When Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film after directing 2006’s ‘The Lives of Others’, he was expected to make the jump to Hollywood right away. He may have taken his time flirting with different projects, but they don’t come much more Hollywood than the one von Donnersmarck eventually settled on: ‘The Tourist’, an expensive caper starring the two biggest stars in town, Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp.
Unfortunately, it was a notorious stinker. Originally promoted as a romantic thriller, it was nominated for the comedy category at the Golden Globes ... upon von Donnersmarck's own suggestion.
Golden Globes host Ricky Gervais memorably demystified the film's Globe nominations in his opening monologue: "I'd like to quash this ridiculous rumor going around that the only reason ‘The Tourist’ was nominated was so the Hollywood Foreign Press could hang out with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. That is rubbish. That is not the only reason. They also accepted bribes." Cut to Depp, who was hiding behind a pair of sunglasses, chewing gum, his face fixed in a wince.
For my money, it’s the greatest sophomore slump of all time, even surpassing Richard Kelly’s notorious stumble from ‘Donnie Darko’ to ‘Southland Tales’. Luckily, in recent years, it has been eclipsed (in terms of media coverage and sheer social media ferocity) by Josh Trank’s nosedive from ‘Chronicle’ to ‘Fantastic Four’.
Eight years later, von Donnersmarck is back with ‘Never Look Away,’ a three-hour drama that spans 30 years of 20th century German history. It’s ostensibly a biographical film inspired by an article by famed investigative reporter Jürgen Schreiber about the life of eclectic artist Gerhard Richter, widely regarded as one of the most important contemporary German artists for his abstract and photorealistic paintings.
The film begins in 1933 with a dramatisation of ‘Entartete Kunst’, a Nazi “degenerate art” exhibit in Dresden visited by a boy, the film’s artist protagonist, who is named Kurt Barnert (played by Cai Cohrs and later Tom Schilling as an adult). Featuring Expressionists, Surrealists, and Abstracts, Kurt is mesmerised by the Girl with Blue Hair, a sculpture by Eugen Hoffman. The boy attends the exhibit with his beloved, but dangerously free-spirited aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl, ‘The Missionary’), who will soon suffer a mental breakdown and be diagnosed with schizophrenia. As she is being escorted into a van, she whispers to her nephew to “never look away” because “everything that is true holds beauty in it” and becomes his lifelong muse.
Following the Third Reich’s credo of perfecting the Aryan race, gynaecology professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch, ‘The Danish Girl’, ‘Bridge of Spies’), the director of the Dresden women’s clinic and member of the SS medical corps, decides that Elisabeth is “undesirable” and marks a fateful red cross in her paperwork - soon she has been sterilized and ultimately becomes a victim of the Nazi eugenics program. The red cross is a terrifying visual cue that we will see reflected on screen again when Kurt splashes red paint across a canvas trying to figure out how to exorcise his demons.
We reunite with Kurt in 1948, sitting high up in a tree overlooking the rolling, sunlit countryside. It's a gorgeous shot and it's here that the young man decides on his path in life. As a young art student in post-war East Germany, Kurt falls in love with another Elisabeth (Paula Beer, ‘Transit’, ‘Frantz’), a beautiful young design student with a domineering father. To avoid any incestuous feelings, he calls his girlfriend Ellie, unaware that he is actually tied to her family in unexpected ways.
Although von Donnersmarck wrote the script himself, every scene in ‘Never Look Away’ feels like it has been adapted from a chunky ‘Doctor Zhivago’-sized novel.
In the years before the Berlin Wall, Kurt wearies of the dogmatic Socialist Realism form of Communist-sanctioned painting, an ideology and field of art that he cannot come to terms with. He and Ellie escape to West Germany, where Kurt experiences artistic freedom for the first time (this includes paintings that reflect Richter’s blurred photo-realism period), and his career takes spiritual and professional flight.
Von Donnersmarck infuses ‘Never Look Away’ with the same energy he did with ‘The Lives of Others’, a film about the monitoring of East Berlin residents by agents of the Stasi, the GDR's secret police, in 1984. While in that drama, which dealt with another dark period of German history, there is a pervasive feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness, in ‘Never Look Away’ he presents a different side of the coin as he meditates on the primal power of art. If you are true to your artistic instinct, this film tells us, you can reach a truth your intellect can never hope to attain.
Von Donnersmarck puts classic film techniques to use in refreshing ways that recall both soap operas and modern German dramas that continue to explore the dark legacy of the Holocaust. Although von Donnersmarck wrote the script himself, every scene in ‘Never Look Away’ feels like it has been adapted from a chunky ‘Doctor Zhivago’-sized novel. It's a history film covering 1937 to 1968 in East and West Germany, a romance, and an artist film, rolled into one.
Shot in rich, warm tones with painterly compositions by Caleb Deschanel, ‘Never Look Away’ is also a showcase for Schilling, who allows the director to sometimes turn him into the canvas on which he will project the film’s themes, and other times he seems to take hold of the work himself, like a sculpture springing to life.
Von Donnersmarck also cast well with Koch, who played the lovestruck playwright Georg Dreyman in ‘The Lives of Others’. A complete reversal from his previous role, Koch digs deep to find empathy in even the most repugnant of characters. Carl Seeband is capable of great good but mostly monstrous evil, driven by intellectual vanity and willing to hitch his wagon to the ideologies that afford him the most power, like Nazism, GDR Communism, or Western Capitalism.
‘Never Look Away’ is an unbelievable return to form from a director whose last film was a legendarily dire Johnny Depp thriller. It's a novelistic, epic film that appears to constantly melt and transform in front of our eyes. von Donnersmarck has created the rare kind of work where politics, history, art and love collide into an almost operatic crescendo. Like the title suggests, it’s riveting viewing.