Written by Jack McMahon.
A sweeping romantic drama that for the most part, paints a broodingly honest and emotionally satisfying picture of the journey of the struggling artist, set to the backdrop of the pre and post war horrors of World War II.
Never Look Away is a German drama film written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Never Look Away guides us through thirty years in the life of the struggling, yet talented, artist Kurt Barnett (Tom Schilling), inspired by one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, Gerhard Richter. The film spans from Kurt’s childhood, witnessing the horrors of Nazi Germany to post-war East Berlin. There he falls in love with a beautiful young woman, Ellie (Paula Beer), whose father has a shocking link to both himself and the ghosts of the Nazi SS. To then escaping to the West during the time of the Berlin Wall and after much tribulation, becoming a figurehead in a new movement in the contemporary art landscape.
From the opening shot, we are treated to a beautiful, fully realised world brimming with colour and character. Everything about the world feels established and lived in, creating a wonderful sense of authenticity. The set design and costumes are gorgeous, perfectly establishing the setting of a quiet, peaceful German town. The presence of Nazi Germany can be felt throughout the first act, reaching a shocking climax during the roll-out of the German Euthanasia program, killing thousands of innocent German civilians who had a disability. The film quickly moves on from this time period, showing the end of the war and how the German people move into this new post-war Germany.
The film walks a tightrope between multiple narrative threads and mostly connects all of them in a satisfying matter, while having the general historical context of the time period bringing everything together. We have the main storyline of Kurt, navigating his way through the art landscape, trying to make a living where he falls in love. The film is at its strongest when focusing on the romantic aspect, creating such a beautiful atmosphere. The chemistry between Tom Schilling and Paula Beer is palpable, you truly feel their love for each other, which really carries the film.
The other narrative thread is that of Professor Seeband, Ellie’s father, who was a Nazi SS officer who oversaw the Euthanasia campaign. His dislike of Kurt is a main point of conflict throughout the film and works brilliantly. Considering the dark connection they have from Kurt’s childhood, the viewer is always on the edge of their seat. Will they find out about each other’s past?
The film does a good job of balancing these two threads, that of Kurt’s personal life and the broader, political landscape of the time. Yet at times the writing does seem a little confused at specific points in the second act, the Nazi storyline does seem to negatively intrude upon Kurt’s artistic and personal journey without any real need. Though these criticisms can be mitigating by the brilliant ending which brought together these narrative beats in a poetic way.
You can tell director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck was incredibly passionate about the source material. The film is a little over three hours long, and at times it does feel like it, but every frame and line is displayed with such sincerity that you can’t help but enjoy every moment. It is heartfelt and touching throughout but hard-hitting and devastating when it needs to be.
Never Look Away has a simple message: that art matters. Art is the way in which a society can reflect and learn. This film acts as a three-hour vessel for this message, the ultimate journey of the struggling artist in a struggling world. Creativity and love can prevail even in the darkest of circumstances. What are we without art?
Never Look Away is out in theatres from the 20th of June, 2019.