Never Look Away is a new film, written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, which explores themes of artistic freedom and historical trauma. It is loosely inspired by the life of noted German painter, Gerhard Richter. The film stars Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch and Paula Beer.
Spanning three turbulent decades of German history, from 1937 - 1967, the film covers several historical periods including the rise of the Nazis, the Second World War, the Communist occupation and the division of East and West Germany.
Never Look Away follows the story of aspiring artist Kurt Barnert, played as an adult by Tom Schilling, who falls in love with fellow student Ellie, played by Paula Beer. However, Ellie's father, Professor Seeband, played chillingly by Sebastian Koch, does not approve of their relationship and vows to destroy it. We follow their lives as Kurt attempts to find his artistic voice and his place in the world. Yet the twist in this story is that the characters are unaware that their lives are inextricably connected by a terrible crime committed decades ago.
The film explores Kurt's life and the traumatic events he experiences, such as witnessing his beloved Aunt Elisabeth, played by Saskia Rosendahl, being taken away to a mental institution when he was a young boy. Under the care of a prominent gynaecologist, she is sterilised and later euthanised by the Nazi eugenics program for racial purity. He experiences the horror of the Second World War where he sees his home town of Dresden reduced to rubble by air raids and family members lose their lives on the front. He witnesses the aftermath of his father's suicide and later on must support his girlfriend through a traumatic abortion.
In addition to these terrible events, it is also the political attacks on artistic expression which have a profound effect on Kurt's life and art. Kurt's journey as an artist is influenced by the politics of the time, first during the Nazi regime and their rejection of modernism. Then in East Germany after the war where Socialist Realism, used for communist propaganda, is the only style permitted by the government. It is not until he escapes to the West that Kurt can truly pursue his art and enjoy artistic freedom.
Never Look Away was written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, known for 2006 drama "The Lives of Others". Von Donnersmarck has said he had always wanted to make a film about how an artist can use the trauma in their lives to create great art. The inspiration for this film is German painter Gerhard Richter, who experienced the horrors of war as a young child. Richter is known for his incredible photorealistic paintings which often feature brushstrokes of subtle blurring.
While many artists seek the ideals of truth and beauty in their art, others such as Richter explore the relationship between the two ideals. In Never Look Away we are shown that the truth is not always beautiful and, just like the characters in the film, we are persuaded to never look away from the ugliness of reality. It is through this realisation that Kurt eventually finds his artistic voice as truth, beauty and his traumatic past are spectacularly combined in his art. However, it is also important to note that this film is not a biography. Rather, in a similar fashion to Richter's art, fact and fiction have been blurred in order to create this stunning film.
The film contains a great deal of sensitive subject matter, as well as some very disturbing scenes, so it is no surprise that it is rated R for several reasons; graphic nudity, sexuality and the brief, yet disturbing, violent images. However, despite the grim subject matter the film is thoroughly engaging and generously infused with a sense of love and hope and subtle humour which prevents it from becoming too depressing. The beautiful cinematography must also be mentioned, courtesy of Caleb Deschanel.
Never Look Away is filmed in German with subtitles. With a running time of over 3 hours long (189 minutes to be precise), my advice is to order the jumbo popcorn and make yourself comfortable. For those who are concerned that this film might be a little too long, I can confide that I was pleasantly surprised that it held my attention for the entire running time. One objection I did have was that there were way too many scenes involving stair cleaning, prompting me to wonder how the staircases could possibly be so dirty? There was one such scene at the end of the film which was totally farcical and would have been better suited to the out-take reel.
Nevertheless Never Look Away is a highly engaging film with a compelling story and some great performances which I would recommend to lovers of art, lovers of history and lovers of good film.
Rated R - contains graphic nudity, sexuality and brief violent images.
In German with subtitles.
Running Time: 189 minutes
Never Look Away is a Sony Pictures release and will be in cinemas from 20th June 2019.