(This film review of “Never Look Away” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 20 June 2019.)
Directed and written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; starring Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer and Saskia Rosendahl
This opening of the German language film “Never Look Away” is a major event, bringing a sweeping historical view of German life scanning a three decade period from the late 1930s to the 1960s.
“Never Look Away” is a loose dramatisation of the life of contemporary German visual artist Gerhard Richter (1932-) – named Kurt Barnert in the film, acted by Tom Schilling (“Oh Boy”, “Before the Fall”). But German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”) has much higher goals than a simple biopic for his massive and epic (188 minute) film: he wants to illustrate many of the profound events of this tumultuous period of German history: the Nazi racial exclusion laws and eugenics, the Second World War and subsequent life in a Germany divided between east and west.
Using the refracted experience of an artist provides a personal – and highly visual – scope to what could otherwise be a mundane retelling of events. The film opens in Dresden with a brilliant scene that recreates the traveling art exhibition “Entartete Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”), in which the Nazi regime attempted to ridicule German modernist art on the grounds of it being “un-German”, Jewish or Communist. A wide-eyed five year old Kurt attends the exhibition with his eccentric and creative aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl, star of Cate Shortland’s film “Lore”), and is impressed.
As the Nazi grip on power tightens, Elisabeth is diagnosed with schizophrenia, institutionalised and eventually euthanised under the orders of gynaecology professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a loyal member of the Nazi SS medical corps. The scenes in Professor Seeband’s hospital are harrowing, and his confrontation with Elisabeth a devastating illustration of Nazi cruelty to its own citizens. The cunning Seeband survives both the war and incarceration by the occupying Russian army, while remaining secretly loyal to his Nazi principles. Chillingly, Seeband later returns to the film’s story through a set of coincidences also based on real life.
The war devastates much of Kurt’s family, but he slowly makes his way in the post-war East German art world, producing made-to-order socialist realist murals of industrial workers. He also meets and weds the beautiful fashion student Ellie (Paula Beer), despite the serious misgivings of her parents. Kurt and Ellie flee to West Germany just as the Berlin Wall goes up, and Kurt lands a position at the Düsseldorf art academy, where he is taught by an enigmatic professor clearly based on the famous German sculptor, installation artist and art theoretician Joseph Beuys. Director von Donnersmarck neatly captures the artistic, cultural and political differences between the two German states, giving the film an extraordinary depth of insight into that period.
“Never Look Away” has received many plaudits, including two nominations at the most recent Academy Awards – for best foreign language film and best cinematography – along with strong audience support at this month’s Sydney Film Festival, a rapturous reception at the Venice Film Festival and an audience award at the Miami Jewish Film Festival.
The film is not perfect: a gas chamber scene in which aunt Elisabeth is murdered jars with its brightly lit explicit presentation – how many films have included similar scenes, and how little the scene actually tells us (have a look at The Son of Saul for a better use of these images). But few recent films have included such an historic – and spectacularly well-presented – epic sweep of modern history. Almost no current dramatic films have the courage to tackle so much, and to give the audience such rich questions to ponder: what is the place of art in society, how do we find the hidden meaning of art, what is the true meaning of ideology, how do we survive during ages of political upheaval and – neatly and fully believably – how can love and affection triumph over adversity.