I don’t readily commit to watching a movie that runs more than three hours, but having admired The Lives of Others—a truly great film that won an Academy Award—I looked forward to Florian Henckel von Donnarsmarck’s new release Never Look Away, and I wasn’t disappointed. This exceptional drama is an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film this year, and rightly so. Master cinematographer Caleb Deschanel is also a nominee for his expressive work with the German writer-director.
Telling the story of an artist’s life and influences from boyhood on would be challenge enough. Von Donnarsmarck opens his story in 1937 in Dresden, Germany and follows his leading character through the tumultuous decades to follow. The upheavals in German society are woven organically into the hero’s personal journey…one that causes him anguish because he can’t find a way to channel his feelings into his work.
Directors have tried (and often failed) to give us a vicarious idea of an artist’s creative process. Why did a composer write that symphony? What drove a painter to pour his feelings into a particular canvas?
Never Look Away succeeds where others have failed because we are invested in its hero from the age of 10, when a young aunt he adores introduces him to art, love, and even passion. He also absorbs the humiliation of his father being stripped of his job and his dignity at the hands of the Nazis. A short time later, his aunt is torn from her family in a horrifying manner. Because we witness what happens to her we can easily imagine the imprint this leaves on a sensitive boy who loves to draw.
As the boy-turned-man Kurt (Tom Schilling) continues on his path he struggles with his muse. What does he want to convey, and how should he go about it? He shares a studio with a student friend who (amusingly) is convinced that covering objects with rows of nails is his calling. Kurt, on the other hand, isn’t even certain what medium he wants to adopt.
The film pairs this inner odyssey with an engaging love story. Kurt’s pursuit of the leading lady (Paula Beer) offers von Donnarsmarck an opportunity to leaven his tale with sexuality and humor. A remark by the girl’s mother after an awkward encounter offers a memorable gag line. Throughout the film, right up to the end, the filmmaker has fun poking at the pretentiousness of the art world and the critics who cover it.
Ultimately, Never Look Away is about the transcendent quality of art—and love. The filmmaker is fascinated with Germany’s history during the 20th century and, interestingly, this story concludes on a note of hope, even optimism. Perhaps he is saying that in the 21st century it is possible to move on from the horrors of the past—not just the Nazi era but the behavior of the secret police in the 1980s, when citizens were encouraged to spy on each other (as they do in The Lives of Others). Sebastian Koch, who made such a vivid impression in that picture, stands out here in a featured role.
Von Donnarsmarck has made no secret of the fact that he was inspired by the life and work of Gerhard Richter, but you needn’t know that to appreciate or understand the film. A recent New Yorker article explored this in depth, if it piques your interest.
With or without this knowledge, I urge you to see Never Look Away. It is a rich and rewarding experience, and the three hours fly by. Already playing in Manhattan, the movie opens in Los Angeles on February 8. I also wrote a piece about showing the film to my class at the University of Southern California. You can read that HERE.