“Don’t look away, Kurt,” Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) implores her young nephew. “Never look away – everything that’s true is beautiful.” Elisabeth is soon violently ripped away from her family, under the auspices of “The Court of Hereditary Health” instituted by the Nazi regime during World War II. Although she’s of strong Aryan stock, she’s diagnosed as mentally ill and “relieved of her meaningless existence,” in a brutal eugenic genocide perpetrated under the Third Reich.
“Never Look Away” is both the title and the thesis of Oscar-winning German writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s third feature film, but it could describe the movement of contemporary German films that confront the country’s ugly Nazi history, as well as the post-war era when war criminals slipped back into civil society. How does a nation grapple with that? Through legal action and prosecution, as seen in “Labyrinth of Lies,” or Nazi-hunting, such as in “The People vs. Fritz Bauer”? In Donnersmarck’s latest film, it’s through art.
The film has been nominated for Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography (shot by legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel).
It’s based on the life of German painter Gerhard Richter, who was born and raised in Dresden, endured great losses during the war, studied art and became a socialist realist painter in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and defected to the West with his wife in the early ’60s. The hero of “Never Look Away,” Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), follows the same trajectory. While Donnersmarck was inspired by Richter’s life and the mysteriously autobiographical nature of his famous blurred photopaintings, Richter has disavowed the film.
Nevertheless, Donnersmarck has crafted an unparalleled masterpiece, a three-plus hour epic that leaves you wanting more. The setup is a brilliant way to explore the ways in which Nazi ideology destroyed families and generations to come within an intimate, human-sized scale. It’s even more astonishing to consider the story is based in reality, even if Donnersmarck’s script offers theories that have never been confirmed.
Kurt, who loses his beloved aunt at a young age, finds himself courting a comely fashion student, Ellie (Paula Beer), whose father, professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), was an integral cog in the death machine that destroyed Elisabeth. The characters don’t know this, and the simple, effective connection provides an unbelievable sense of tension that carries the entire affair.
The truth always comes out, so we might as well confront it. For Karl, that truth emerges in his art, at an avant-garde art school in Dusseldorf after defecting. Thrust into the world of post-modernism where painting is declared a “dead medium,” he struggles to express himself. Urged by a professor to draw from his own experiences, Karl fully understands the words of his aunt: “Everything that’s true is beautiful.” Whether it’s lottery numbers or newspaper photos or family snapshots, these things contain truth, and therefore beauty.
Donnersmarck directs “Never Look Away” with a sensitivity and clarity that is as rich as Deschanel’s crisp, saturated images. The film is anchored by an arresting performance by Schilling, who evolves from a dreamy young man into a serious, taciturn artist, refusing to reveal too much of himself. At the end of the film, Kurt tells a reporter, “I don’t make statements, I make pictures.” It’s a self-styled reticence modeled after Richter, but the statement could even be a comment on the nature of the film itself. The essential truth Donnersmarck elicits is one we look away from at our own risk.
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