German artist Kurt Barnert has escaped East Germany and now lives in West Germany, but is tormented by his childhood under the Nazis and the GDR-regime.
I always make a point of trying to watch all of the films nominated for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ at the Oscars, and ‘Never Look Away’ was the last one to be released in UK cinemas from the 2019 selection. Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, a previous winner of the award for the outstanding ‘The Lives of Others’, this is ostensibly a biopic of the German visual artist Gerhard Richter, although sufficient creative license has been taken to warrant the protagonist being named differently (Kurt Barnett in the case of this film). It is primarily about Barnett’s origins as a child born during the Nazi era, growing up to become an adult on the eastern side of the wall, and how those experiences fed into his art and led him to become the man he is at the conclusion of the film. It is also over 3 hours long, which is a significant watching commitment, but perhaps the best praise I can give the film is that it doesn’t feel that long and it held my attention throughout.
As a young child, Kurt spends a lot of his time with his Aunt Elisabeth, an eccentric artist with a passion for art and music, who also suffers from schizophrenia, which puts her in danger on account of the Nazi eugenics program. Her ultimate fate is left in the hands of Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), the director of the Dresden women’s clinic and a high ranking officer of the SS, and much of the film follows Seeband and Barnett in their lives and careers, as they dovetail and come across one another in later life, unaware of who the other was in the past. It is a film dealing in the loftiest themes possible, from love to war, from art to freedom, and I felt it was beautifully put together by Donnersmarck, who draws strong performances from Koch and Tom Schilling, who plays the adult Barnett. It’s the latest film to come out of the German film industry which attempts to reckon with their role in the Second World War and its legacy, doing so through the prism of two men affected greatly by their experiences.
The film is a truly rich experience, deeply involving and captivating throughout the three hours as we spend time with these people coming to terms with the events of the past. This isn’t quite ‘The Lives of Others’, which remains one of the greatest films of all time, but ‘Never Look Away’ is so much more than a biopic of an artist and I thought it was excellent.
Directed By: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Starring: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl, Oliver Masucci, Ina Weisse, Rainer Bock, Hanno Koffler, David Schutter, Johanna Gastdorf, Jeanette Hain, Hinnerk Schonemann, Florian Bartholomäi, Hans Uwe-Bauer and Jörg Schüttauf