DVD Review - Never Look Away

This film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards. It's the last film of the five nominated for me to review. The others were Roma, Shoplifters, Cold War and Capernaum. Having seen all of them now, I still agree that Roma winning was still the best choice. This film would rank at the bottom of the list, but there are some interesting things here. It was the official submission from Germany and like many films from that country, this one is about or touches upon the Holocaust. It's a historical piece that not only acknowledges Nazism as part of its history, but specifically involves a character who was essentially a Nazi. Yet, this film isn't about confronting that person or having him reckon with what he did or why. It's more about the tangential effects of someone like that on people who experience the collateral damage. Yet, it's not about someone who is Jewish. It's about Germans who didn't agree with Nazism getting caught up in the wake of it.

Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck had his previous film, The Lives of Others, also get nominated at the 79th Academy Awards where it won in that category. The good will from that is probably what carried this film to its nomination here. Yet, his skill as a filmmaker is clear-eyed and steady. His work here, which extends beyond 180 minutes, never feels boring or a waste of time. All of it feels necessary. Unfortunately, it doesn't add up to much dramatically. It's beautiful, beautiful in its acting performances and its direction, exquisite in its design, but the ending isn't all that satisfying on a dramatic level. Its ending closes a circle as it were, but I sooner shrugged my shoulders at it than I was impressed or moved by it.

Tom Schilling (Woman in Gold and Before the Fall) stars as Kurt Barnert, an aspiring artist who prefers to become a painter. Ever since he was a little boy, his aunt used to take him into the city to visit art museums and expose him to culture. Unfortunately, he was born in the 1930's in Nazi Germany under the regime of Adolf Hitler. Specifically, he grew up outside of Dresden in East Germany where Hitler reinforced that the kind of art Kurt liked, modern art, was decadent and not something people should embrace. When the Nazis take and kill Kurt's aunt, he becomes more resolute to follow her appreciation of modern art. He therefore attends art school.

There have been several films about artists of all kinds and their relationships with older people who are mentors or something similar. This one focuses on the artist's relationship with his aunt. Aunt-nephew relationships as the center or thrust are rare. Kurt's aunt disappears when he's just a little boy. When he gets older, he never investigates what happened to her. He never talks about her again, but her presence is a lingering one over the film and him. He never has to acknowledge her for Donnersmarck to make his point. He does so visually, which is good for a filmmaker to do, but without the further acknowledgment, it makes the whole thing lose some dramatic resonance that I think it could have used to be even more effective.

Sebastian Koch (The Lives of Others and A Good Day to Die Hard) co-stars as Carl Seeband, a member of the Nazi party who worked as a doctor. He ran a mental hospital where Kurt's aunt was sent after she suffered a schizophrenic break. Carl's response is to have her sterilized because like most Nazis, a chief concern was the purity of the Aryan race. Along with Jewish people, the Nazis included mentally ill people as part of the Holocaust. After World War II, he's arrested, but, because he's the only one with gynecological knowledge, he's able to save the life of a pregnant woman and her baby. The pregnant woman and baby are kin to a high-ranking military officer, so this grants him a reprieve.

He doesn't know it, but he crosses path with Kurt. However, Kurt never realizes that Carl is the person who was responsible for his aunt's death. He never fully realizes how responsible Carl was in many people's deaths. Kurt never confronts him on that issue. There's a moment where Carl recognizes the connection between Kurt and his horrible past. Carl seems affected, but there isn't ever really a reckoning. He perhaps feels guilt, but his guilt is never examined. Carl recognizes the connection and then his character disappears and the movie ends.

Without that confrontation, the confrontation of Kurt and Carl about what happened to Kurt's aunt, it feels like the dramatic tension that the movie spends literally hours building was all for naught. There are other misdeeds that Carl commits like lying and an unwanted abortion about which no one ever confronts him either. It made me feel unsatisfied when the credits started to roll.

Otherwise, the film is a fictionalized account of the life of real-life painter, Gerhard Richter. Maybe, Donnersmarck wanted to be faithful to Richter's life. Even though a lot of liberties were taken in this narrative already, I don't understand why one more wasn't implemented.

Like with a few German films or films involving German characters recently, such as The Reader (2008) and Free Fall (2014), there's a lot of sex and nudity. The accuracy to period details is impeccable, such as the clothing, which makes things all the more titillating when we see all the young, pretty nakedness on display.

Werk ohne Autor
Rated R for graphic nudity, sexuality and brief violent images.
Running Time: 3 hrs. and 9 mins.


Popular Posts