Never Look Away is a deep look at an artist's life
It’s always a bit of a chore to sit down for a movie that exceeds three hours, and lets be honest, only a few of them manage to justify such an excessive length. So it was with a ton of hesitation, and a strange obligation to what will surely be remembered as the lamest Academy Awards season of all time, that I sat down for Never Look Away. 188 minutes of period drama about Nazis, painters, and forbidden love? NO THANK YOU.
Fast forward about 15 minutes and there I was, not just enraptured by what was already an incredible film, but completely ashamed that I had made so many assumptions about it based on, quite literally, nothing more than a handful of screenshots and a short attention span. As much a historical epic as it is a study of what motivates “the artiste,” Never Look Away covers literal decades of narrative ground, but is such a great piece of classic melodramatic storytelling, told with such old school filmmaking verve, that it’s damn near impossible to look away.
Which I guess is the point.
That pun was not intended in the moment, but I love it, so I am sticking with it.
Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, a filmmaker with a name almost as long as his latest film, this fictional biopic channels The Master in its intentions. What I mean is that while Paul Thomas Anderson’s film isn’t expressly about L. Ron Hubbard, we all know that the founder of Scientology is precisely who he’s fictionalizing. Never Look Away tells the story of a fictional artist named Kurt Barnert, who is understood to be a stand-in for real life painter Gerhard Richter. The work Barnert produces is of Richter’s exact style, and his biographical background is more than a little similar. But as we learn through the course of the film, Kurt Barnert is disinterested in telling the stories behind his creations, instead preferring to let the consumer assign their own meaning to his pictures. The same goes for Richter, who has understandably disavowed the film.
No matter. Never Look Away isn’t trying to introduce us to the man’s work. No, this film is much more interested in studying how the experiences of a creative’s life, especially of one who lived through some extremely turbulent times, can inform artistic output. If it turns out Never Look Away is completely off-base with its litany of biographical guesstimates, I couldn’t be bothered to care. It’s not a biopic. Yes, I could see how that’s a bit of a copout to Richter and his ilk, but if a bit of cognitive dissonance can produce such an incredible film, Richter can kick rocks (although I did check out some of his works online, and all I can say is wow - dude is damn talented).
The story begins in 1937, with a very young Kurt Barnert first getting a taste for painting during the height of Nazi rule in Dresden. He struggles to find an angle of expression as the world around him changes rapidly, often in extreme ways. His family is torn apart, disgraced, and made to suffer a million different debasements as a result of the times, while Kurt looks on with curiosity. We follow him into young adulthood, romance, marriage, and ultimately success, but to get there we take a tour through what could function as three separate movies.
The middle segment chronicles the dawn of a romance between Kurt and his lover/eventual wife Ellie (Paula Beer) and the struggles they face living under the thumb of her gynecologist father, Professor Seeband (a terrifying Sebastian Koch), whose ties to Nazi power inform his parenting style as well as the covert ways he must live his life in a world looking to find those responsible for the evils of the Third Reich.
Act three follows our hero (played from act two forward by Tom Schilling) into adulthood and subsequent notoriety as a painter. This is where the film finds the most joy, although one should be warned: no amount of saccharinity is so sweet as to not give way to seriously upsetting events at the drop of a hat. The tonal balance is even throughout the entire film, and perhaps the one demerit I could lob at it is a result of there being so much material. Basically, with an entire lifetime worth of drama on display, some of the heavier hitting moments disappear as soon as they occur. In the moment, it feels like no weight is being attributed to these events. Add to that the fact that Kurt is so stoic, so inoculated against suffering, that he never seems to have a visceral response to even the worst misfortune. A scene in which he stumbles across the hanging body of a suicidal relative takes up about 30 seconds of screen time, and Kurt seems to just shrug it off.
As I said, however, it’s only in the moment that these items feel abbreviated. When taken in context of the film on the whole, especially when we get to the latter stages of it, in which Kurt’s paintings begin to reflect his experience, we do see how deeply our protagonist felt these tragedies. There were more than a few “aha!” moments where said revelations would occur as we watch his brush spread paint on canvas (this film, no lie, will make you a better painter, if’n you’re interested in seeing masterful technique demonstrated).
At first, I felt like Schilling was a non-entity, a silent witness to the movie unfolding around him, but as time passed his sly emoting grows into something much more interesting than simple brooding. A smirk, a side-eye, an innocently uttered excuse - Schilling imbues Kurt with a mischievousness that is matched only by his obsession with finding truth through his art. When the movie revealed itself to be a melodrama, and Schilling revealed himself to be German Ryan Gosling (Rian Geislüncht?), it all clicked in a big way. Even the broadly melodramatic elements play wonderfully once you jive with the movie’s tone (the wind blowing open a window resulting in the perfectly inspirational framing of a shadow and a projection on Kurt’s canvas comes to mind). I can’t find an apt comparison point tonally, but rhythmically, this plays very much like a PT Anderson film. Even Scorsese is being channeled at times.
Never Look Away is Oscar-nominated in two categories — cinematography and foreign language picture — and it would be a welcome winner in either. Both categories are stacked this year. In fact, they’re probably the two most accurate nominee groups in the whole bunch. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (Being There, The Natural) does stunning work, capturing the cold, clinical aura of a Nazi hospital, as well as the colorful pep of a 1960s modern art school. Every shot could be a painting, and every shot of a painting has almost as much texture as the real thing.
Added bonus: Oliver Masucci plays Kurt’s aggressively stereotypical art professor. He’s so so soooo weird, and so much fun to watch in every moment. He delivers a “get inspired” speech that would make even the least talented artist paint a masterpiece. It’s fantastic.
Never Look Away opens in Philly theaters today.