Never Look Away – a review

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Never Look Away  never makes us look away

Two films seen in succession, each too long to see them flow seamlessly and satisfy fully, Angus McFadyen’s brave dissection of uncertainty in a battle worn man of action, Robert the Bruce, and now writer-director Florian Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away. Warning: at over three hours, in an art house cinema on mini-mean seating with no space for legs is a real physical pain. Filmhouse, Edinburgh, please be advised.

The film’s structure is not quite as accomplished as Donnersmarck’s earlier, award winning The Lives of Others, but is an absorbing story for all that, though it strives to prove the old question of how healing is art.

The story revolves around a young artist and how he manages to express past harrowing experiences by exorcising his memories on canvas. Like other films depicting the lives of painters, the construction relies heavily on us witnessing the artistic growth of young artist to mature successful artist and hope we believe his art is of a high order.

There are three ways for a director to achieve that difficult result. He can ask the art department’s most talented crew member to create some paintings, he can get on loan an existing well-known artist to offer some of their art for the film, or finally, directed by a competent artist, create a pastiche of what was fashionable some years ago.

There are severe pitfalls in all three choices. The first ends up in bad Hammer Horror art hanging on walls, the second usually means a second-rate artist lends their work keen on the publicity, (for obvious reasons a good artist won’t get involved), and the last makes us question why we are asked to believe the artwork is supposedly innovative. The director chose the last solution. If the reader knows anything about fine art you will understand why I say the images don’t convince.

The ‘art’ that makes the central character famous overnight, the new hot visionary, is nothing more than projecting old photographs onto a blank canvas, outlining the figures with charcoal, and then painting in between the lines with black and white and shades of grey. The final image is then partially obliterated by dragging a hard, wide brush across it while the oils are still wet. Not great art at all, more a gimmicky technique.

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The film’s main character doesn’t help the story by showing so little of an emotional arc

“Never look away…” is the phrase repeated throughout the film’s various sequences and is the English-language title. The German original is Werk Ohne Autor (work without author), a phrase once used by critics to describe the artwork of German artist Gerhard Richter, whose early life inspired the story. I am not surprised to learn Richter distanced himself from the film. The director has not made a film about Richter’s life.

The film opens, appropriately, with a group of visitors to a Nazi-sanctioned “modern art” exhibition that denounces their idea of “decadent” works in which “mental illness is elevated to a defining principle” by “people who see fields as blue, the sky as green, and clouds as sulphur yellow!” In the crowd is the young protagonist, Kurt Barnert (Tom Shilling), holding the hand of his aunt whom he idolises, the mentally troubled Elizabeth May (Saskia Rosendahl).

“Don’t tell anybody, but I like it,” Elisabeth smiles and tells Kurt soto voce, as she and Kurt stand transfixed by a condemned work of Kandinsky. Elisabeth’s pronounced artistic temperament, she’s a talented pianist, soon makes a great impression on young Kurt and together they share a love of nature and the outdoors.

But this is Germany in 1938 and for Elizabeth her fate is sealed when the Nazis implement their programme sterilising the mentally ill, or in extreme cases, death in the the gas chamber, the victim chosen with a simple red cross in a box on a file placed there by the sinister Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch). Resources are limited in the Third Reich and those who are seriously handicapped, mentally or physically, must be euthanized. Seeband has the power to make such decisions in Dresden and make them he does, ultimately sealing the fate of his own family and himself.

Here I think it fitting to mention the performance of Koch. He’s the out and out baddie. Koch grabs the role with super discipline. He gives a beautifully conceived portrait of a talented but physically inert psychopath, a gynaecologist who enjoys controlling women and serving the Fuehrer. Excessively vain, he stands admiring himself in the mirror in his new SS Nazi uniform. You hate him from the moment he steps in view.

The action moves forward to 1945 and the Russians are the occupying force. Professor Seeband is arrested and imprisoned. However, he saves the life of a Russian major’s child during his wife’s difficult labour, and escapes a death sentence. He is pardoned and takes up a career as a respected specialist in gynaecology.

Unbeknown to Seeband, young Kurt, now attending an avant-garde art college in Dusseldorf that teaches conceptual art, experimental art to be kind, damn awful installations to you and me, falls passionately in love with Seeband’s daughter, a fashion design student named Elisabeth or Ellie (Paula Beer).

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Sebestian Koch as Professor Seeband, more vain than Trump and Mussolini combined  

The art school is presided over by an intense proselytiser amazingly similar in views and dress sense to Joseph Beuys, an artist much praised and promoted by our own Richard Demarco. Ellie is studying fashion design at the same college as Kurt and the couple begin their courtship. As the plot moves between soft porn scenes, light comedy – humorous moments much appreciated by me – and its inherent darker and darker tones, the web that will entrap them all begins to take shape.

Apropos female nudity, if we are to see women full frontal, let’s have parity of nakedness in male roles. I realise there is a part of the male anatomy that tends to swing low, sweet Harriet, when a person is descending a staircase, but what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. see 

There is much to like in this marathon epic, though the director pulls his punches in scenes that ought to repulse us and plays for the acceptable and the conventional. The harrowing scenes are somehow sanitised, scenes too light and fluffy to sit comfortably in a film about the Nazis and their legacy. Secondly, the central character of Kurt is played as a student eternally bemused, without any apparent anger or fear, almost but not quite on one emotional boring note, which disappoints.  

Those minuses aside, there is a genuine auteur at work behind this film causing some sequences quite true to life that we all have known or seen, myself included. One chilling scene stayed with me long after the film ended. It was a bank of black British Lancaster bombers silhouetted against an ominous grey sky, making their way to wipe out Dresden and every person and living thing in that great city, on the orders of Winston Churchill.

The film’s director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, came to film goer’s notice with the breakthrough film on the East German Stasi, The Lives of Others (2006), which deservedly won Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2007. In this film we see similar motifs, especially the buttoned up officer doing his best for the fascist state, controlling the lives of lovers. The film’s flaws are many, that three hour length without an intermission is just one. It wins us over for its honesty, Koch’s performance, and its music composed by Max Richter – no relation to the iffy painter on which the film’s life is based.

  • Star Rating: Three and a half stars
  • Cast: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer
  • Director:  Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
  • Writer:  Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
  • Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel
  • Composer: Max Richter
  • Duration: 3 hours 9 minutes
  • RATING CRITERIA
  • 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?

 

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