Movie review: Never Look Away
Oscar winner Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s latest film is a fictional epic inspired by German painter Gerhard Richter’s early career in the East, but it captures the contours of human truth by pulling us through pigments of pain with a creative brush.
Never Look Away
Starring: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl, Oliver Masucci, Ina Weisse, Hanno Koffler, Cai Cohrs
Directed by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Running time: 3 hrs 9 minutes
In German with English Subtitles
By Katherine Monk
It’s about the red, white and blur: Germany’s once willful immersion in the beliefs and symbols of National Socialism, and a subsequent, subconscious desire to obscure the details with the slow wipe of time’s white brush. Never Look Away is also loosely based on the early life of famed Dresden-raised painter Gerhard Richter, an artist known for —and what is labelled in his catalogue raisonée as —“blur.”
Says Richter himself on the subject of flattening and blending his pigments by dragging a brush or squeegee across the canvas: “I blur things to make everything equally important and equally unimportant. I blur things so that they do not look artistic or craftsmanlike but technological, smooth and perfect. I blur things to make all the parts a closer fit. Perhaps I also blur out the excess of unimportant information.”
“I blur things to make everything equally important and equally unimportant. I blur things so that they do not look artistic or craftsmanlike but technological, smooth and perfect. I blur things to make all the parts a closer fit. Perhaps I also blur out the excess of unimportant information.” – Gerhard Richter
You could say the exact same thing about Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s screenplay. A cinematic Meisterwerk from the Oscar-winner behind The Lives of Others, Never Look Away forms a panoramic survey of the German psyche from the dawn of Nazism in the 1930s to the breath before the creation of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The film consumes all the facts and pulls them together with even, creative strokes, eventually evoking the blurry emotional truth in human form.
The protagonist in this broad tableau is an artist. We meet young Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) as a boy, venturing into the big city for a visit to an art exhibit with his beautiful aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl). We feel palpable love and joy in their presence, so when we figure out the art show is the infamous “Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst)” exhibition organized by Joseph Goebbels to denigrate modernism and the avant-garde via public ridicule, we’re immediately conflicted. Why are they there?
It’s a question even Goebbels himself probably asked of the more than two million visitors who flocked to see the “grotesqueries” from Pablo Picasso and Otto Dix before the works were either auctioned off internationally for profit, or destroyed by the state. Was it curiosity about a creative freak show? Or a latent desire for people to make up their own minds about what constitutes art?
When Aunt Elisabeth confides to little Kurt that she likes the paintings, despite the government’s declaration of disgust, we’re comforted somewhat by her openness and her agency. She’s instilling Kurt with a sense of respect for what artists see, and how they can make the familiar seem alien.
Within a handful of scenes, the entire landscape of Kurt’s youth is firebombed beyond recognition. Moving back and forth across his central themes of physical destruction and creative resurrection, Henckel von Donnersmarck blends every bit of narrative with the heavy tones of history, and fleshes out the profiles of human fallibility that define the whole canvas.
Moving back and forth across his central themes of physical destruction and creative resurrection, Henckel von Donnersmarck blends every bit of narrative with the heavy tones of history, and fleshes out the profiles of human fallibility that define the whole canvas.
History is the underlying layer of the story, a readily identifiable landscape strewn with red, white and black symbolism that we understand all too well. Von Donnersmarck’s characters are painted atop this moral wasteland, living through the ambient chaos by tracing their own lines, and following their own truths as much as possible.
When Kurt commits to becoming an artist, the state assigns him to a sign-painting factory. When he’s finally accepted to art school, his talents are recognized, only to be exploited by the state for propaganda purposes. Yet, he perseveres. At length.
Clocking in at over three hours, the running-time reflects the extent of the journey, and the overall sense of movement — culturally and socially, but physically as well. The actors are in motion, rarely sitting down or static, even in the painting sequences. This is a world in flux, where the only thing that gives life meaning is the world you create with others, and with art.
It’s worth noting how exquisitely, and faithfully, the artwork before the camera was recreated or reimagined to work alongside every aspect of the narrative. Portraits, student work and the lost works from the Degenerate Show were painted by the art department with impressive artistry, as well as much consultation with archives and expert sources. As a result, we’re given an extra eye on the transformation of Kurt’s world view, in addition to the world around him.
By capturing this constant churning of humanity — our loves and hates, sorrows and joys, strange motivations and hidden secrets — Henckel von Donnersmarck creates his own brand of blur on the movie canvas. With the help of an intrepid and talented cast, he pulls all the emotional pigments together and finds the common threads and defining contours of the collective soul.
By capturing this constant churning of humanity — our loves and hates, sorrows and joys, strange motivations and hidden secrets — Henckel von Donnersmarck creates his own brand of blur on the movie canvas.
The painting isn’t pretty. Oftentimes, it’s so ugly and senselessly tragic it will reduce you to tears. And yet, in this clearly fabricated version of reality, there is something undeniably beautiful in its honest poignancy. A cold sense of recognition coiled around a constant hope for redemption, Never Look Away sketches the essence of the human spirit in its own blood. More beautiful still, it does so without sacrificing the persistent thump, squish, and creative force called heart in the name of art.
Main image: Young Kurt (Cai Cohrs) confronts so-called Degenerate Art in Never Look Away. Courtesy of Sony Classics/Mongrel.
THE EX-PRESS, February 25, 2019