Clocking in at three hours and nine minutes, “Never Look Away” is an epic journey through the life of Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling, “A Coffee in Berlin”), a young artist seeking to find his sense of self through art. His youth was influenced by World War II — his aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl, “Lore”) was sterilized and euthanized by a Nazi doctor due to her “mild schizophrenia.” When we first meet Kurt and Elisabeth, he is five or six years old and she is taking him to the famous 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Dresden — one of the greatest exhibitions of modern art in history. It is here where Elisabeth tells Kurt to “never look away” as “everything true is beautiful.” Kurt never forgets these words, and the loss of his aunt affects him deeply. Raised in East Germany, Kurt attends art school in Dresden. There, he meets his wife Ellie (Paula Beer, “Transit”) with whom he ultimately leaves for the West. Despite rising above his classmates, he is restricted by the prescriptive nature of Socialist realism. Kurt desires a greater artistic freedom, which he finds in Dusseldorf. Throughout the film, we see how World War II affected Germany, personally and societally. Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”), “Never Look Away” addresses the war with brutal honesty, reminding viewers of the Nazi slaughter of non-Jewish Germans with mental illness and “undesirable genetics.” Von Donnersmarck based this film on the life of German artist Gerhard Richter. The biographical accuracy has been debated, but the similarities remain unquestioned. Kurt’s ultimate artistic style is very Richter-esque; some of the works Kurt paints in the movie are direct references to Richter’s works.
This film is remarkably moving. Von Donnersmarck’s treatment of the war is raw. One particularly disturbing and somber scene, in which mentally ill women walk into a gas chamber to be euthanized, provokes a melancholy feeling of profound disgust. The film addresses life and death, particularly how living and dying affects those around us. Mother and child, birth and loss, creation and destruction. The viewer is engaged for every minute of the film; every scene adds to Kurt’s intricately layered history. This is not your average biopic.
Despite the intense and artfully woven plot, the film would not be as moving without its remarkable score. Composed by Max Richter, the wonderful music elevates the film. It is fluid, powerful and engaging. I am always drawn to repeated motifs, small visual moments which tie characters and scenes together. “Never Look Away” features a few of these, most notably Elisabeth and Kurt’s separate moments of aural rapture: An unexpected mechanical chorus provides the blank canvas from which Max Richter’s score erupts, sending chills down the viewer’s spine. In “Never Look Away,” film meets music meets painting to create a portrait of human suffering and flourishing. Growth, decay, regrowth — this arc emerges in Kurt and Ellie’s passionate romance, in Kurt’s art and in the career of Ellie’s father. I would say Von Donnersmarck paints a portrait himself, of being human in the face of inhumanity. This is not your average World War II film, either. Von Donnersmarck gives the viewer an intimate look into mid- and post-War Germany. It is a film about passion and perseverance. The viewer is ultimately reminded to appreciate art and love wholeheartedly, for how else are we to cope with life and loss?