Never Look Away – The art of war

Newest movie by director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, acclaimed for The Lives of Others, this drama recounts the fate of a German painter in search of his artistic identity over three decades.

By Chloé Laforest

Reading time 4 min.

Never Look Away


Freely inspired by the life of German artist Gerhard Richter, Never Look Away skilfully mixes drama, historical narrative and romance. After winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2007 for The Lives of Others and filmed The Tourist (the failed American adaptation of the French movie Anthony Zimmer) in 2010, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck returns here to his favorite theme : German history, and especially its darkest hours. The film tells the story of a 20th century painter successively confronted to the diktats of the Nazi and communist regimes before discovering the more insidious but hardly less imperative rules of the Western avant-garde. In 1937, the young Kurt Barnet travels to Dresden with his aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) to see the exhibition organized by the Nazi regime on “degenerate art”. Marveled (unlike others) by the works of Picasso, Yves Klein or Chagall, the little boy discovers his passion for Art.

But one day, as he draws quietly on his desk, he falls on his aunt in full crisis of madness. Diagnosed schizophrenic, the young woman is interned, and thanks to eugenic doctrine, will end her days in a gas chamber in a death camp.

Henckel von Donnersmarck returns here to his favorite theme :
German history

The infamous Professor Seeband

The story goes back ten years later. Kurt is a student in an art school in the GDR. The little boy turned into a charming young man (played by Tom Schilling). On campus, he meets the pretty Elisabeth (Paula Beer), whom he prefers to call “Ellie” because she reminds him a little too much of his aunt. In love, they begin a relationship under the inquisitive eyes of the father of the young woman : Professor Carl Seeband, a prominent gynecologist with a Nazi past. The latter (who hides a heavy secret), has no consideration for their idyll, destined to fail according to him. Sebastian Koch (seen in The Lives of Others and Bridge of Spies) portrays this proud Nazi, cold and tyrannical, although at times it comes close to the caricature.

All Quiet on the Western Front ?

Broken by the doctrine of the socialist realism which imposes him a way of painting, constantly belittled by his father-in-law, Kurt dreams of greatness. Feeling that the political climate is changing, the couple fly together to the West. There, they discover freedom. The young man enrolls in an art school in Düsseldorf where the abstract (and sometimes the absurd) is the norm. Lost facing this much freedom, Kurt quickly finds himself confronted with an existential problem peculiar to artists : the lacking of inspiration. It is finally guided by his mentor, the teacher and director of the school Antonius van Verten (the brilliant Oliver Masucci) that he will succeed in reinventing his art and in the eyes of the world be known as a great artist.

While Henckel von Donnersmarck’s aesthetic, always in the shadows and lights, is still neat, it’s undeniably Tom Schilling’s (A Coffee in Berlin or more recently Generation War) acting game that prevents the film from plunging the viewer into a premature boredom. His translucent blue eyes give Kurt’s character an irreverent intensity that counterbalances his clumsy look. The sweet Paula Beer (Frantz, The Wolf’s Call…) hardly finds her place within the duo Schilling-Koch although her appearances bring a real wind of freshness. Never Look Away lasts 3h10, divided into two parts. And one wonders if it would not have been more judicious to make it a series… 

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