Review: 'Never Look Away' is a gorgeous story
“Never Look Away” is an extraordinary ordinary film.
Ordinary in that it has a (long) arc of triumph, follows two gorgeous lovers and features condescending Nazi monsters. It revels in the rewards of creativity, looks aghast at the horrors of oppression and even has your basic happy ending.
All standard, but writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (the Oscar-winning “The Lives of Others”) has a gift for heightening and exploring that can range from harrowing to heartfelt, and he hits all the right beats here.
Those beats are modeled on the life of the monumental German painter Gerhard Richter, although the film doesn't claim to be biographical. The protagonist here is named Kurt Barnett (eventually Tom Schilling). Raised in Nazi Germany Kurt is drawn to art at a young age, and his aspirations are encouraged by his aunt Elisabeth (the angelic Saskia Rosendahl).
Unfortunately, Elisabeth has mental problems (or are they insights?), which don't fit with the Nazi plan. Her eventual undoing is ordered by an SS doctor, Professor Seeband (Sebastian Koch). And her absence marks Kurt for life.
If Kurt's artistic ambitions are initially foiled by the Nazis, who denounce modern art, they are further trounced by the Russians after the war. One oppression replaces another and our artist is left painting murals of noble workers. Which leads him to flee to West Germany with his young bride, Ellie (Paula Beer) just before the Berlin Wall goes up.
So he reaches freedom and can now paint whatever he wants. But after a stifled artistic life – and a series of personal tragedies – what does he want?
“Never Look Away” is often drop-dead gorgeous – at times it's hard to tell what's a painting and what's not – and if von Donnersmarck is a more accomplished director than writer, it hardly matters. He gets to the aching heart of matters. You won't look away.
“Never Look Away”
Rated R for graphic nudity, sexuality and brief violent images
Running time: 188 minutes