Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Starring Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer and Saskia Rosendahl
Running time: 3 hours and 8 minutes
MPAA rating: R for graphic nudity, sexuality, and brief violent images
by Benjamin Leonard, Best Boy
I’m not gonna lie. Looking down the barrel of a three + hour long subtitled movie about being an artist under fascist regimes, I felt daunted. I was afraid this may be a tough watch, but Never Look Away is nominated for Best Foreign Film and Best Cinematography at the Oscars this year. I’ve seen (or plan to see) everything else in these categories, I might as well try to have the most informed opinion I can when I sit down and look at the results that Monday morning following the Oscars. (It is increasingly unlikely that the three + hour long shit-show could possibly be worth actually viewing. If there is anything of value, it’ll be available to see that next morning.)
Surprisingly, I had nothing to worry about. NLA tells the story of visual artist Kurt Barnert (loosely, and somewhat controversially, based on the life of Gerhard Richter) in what is essentially three parts: his formative years under the Nazis, his development under the GDR in the Soviet occupation zone, and his escape to the artistic freedom he found in West Berlin. Each section moves engagingly through what, admittedly, have become some fairly standard tropes of these types of movies to keep the viewer invested in the characters and their struggles.
The first section is Kurt as a young boy (Cai Cohrs) in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He often visits his aunt, Elisabeth May (Saskia Rosendahl), in nearby Dusseldorf where they (secretly) enjoy the “Degenerate Art Exhibit” put on by the Nazis to deride the modern art movement. Following an epiphany, Elisabeth suffers a mental break-down and is diagnosed by the Nazi Dr. Seeband (Sebastian Koch) as being mentally defective. This leads to her being sterilized and eventually hauled off to a camp where she is gassed in a “shower” with others deemed to be of no value to the Nazis. Kurt witnesses Elisabeth being drug away and as he moves to cover his eyes, she delivers our titular line. This instills in Kurt her motto that there is beauty in truth, even atrocities. It closes with Seeband (a gynecologist by training) being arrested by the Russian allied forces for his role in the eugenics program, but earning his freedom by saving the life of the Major’s wife and unborn child during a complicated labor.
We jump forward to 1951 when, under communist rule, Kurt is painting sings at a sign factory where his father cleans the steps. Kurt raises the suspicions of his boss and fellow workers by not needing the stencils to create the lettering for his signs and using the supplies to create his own (non-socialist) artwork. Despite/because of this, his boss decides to sponsor him to go to the school to learn proper skills in Social Realism. They lecture on the themes of “don’t innovate” and “All art must be for the people.” There, Kurt meets and falls in love with a fashion student Ellie (Paula Beer) who, as it turns out, is the daughter of the same Dr. Seeband. In a cute, somewhat sit-comy way, Kurt and Ellie set up an elaborate scheme to get her parents to rent a room in their house to him. She soon becomes pregnant and they have to break the news of, both their relationship and, the pregnancy to her parents. Seeband sets up a counter-rouse to keep them from procreating as he sees Kurt as coming from a long line of “mental defectives”. He convinces them that she needs an abortion or else her life will be in danger and, in the process, more or less sterilizes his own daughter. While still holding firm to his Nazi ideals, Seeband has ingratiated himself with the ruling Communist Party, but the Major that was protecting him is being transferred and can no longer guarantee his safety. There are many scenes in this portion where Ellie’s mother (Ina Weisse) steals the show.
We conclude in the early 1960s where Kurt and Ellie have defected back to Dusseldorf, joining her parents. Kurt enrolls at a prestigious Art school and is assigned studio space to develop his new voice. Ellie takes a menial job at a sewing factory while Kurt busies himself with his art and scrubbing the steps (like his father) at the institute where Seeband works. Feeling the weight of always being indebted to Seeband, the young couple struggle to find joy in their daily lives. Finally, Kurt finds inspiration in the atrocities he had witnessed in his past by blurring and manipulating photorealistic representations of paintings he’s made of those times. This changes the moods of the couple and they end up being able to have a child and get a gallery showing. During a Q&A at the opening, Kurt lies to the critics about the meaning and purpose of his work. Showing us that he finally realizes that, against the instruction of the social realists, his art needs to be personal in order to make an impact. And he keeps it personal by not betraying his process.
I was quite happy to have spent the more than three hours with this film, and you should be too. It was both visually and emotionally engaging with strong performances on both sides of the camera. While it’s a bit problematic in some areas, I would say that it is, at least, in the middle of the pack with its fellow nominees in both Oscar categories. It’s not likely to have a long theatrical run in most theaters. Go see it and judge for yourself while you still have the chance and celebrate this President's Day with a film about emigrating from a totalitarian regime.