Never Look Away Is a Grim and Gorgeous Epic

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Oscar-nominated German drama is worth every minute of its three-hour run time.

Cai Cohrs as Young Kurt Barnert in Never Look Away (Caleb Deschanel / Sony Pictures Classics)

“Never look away,” an aunt tells her nephew. “Everything that is true is beautiful.” The aunt’s advice is somewhat complicated by the fact that she is stark-naked playing the piano, and the nephew she is encouraging to continue watching her is 5 years old. She is beautiful but, as this episode attests, not always in her right mind.

The year is 1937, the locale is Germany, and soon enough “Aunt Elisabeth” (Saskia Rosendahl) will again tell her nephew to “never look away”—this time as she is carted off to a madhouse against her will. There, as part of a Nazi program to ensure the genetic purity of the Reich, she is forcibly sterilized. Later, she is sent to a more distant facility where, having been deemed a “useless life,” she is gassed in a shower with a few dozen other women. More than 100,000 such German women were killed by the end of World War II; hundreds of thousands more were sterilized.

This grim history lesson provides the wellspring for the writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away, a fictionalized biography of the legendary painter Gerhard Richter that was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film by the Academy this week. Von Donnersmarck describes his process as the difference between making Citizen Kane and “Citizen Hearst.” Richter, who cooperated extensively with von Donnersmarck, is nonetheless furious about the film, which he told the The New Yorker  “abuse[s] and grossly distort[s] my biography.”

I have neither the knowledge nor the desire to adjudicate Never Look Away as biography. But I will say this: Like von Donnersmarck’s 2006 debut film, The Lives of Others, (and overlooking The Tourist, a terrible English-language misfire he directed in the interim), Never Look Away is a marvel. Epic yet intimate, it uses its semi-biographical tale to catalog three decades of German history, comprising Nazism, the war, Soviet domination, the Wall, and the protagonist’s escape to the West. It is also a story—occasionally hokey, but often quite moving—of the redemptive power of art.

The young boy we met at the film’s opening (essentially, a stand-in for Richter) is Kurt Barnert, played as an adult by Tom Schilling. After his aunt’s death and the war’s end—we see Dresden burning in the distance—he arrives at that city’s Academy of Art. This being East Germany, he is then drilled on the importance of socialist realism. (Picasso is offered as a “cautionary tale.”) He meets a woman, Ellie (Paula Beer) and falls in love, and the two eventually elope to the West, where they discover the ridiculous avant-garde arts scene of Dusseldorf. The semi-comic send-up that ensues is delightful—two nude men, side by side, painting themselves white and black, respectively; a woman slashing canvases despite the fact that, alas, another artist has beaten her to the idea by six years—but the sequence almost seems a part of another film altogether.

And yet, the past comes calling, as it is wont to do. Barnert’s story intersects repeatedly with that of a famous gynecologist, Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch, who played a principal role in The Lives of Others). Though Barnert does not know it, Seeband was the doctor who sterilized his aunt and sent her away to be slaughtered. I will not reveal how Seeband returns to the movie’s narrative, but he does so with sinister consistency.

Indeed, Barnert and Seeband serve as shadow twins throughout: yang and yin, art and science, chaos and order, warmth and cold, humanism and the cruelest rationalism. Schilling is vivid but a little vague as Barnert, his limpid blue eyes occasionally substituting for genuine acting. Koch, by contrast, is a villain for the ages: a recurring malignancy, a man of exceptional talent whose capacity for evil is equally at home among the Nazis and the Soviets.

Von Donnersmarck’s film is gorgeous but long—more than three hours—and might tax some viewers. But even beyond the central storyline, minor miracles are tucked within: a tender scene in which a painting teacher must reconcile with the fact that Barnert has abandoned him; another in which the ridiculous head of the Dusseldorf school, who only works in “grease and felt,” offers one of the best movie monologues since Robert Shaw’s U.S.S. Indianapolis speech in Jaws.

The ending of the film is odd, and slightly unsatisfying. An immense revelation is hinted at, and then made explicit, but almost no character in the movie seems to comprehend it. This is, I presume, a reluctance born of von Donnersmarck’s loose fidelity to Richter’s life story—and one, given the looseness of his fidelity, that might not be merited. Nonetheless, the film more than earns its commanding title: You will not want to look away.