Gerhard Richter was a direct inspiration for Kurt Barnert, but there is a little bit of Sigmar Polke in him, as well as every other East German artist who crossed over to the West, for the sake of artistic freedom. Like Richter, Barnert is a product of the Cold War era, but his art grapples with [East and West] Germany’s dark legacy from WWII. However, in Barnert’s case, the crimes of the National Socialist regime will hit home much closer than he initially expects in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away (trailer here), Germany’s official foreign language Oscar submission, which opens a special awards-qualifying run this Friday in New York.
As a boy, Barnert dearly loved his free-spirited aunt, Elisabeth May. She had a formative influence on him, encouraging his artistic talent and secretly assuring him it was okay to like the notorious exhibition of supposedly “degenerate art.” Alas, she was too free a spirit for her times. Her unconventional attitudes resulted in her commitment to an insane asylum, where National Socialist hardliner Prof. Carl Seeband would eventually euthanize her, along with the rest of his patients.
Seeband is a true believer in the Party’s racial theories, but he also respects power and authority. He therefore is perfectly happy to switch his loyalties to Communism, after saving the life of a top Soviet officer’s pregnant wife. As the years go by, he becomes a pillar of the GDR regime, who is not about to let his daughter marry a scruffy art student like Kurt Barnert. Inconveniently (for Seeband), the two students are deeply in love and have the tacit approval of his wife, but as an arrogant control freak, he has no problem employing genuinely sinister psychological tactics to undermine their relationship. However, his own past is always lurking out there and will eventually force the entire family to slip over to the West.
Forget Johnny Depp and The Tourist ever existed. Never Look Away is an entirely worthy follow-up to Donnersmarck’s masterful The Lives of Others, which is high praise indeed. Like his Oscar-winning feature debut, NLA has moments that are exquisitely elegant and also disturbingly chilling. Donnersmarck is consciously engaging with his country’s ism-driven history as well as the question of what it means to be German, but both films of his non-duology very definitely explore the psychology of oppressors and those who willingly follow them, as well.
NLA is also an incredible depiction of the creation of art and an exploration of its significance during the last Century. Painstaking effort went into recreating the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition, including the reproduction of some subsequently destroyed paintings that were only documented in small black-and-white photographs. The way he stages Barnert’s great artistic breakthrough (modeled on some of Richter’s early work) is highly cinematic—exhilarating is arguably not too strong a word. As an added bonus, Max Richter’s minimalist but evocatively melodic score might just be his best to-date. NLA runs a full three hours and change, but Donnersmarck so fully commands our attention, it flies by like a hurtling bullet train.
Regardless of Donnersmarck’s intent, many people will inevitably consider NLA and TLOO as part of a thematic set, due to the presence of Sebastian Koch in both, albeit in vastly different roles. His portrayal of Prof. Seeband is a staggering portrait of magisterial villainy and the psychological debasement that results. Frankly, it is a performance on the level of Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List.
Tom Schilling does not have anything remotely approaching Koch’s power and gravitas (who does?), but he is completely convincing performing Barnert’s acts of artistic creation, which are absolutely essential to the film. However, Saskia Rosendahl (probably best known for the over-hyped Lore) is the greatest revelation, also giving her career-best (so far) as the charismatic but tragic Aunt Elisabeth.
There is no need to parse words. Never Look Away is just a great film. It is not as quite overwhelming as The Lives of Others, but its big moments sneak up on viewers and suddenly pull the entire floor out from under their feet. Honestly, it is amazing how close it comes to matching the level of achievement Donnersmarck reached with his first feature. This is important cinema, but it is also richly rewarding on an emotional level. Very highly recommended, Never Look Away opens this Friday (11/30) in New York, for a week-long Oscar-qualifying week run (it will return early next year).