also worth noting that Richter has disavowed this film’s version of his life.
Unfortunately for Aunt Elisabeth, she suffers from schizophrenia, and her well-meaning parents take her to a physician. Doubly unfortunately for her, according to the Nazi version of eugenics, schizophrenia is a condition that must be removed from the Aryan genetic pool. So she’s scheduled for sterilization by the gynecologist Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), and then for extermination, because, to paraphrase the good doctor himself, Germany has limited resources and can’t afford to waste them on people like her. It’s a fateful decision that will resonate for the rest of the film, resulting in a series of events that would seem ridiculous in a naturalistic movie but make perfect sense in an epic.
Unlike Aunt Elisabeth, Kurt (played as an adult by Tom Schilling) survives the war and attends art school in Dresden, where he toes the Communist line and paints murals of heroic peasants. He also falls in love with a fellow student, Ellie (Paula Beer), who bears more than a small resemblance to his beloved Aunt Elisabeth. Her father is Dr. Seeband, now an enthusiastic communist and still a proponent of eugenics; of course, these two characters don’t know that they have an historical connection, but we do, and waiting for that connection to pay off is one of the more extended sequences of dramatic irony I’ve experienced in some time.
Never Look Away, shot by Caleb Deschanel, is an absolutely beautiful film, whether it’s in naturalistic mode or presenting one of the impressionistic sequences that take us inside Kurt’s head. The period recreations are excellent, thanks to work by costume designer Gabriele Binder, production designer Silke Buhr, and supervising art director Robert Reblin. All the actors are strong, but the performance of Sebastian Koch deserves particular mention. His character is a monster camouflaged by his respectable manner and professional accomplishments, and when he’s on screen, you can’t look away—and you should not. | Sarah Boslaugh