“Never Look Away” is nominated for two Academy Awards and directed by Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”). It is an epic story of a young individualist, loosely based on the great German painter, Gerhard Richter. Despite the daunting three hours and fifteen minutes in running time, we are enthralled by a young boy’s subjective experiences in mid-1930s Germany from the outset.
More than a film about war, this is a film about how art is interpreted, viewed, manipulated and cheapened under fascist hands. It is also a story about a young man’s efforts to stay expressive and free under the blight of authoritarian regimes.
Young Kurt (Cai Cohrs) goes with his Aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) to see a Expressionist art exhibition labeled “Degenerate” by the Nazis. The paintings leap from the screen in bold and vibrant color. There is a Kandinsky and a Miro.
The Nazi guide sneers and pats the boy on the head, saying that he could certainly do the same.
Kurt takes it all in.
Later, after a march by the Third Reich, Elizabeth strips naked to play the piano saying that she can hear the “universal code” that connects all things. Shouting that she is playing for Hitler, Elizabeth hits herself on the head until blood runs down her face. She is admitted to the hospital diagnosed with schizophrenia under the care of a monstrous doctor Seeband (Karl Koch).
The boy watches full on as Elizabeth is taken away from home. After all she told him to never look away, to always remember the truth.
In art school Kurt, now at age twenty (played by Tom Schilling), paints obsessively and is struck by the radiant Ellie (Paula Beer) who resembles (in the manner of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”) Kurt’s beloved Elizabeth who was murdered in the camps.
Hesitantly, Kurt asks Ellie out for a walk and she agrees. The pair become inseparable. During an amorous night, it is revealed that Ellie’s father is the murderous Dr. Seeband, the one who sent Elizabeth to her death, but Kurt does not know of this until much later.
Much of the film is focused on Kurt attempting to find his expression under the weight of his sadness regarding his aunt.
A fictional Joseph Beuys appears as Professor van Vertan (Oliver Massucci), which makes for some engaging moments.
Rather than analyze the film as an orthodox biopic on Gerhard Richter, the film is best seen as a meditation on the power of visual art as a lasting weapon.
This is a record of one man’s life and love affair with the act of painting as a physical and emotive event, employing a muscle that can and should be used.
Arrestingly, the film is both active and neutral by turns, a reflection of Kurt himself. The canvas is a living object.
“Never Look Away” is one of the very few films I have seen that treats painting as a personal element, a sacred action to be experienced, both within oneself and without. It is a wonderful nerve-inducing record of a life lived completely through art-making, where a canvas becomes a literal offspring that saves a man’s equilibrium through wartime and beyond.
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