Perhaps by accident, the English title of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film (the original German one translates as “Work Without An Author”), taken from a line of dialogue early on, fits it well: though at over three hours “Never Look Away” is of epic length, it tells so fascinating a story, at once personal, political and aesthetic, that it’s difficult to tear your eyes off the screen.
The script, which covers roughly three tumultuous decades of German history, is loosely based on the life of artist Gerhard Richter, who—according to a recent New Yorker article by Dana Goodyear—has criticized the finished film, though in terms that are rather opaque. It begins in the mid-1930s, when little Kurt Barnert (Cai Cohrs) is taken by his free-spirited aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) to an exhibit of so-called degenerate art in Dresden, where a pompous Nazi vilifies the works on display. Elizabeth confesses that she likes them, and after getting home proceeds to play the piano in the nude and bang her head until she draws blood.
She’s quickly carted off for a mental examination, after which gynecologist Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), an SS man, orders her to be committed and—per recent eugenics orders—terminated when the hospital space she’s occupying is needed for more important members of society. She and other so-called defectives are, in fact, killed in a fashion designed to mirror the death camp gas chambers—a fate juxtaposed with other horrors of World War II, including the bombing of Dresden and the deaths of family members on the front lines.
In the aftermath of the war, Kurt (now played by Tom Schilling) has obtained a job making stencils at a sign factory in the new East Germany. His talent, however, wins him a spot in the art academy, where his personal expression is submerged by the demand that all work subscribe to the dogma of socialist realism. There is, however, a positive element to his studies: he meets Ellie (Paula Beer), a high-spirited classmate, and the two become romantically involved. When their relationship becomes known to her imperious, well-connected father, however, he attempts—through the most brutal of means—to break it up. But he fails.
It’s the identity of Ellie’s father that provides the film’s major twist, though some might prefer to call it a melodramatic contrivance: he’s Seeband, who has won the protection of a prominent Russian general despite his Nazi past by assisting in his wife’s difficult delivery and is now an eminent member of the East German medical community.
The final act of the film shifts to West Germany in the 1960s, where Kurt and Ellie flee just before the construction of the Berlin wall. Though he’s admitted to the cutting-edge Dusseldorf art academy by its unconventional director Antonius van Verten (Oliver Masucci), who’s clearly modeled on Joseph Beuys, he struggles to find his artistic voice. Domestically, his life is no less difficult, as he and Elizabeth seem unable to start a family and Seeband, who has also come to the West after his Russian protector is called home, does all he can to humiliate his son-in-law by getting him a menial job as a janitor at the hospital over which he reigns. A resolution of sorts occurs when Kurt has an artistic breakthrough that, as a corollary, compels Seeband to realize that his past is closing in on him.
“Never Look Away” is about many things—the stifling effect of dogmatism on art, whether it comes from right or left, and the need to come to terms with history, however difficult it might be, among them. But it can be savored simply as an old-fashioned domestic drama set against the rush of uncontrollable events, given piquancy by its suggestions of biographical secrets. One might complain that its narrative turns are based too much on coincidence, or that it sometimes veers overmuch into melodramatic territory. But such criticisms are misplaced, as those are the very elements that carry this kind of story along, as are the rare humorous moments—the scene in which Kurt has to climb out Ellie’s second-storey window into a tree without his clothes, for instance, or the jocular encouragement of his fellow Dusseldorf classmate Gunther (Hanno Koffler).
The film is very well crafted. Silke Buhr’s production design features some imposing sets and furnishings, and Andreas Schön’s Richteresque paintings are impressive, while Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography gives everything a seductive glow; and though it can be insistent, Max Richter’s score adds to the effect.
As to the performances, Schilling can seem overly bland as Barnert, but Koch cuts a striking figure as the martinet Seeband, and Masucci a charismatic one as Van Verten. And while Beer isn’t given as much opportunity to shine as one might wish, Rosendahl is unforgettable as a girl who is at one point a Nordic Nazi favorite but becomes their victim.
Inevitably “Never Look Away” will be compared to Von Donnersmarck’s searing 2007 Oscar winner “The Lives of Others,” and it doesn’t match its power, being more diffuse and episodic. But it’s another perceptive, thought-provoking examination of the painful realities of Germany’s recent past, and certainly far superior to his 2010 Hollywood misfire “The Tourist.”