‘Never Look Away’ compels us to keep watching
Written and directed by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s
Starring: Tom Schilling, Paula Beer, Sebastian Koch, Saskia Rosendahl, Oliver Masucci, and Evgeniy Sidikhin
“Never Look Away” – “Hardly anyone likes photos of themselves, but everyone’s supposed to like a painting.” – Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling)
“Everything is connected.” – Elisabeth May (Saskia Rosendahl)
Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s feature film “The Lives of Others” (2006) weaves such an absorbing, layered conflict into 1980s East Germany’s acknowledged intrusive culture so well, it topped Guillermo del Toro’s best film “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006) that year and won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2007. Yes, “The Lives of Others” is that good!
After Donnersmarck’s Johnny Depp/Angelia Jolie vehicle “The Tourist” (2010), “Never Look Away” is his third film. The Academy recognized Donnersmarck’s second German movie with a Best Foreign Language Best Picture Oscar nomination, but due to its 188-minute runtime, “Never Look Away” does feel like a long commitment while sitting in your theatre seat. Still, this movie does need time to breathe on-screen to eventually reveal its secrets and for the characters to reap enlightenment on their journeys.
Set in 1937 Dresden, 20-something Elisabeth takes her five-year-old nephew Kurt to a museum to experience and celebrate modern art, but a caustic tour guide attempts to sour their trip by bemoaning the various pieces as silly drivel created by faulty minds. Quite frankly, the curators should apply more scrutiny when hiring their museum staff, but the somewhat-hostile chaperon fuels foreshadowing of the dark forces within the country. “The Lives of Others” unmasks one series of German sins, but “Never Look Away” features two, the Nazi Party and the subsequent physical, cultural and political divides between East and West. One particular character embodies the iniquity of both eras, and this individual propels the former’s sinister mindset into the latter’s clouded reality.
Kurt’s mindset, instead, is altruistic and with his aunt’s initial persuasion and his natural gifts, he eventually becomes an art student and meets Ellie (Paula Beer) who majors in fashion design. These two kids start a romance that begins to follow Elisabeth’s decree.
Donnersmarck’s film taps into a recipe that the Academy loves, as it wraps our protagonist in a loving romance and navigates it through several historical markers. Additionally, “Never Look Away” will regularly surprise with unexpected detours through history, and it personalizes these stops with rich supporting characters who arrive and depart but leave lasting memoirs. Russian Major Murawjow (Evgeniy Sidikhin) and Professor Antonius van Verten (Oliver Masucci) are just two examples. Meanwhile, Max Richter’s beautiful score helps maintain continuity throughout the film, as one wonders how Elisabeth’s words of wisdom in the first act will carry through with Kurt to the end. The story is loosely-based on painter Gerhard Richter, and his connection with Germany’s political split is a natural fit with Donnersmarck’s history as well.
This particular critic caught the movie at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, but the picture’s thoughtful threads did not quite resonate to earn epic personal praises, however, upon a second viewing, Donnersmarck’s themes rang truer. Do you need to watch “Never Look Away” twice? No, but it took this moviegoer 6 hours and 16 minutes to fully appreciate the nuance of its messages.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.