Never Look Away, the two-time Academy Award nominated film is a compelling look how art, romance and politics intersect one another.
I stared at the screen for a long minute following my screening of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away, now playing in theaters. My thoughts kept wandering back to the political climate that informs the story, how it influenced the characters and their situations. In fact, it is a rather brilliant story in that two people, from two completely different walks of life, ultimately share the same path.
The film, which spans pre-Nazi Germany through World War II and its socialist recovery, starts us out with what might seem a rebellious nature in the form of a tour through an art exhibition of “Entartete Kunst” (degenerate art); that nature is shared between young Kurt and his aunt, Elisabeth.
In these early scenes, Donnersmarck’s direction along with Caleb Deschanel’s Oscar-nominated cinematography focuses on Kurt’s reactions to the art displayed in the exhibit. The quiet discussion and the hurried looks with eyes that dart away from other members of the tour group inform us about the political situation as they are told how the art doesn’t fit into the grand plan of the upcoming occupation.
Amongst the warnings flashed in these early scenes, Elisabeth reminds young Kurt to “never look away because everything that is true holds beauty in it.” This is the theme that the remainder of the film reinforces, but not before introducing us to Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastien Koch) whose own beauty is in creating a new generation of superior human beings, at the behest of the State.
Each man’s journey is full of parallels as Kurt witnesses the horrors of World War II and ultimately the loss of Elisabeth. Professor Seeband learns of the horrors of his own work after the end of World War II, but he remains steadfast in his superior position.
Donnersmarck carries the tandem journey, even as their paths diverge. Following World War II, Germany is in the midst of a socialist revolution and Kurt, who is in art school tries to find his place In his world. It is here that he meets and ultimately courts Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer). The passion behind their relationship oozes off the screen, but that passion is not without consequence as Carl Seeband is revealed.
The story is also painted with trepidation as Kurt and Ellie try to start their lives together, even as Professor Seeband disapproves, a fact that he permanently inflicts on them. The horrors of these actions are reflected in Kurt and Ellie’s emotional reactions through the strong cinematography.
In an interesting turn, the young couple escape to the West, just as the Berlin Wall is erected. Donnersmarck shares the tension of the moment through the score from Max Richter and the cinematography. Regret punctuates the latter half of the film along with joy in the discovery of freedom that Kurt finds. We as the audience share this cathartic moment when his art reflects the professor’s ongoing situation. Sebastien Koch’s strong, emotional performance really captures the consequences of his situation.
I mentioned that I struggled with how to represent this movie. The constant theme of the film is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder or better-stated art is subjective. We can be, and ultimately are our own worst critics. There is a pivotal moment in the film that reminded me of me, something that made me feel very uncomfortable.
That is a purely human reaction to the situations Donnersmarck puts his characters in; objective criticism is only possible when we can accurately reflect on a situation, when we don’t hide from our own emotions and our own memories.
The film is a representation of the life of German painter Gerhard Richter, who has claimed the film is a poor reflection of his life’s experiences. The subjectivity of his reaction refracts through several of the themes that Donnersmarck espouses in his Foreign Language Oscar-nominated film. The cathartic moment in which Kurt’s expression of art and my own reaction to the film reinforces its life lessons.
For that, I am forever indebted to Never Look Away.
Now in theaters, Never Look Away is rated R by the MPAA.