After securing Oscar-winning status as a filmmaker with his debut feature The Lives of Others – the 2006 drama taking home the Best Foreign Film award at the year’s ceremony – before briefly tainting his own reputation with the preposterous Johnny Depp/Angelina Jolie vehicle The Tourist (2010), German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmack returns to his native tongue for Never Look Away, an extensive yet erratic epic about the will and need to survive when facing oppression and corruption.
Inspired by the life of German visual artist Gerhard Richter, Never Look Away places its focus on artist-in-waiting Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), who we first meet as a young boy (Cai Cohrs) in pre-World War II Germany, attending a contemporary art show with his loving aunt that’s been designed as an example of the dangers of free expression. Of course, young Kurt and auntie Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) are enamoured with the artwork, though know better to say so given the political climate that surrounds them, and it soon becomes gut-wrenchingly obvious that Elisabeth’s fragile mind is unable to cope with the turmoil of their existence and she suffers a mental breakdown.
Witnessing Elisabeth being hauled away by doctors is the first of many traumatic experiences for Kurt and his family, and von Donnersmack, whilst never gratuitously so, is never shy about highlighting the monstrous acts of the Nazis. Perhaps the film’s most vile ingredient is that of the character Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a gynaecologist tasked with treating women the Reich sees as unfit for reproduction. Seeband is a particularly hateful character but he’s also Never Look Away‘s most fascinating case, and the film makes it a point to keep him constantly intertwined with the story of Kurt, even if it’s to the point of overt absurdity.
At nearly 190 minutes it’s clear that von Donnersmack is in no rush to usher the film along at a steady pace, and he indeed takes his time in laying the foundations for both Kurt and Seeband, staying with them as the talented painter tries to find his own voice through the stifling of his own creativity due to the “Socialist Realism” that’s expected of him, and as the doctor who has managed to avoid persecution for his role in the Holocaust.
Within every moment of Never Look Away the film finds something of beauty and interest to explore, but it’s also in its need to fill every scene with something of substance that it stifles its own vision. Sequences of the harsh realities of war played in close proximity to the basking of young love lend the film a sense of identity crisis, and whilst moments of levity against the backdrop of bleakness can be appreciated, Never Look Away doesn’t always successfully execute its search for truth.