Never Look Away

(Werk ohne Autor)

2018 Oscar Nominee for Best Foreign Language Film

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, winner of the 2006 Best Foreign Language Oscar for the brilliant The Lives Of Others, is back with Never Look Away.  More than three hours long, it spans decades of German life, from the 1930s into the 1960s. It starts with a free-spirited aunt taking her young nephew to see an exhibition of ‘degenerate art’ in Dresden in 1937, and goes through the war and into the division of Germany, the era of Soviet influence and the building of the Berlin Wall.

Poster for the Oscar nominee Never Look AwayBut this isn’t really a movie about politics. It’s a movie about art, mostly, and by extension about love and life (and yes, politics) in Germany in the middle part of the 20th century. It’s a huge subject, and Donnersmarck tells it in a way that is slow, languid and ravishing, with cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, nominated for an Oscar for his work here, casting a glow over good times and bad.

The style of the film is in keeping with something the beloved Aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) tells her young nephew, Kurt (a fictionalized version of German artist Gerhard Richter, played by Tom Schilling): “Never look away. Everything that’s true is beautiful.”
She says this while playing piano in the nude, the kind of behavior that gets her sent to an asylum and then, in an era in which the Nazis were determined to weed out the inferior, to a death camp. Kurt survives the war and becomes an art student in divided postwar Germany, where once again the only officially sanctioned art is propaganda, albeit propaganda supporting a different system.

He also falls in love with a young fashion student, Ellie (Paula Beer), unaware that her father has a Nazi past. Their love story runs through the rest of the film, but it’s less central than Kurt’s quest to find art that truly means something to him – to find a voice by looking back, in a place and time where looking back is a perilous task.

There’s an elegance and richness that sustains Never Look Away even when it becomes so enamoured of ideas that its emotions start to feel like an afterthought. And in the end, Donnersmarck has it both ways: He’s sentimental and he’s provocative, a craftsman who has something to say and is going to take his time saying it.

– Steve Pond, The Wrap

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