Note: there are spoilers in this review.
Gerhard Richter’s famous blurred photo-paintings have captured the attention of art galleries for decades. Called the greatest painter alive, Richter’s art asks one question: what is the truth? His paintings of photographs are, according to him, an attempt to find the truth. As he once said, “The photograph is the most perfect picture. It does not change; it is absolute, and therefore autonomous, unconditional, devoid of style.” The photograph is the true depiction of the world.
It’s appropriate that the most notable depiction of his life has come in the form of a film: Never Look Away, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others). There is, however, some changes to his story, the most notable being a name change, from Gerhard Richter to Kurt Barnert. Over the course of three hours, the film explores his childhood, burgeoning adolescence, and eventual rise to fame as one of Germany’s greatest artists.
It all begins in Dresden. The year is 1937, and young Kurt (Cai Cohrs) is visiting a museum with his Aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), where an exhibition on “Degenerate Art” is being held. As the Nazi tour guide rants about how these artists are failing Germany, Elisabeth reminds Kurt to follow his own path and to not kowtow to what society demands of art. As Kurt grows up, and tragedies befall his family (Elisabeth is schizophrenic and taken to a concentration camp, her two brothers die on the battlefield, Dresden is bombed), he follows his aunt’s advice: “never look away”. He doesn’t look away when Elisabeth is dragged into a psychiatric hospital’s van, he doesn’t look away when Allied bombs turn Dresden into ash, and he doesn’t look away when his father, no longer allowed to teach due to his former forced Nazi membership, hangs himself in the attic.
It’s a testament to the strength of the film’s direction that this never drags, because it easily could in the first hour, which feels to fly by in only half that time. Once we’re introduced to young adult Kurt (Tom Schilling, Woman in Gold), the story kicks in. At an academy of art that only teaches social realism due to the communist government, Kurt falls for a fashion major, Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer, Frantz). The only problem in their burgeoning relationship is the severe disapproval from Ellie’s father, Prof. Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch, Bridge of Spies) – the same doctor who ordered Elisabeth to the camp where she died, and sterilized her beforehand. The professor never gave up his Nazi sympathies, and has only managed to successfully hide for so long due to the debt that a Soviet officer owed him for saving his wife’s and baby’s lives in childbirth. Kurt doesn’t know that his girlfriend’s father is his aunt’s executioner, but as the relationship between Kurt and Ellie continues, they inadvertently come close to the terrible truth that lies in the past – and that leads Prof. Seeband to resort to more extreme methods at keeping them apart.
I’m making this sound like more of a thriller than it really is, but Donnersmarck (who also directed The Tourist) keeps the tension high in scenes where Kurt and Ellie are on the verge of realizing what happened, or when Prof. Seeband fears that the past has caught up with him. This story of past sins is interwoven with Kurt’s days at different art academies; first a communist one in Eastern Germany, then a free-thinking one in Dusseldorf. In both places, Kurt struggles to find the truth in his own work, whether he’s experimenting with art or painting commissioned-murals to celebrate the Soviet way of life. A conversation with his eccentric art teacher, Professor Antonius van Verten (Oliver Masucci, Dark), holds one of the key arguments the film makes: our greatest art comes from what we truly understand. Whether it’s felt and grease or our childhood memories, it is our own truth that provides the base for our art.
The film keeps the series of intellectual conversations about art and truth interesting and never lets them drag, while giving the audience just the right amount of family drama to keep them invested. To top it all off, it’s exquisitely shot by six-time Academy Award nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff, The Passion of the Christ). He turns the landscape of Germany into beautifully captured paintings of colors, and plays with light and shadow to create indelibly textured interiors. There’s a scene later on in the film, when Kurt and Prof. Seeband are at a fine restaurant, and it’s a dramatically important scene where the professor’s status quo is threatened. With restraint, Deschanel turns it into one of the most visually interesting scenes of the year, using candlelight, a wall-to-ceiling mirror, and the organized placing of tables. It’s subtle work, but masterfully done. No wonder the Academy fell hard for it, giving the film a surprise Best Cinematography nomination.
Never Look Away is a grand, sweeping epic; a character-driven thriller; and an exploration of what art means to us and to its creators. Kurt, just like his real-life inspiration, only finds his own truth as an artist when he removes himself entirely from the image, via his photo-paintings. Even though complete anonymity is provided to him, we still know the context behind the work. So what even is the role of the artist in art? To show off personal history and influences, or to erase themselves from their images? That question is left to the viewer, but nonetheless, it’s a fascinating question posed by an equally fascinating film.
Never Look Away is currently in expansion across the United States. The Film Will Open In Canada on March 1st. Check your local arthouse theater listings for more details.