Never Look Away
German director examines the war of art
Never Look Away (2019)
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Cast: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer
In prewar Germany, a 6-year-old boy and his beloved aunt visit a Nazi-sponsored exhibit of “degenerate art”—that is to say, art. Showing off examples of work by then-current artists like Kandinsky and Mondrian, the officious museum guide rails against the “bizarre ocular affliction” that causes artists to portray the world in a way other than the most strictly realistic. It’s as ugly a critique of artistic expression as has been levied by man. (This notorious exhibit, aimed mostly at debasing Jewish contributions to society, actually toured Germany in real life.) “Maybe I don’t want to be an artist,” declares the small boy. Undeterred, his aunt quietly confesses, “I like these paintings.” This telling opening sequence sets the mood for Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s sprawling examination of war, revolution, romance, politics, history and—above all—art.
Shortly after their visit to the museum, Kurt’s pretty young aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) suffers a nervous breakdown. She, like many who visit Hitler’s notorious “degenerate art” exhibit, does not parrot Herr Hitler’s racist views. But she knows well enough to keep such feelings secret. Basically all of Kurt’s family consists of “good Germans” with no interest in Hitler’s plans for world domination. But they have no choice but to play along. Dad—an unemployed teacher—wears his Nazi party lapel pin in the vain hope that it will give him some sort of “capital” in the postwar era. (He also mutters “three liters” quietly as a substitute for “Heil Hitler.”) But Elizabeth finds herself unable to smile and dissemble through the looming horrors. It takes a toll on her sensitive soul.
Thanks to the horrific-sounding “Court of Hereditary Health,” Elizabeth is diagnosed as schizophrenic and sent off to an asylum. As part of their goal of achieving a Master Race, the Nazi Party is locking up all sick or mentally ill citizens and forcefully sterilizing them. Elizabeth soon falls under the “care” of icy, rule-following gynecologist Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch, who starred in von Donnersmarck’s previous Oscar winner The Lives of Others). Worried that such “noncontributing” citizens will take up valuable hospital beds needed for wounded soldiers in the upcoming war, the party steps up its plans and orders all of them executed. Without a thought, Seeband signs Elizabeth’s death warrant. Though she vanishes from the story at this point, her spirit casts a strong spell over the rest of the lengthy narrative—
As the years wear on, World War II continues to take a hard toll on Kurt’s family. When the war eventually ends, at the forefront of a military sweep from Russian troops, Kurt (played as a grown-up by Tom Schilling) finds himself living in the newly minted Soviet Union. The recently “freed” East Germany promises a new era of opportunity for those emerging from Nazi dominion. Kurt even applies to and is accepted by a state-run art academy. But the same old government restrictions soon rear their ugly head. To the Soviets, the art of a modernist like Picasso represents a dangerous sense of self. What Kurt’s art academy hopes to pump out are hundreds of socialist realist painters, each faceless one eager to capture the struggle of common workers for the good of society. Again, our protagonist is at odds with his society’s definition of what “good and proper” art should be.
This is the crux of von Donnersmarck’s film, which is loosely inspired by the life of iconic German painter Gerhard Richter. As it spans some 40 years of European history, however, the film lights upon a great many issues besides the strictly artistic. Central to it all is the idea of totalitarian governments, which enforce an ideology on their people. Though the citizens of East Germany hope that Communism will afford them an escape from the iron hand of Naziism, we viewers know—courtesy of hindsight and history—that they’re simply trading one form of repression for another. Only the logos on the flags have changed. Does this make the human race idealistic or naïve?
Even this broad swath of topics is just the tip of the iceberg in this epic bildungsroman. Clocking in at slightly over three hours and paced like a miniseries, it’s a lot to swallow in one sitting. Our painterly protagonist eventually falls in love with an aspiring fashion designer (Paula Beer) with an uncomfortable connection to his past, finds a mentor in an eccentric performance artist (Oliver Masucci) and achieves worldwide fame.
The cinematography in Never Look Away is gorgeous and luminous, and the cast extremely photogenic—a style that leans far more toward romanticism than socialist realism. That—combined with von Donnersmarck’s tendency to rely on symbols, shortcuts, clear-cut villains and narrative conveniences—keeps this film from being the penetrating, nuanced work of art that The Lives of Others was. Still, as an Oscar-nominated epic conflating art and history, Never Look Away is impressive in size and scope.