The maker of Never Look Away, German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck probably has the longest name of any filmmaker in the world. At 6’9” he’s also probably the tallest filmmaker in the world, and his new film is one of the biggest movies to come along in years. The film is no special effects action extravaganza; it’s the story of an artist, but the movie takes in how art and life interact, as well as the history of Germany from 1940 to about 1980. In the spirit of the title, the film never looks away from the horrors of the Nazi era.
The movie is based loosely on the German artist Gerhard Richter. It begins with Kurt, a boy of maybe 10, with his beloved young aunt who takes him to an exhibit of what the Nazis called decadent art. The arrogant Nazi guide explains what’s socially, politically and racially wrong about the art on the walls, but you can see that neither the boy nor the aunt believes a word of it. Then, within minutes of film time, this lovely young woman is hauled off to a mental hospital, sterilized and finally murdered. What she left with young Kurt was the warning to never look away, which he never does.
And neither does Donnersmarck. Never Look Away has an extraordinary clarity of vision, shaped by the long-time American cinematographer Caleb Deschanel – his sharp images match the crisp characters and events. Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch) is the arrogant, precise Nazi gynecologist who sends the aunt to her doom, but he’s the kind of creep who passes the real dirty work to others. He’s in Kurt’s life for years, as he glides from Nazism to Communism in East Germany, always the pretentious contemptuous guy who knows how to win and dominate everybody else. Eventually he makes it to the West, still the self-serving Herr Professor, whose past is either unknown or ignored.
As an adult, Kurt (Tom Schilling) reaches the West sooner than Seebend. From Communist art school where he’s required to paint dreary ideologically correct socialist realism – stuff like heroic railroad workers – Kurt and his young wife escape to the utter freedom of a West German art school, with no requirements or demands. It’s 1960; the hideous pop song “The Surfin’ Bird” blares from the radio. Hitchcock’s Psycho plays at the local theater. Young artists in the grip of conceptual art search for their big ideas – they slash canvasses, slap globs of grease and felt on walls, or pound hundreds of nails into a board.
Never Look Away sees history as twisted, interlaced connections between people and gestures. Nobody’s killed or tortured on screen, but the precise, devastating scenes of bureaucratic Nazi brutality early in the movie, reverberate for the rest of the tight-knit three hours of the picture. Seebend, the vile gynecologist, is the father of Kurt’s beloved (Paula Beer), whose name – Elizabeth – was the aunt’s name also. The East German art teacher condemns artists who believe in themselves as individuals – “Me, me, me,” he mocks them. Kurt finally comes to repeat those words, although this time they have to do with discovering in himself what matters – what it is he really wants to paint – and that is the still uncovered remnants of the Nazis.
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is 45 years old. He was born in East Germany. Never Look Away is just his third feature. The first, the 2006 The Lives of Others, is about the Stasi, the East German secret police, literally peering into the lives of other people, people under suspicion because they’re artists. It won an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film. The history of Germany from the late ‘30s to the ‘90s, and the threat to tyranny from art seem to be his subjects. You might wonder how there can still be new and magnificent stories of those times. Never Look Away shows how.