German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has enjoyed an intriguing career to date. His 2006 debut The Lives of Others was one of the great films of the 21st Century. His follow-up, the wretched romantic thriller The Tourist starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, was anything but. Now he’s back on more assured terrain with the German-language drama Never Look Away, an epic saga of culture, art and politics that turns the clock back to before, during and after the turmoil of World War II.
A story that spans three decades, and takes its inspiration in part from the life of German painter Gerhard Richter, it follows a young aspiring artist named Kurt (Tom Schilling). As a boy, he is first encouraged to think about art by his Aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), a woman troubled by schizophrenia, who is later murdered by the Nazi regime. When Kurt matures into a young student, he unwittingly meets the doctor who signed her life away years earlier, Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), father of Kurt’s lover, Ellie (Paula Beer).
This ‘twist’, made known to the audience early on, is kept hidden from the young lovers; Seeband’s past activities during the war are indeed kept away from everyone, with the help of a superior officer who owes him a favour. Kurt and Ellie have more pressing problems, with her father taking an instant dislike to Kurt and driven to keep them apart. Indeed, Never Look Away is more interested in notions of guilt and responsibility – individual and collective – than offering up some cheap thrills that turn on tawdry revelations.
The film, which was nominated for two Oscars this year including Best Foreign Language Movie, can sometimes teeter dangerously towards melodrama. One sequence in particular, involving Kurt, Seeband and a painting that points towards the latter’s repressed guilt, could so easily be laughable, but Koch is a robust actor, and he makes us believe. At three hours-plus, the film is a slog at times, and the texture and subtlety found in The Lives of Others is absent here. But this is still an absorbing, engaging and above all intelligent film about the crossroads between art, society, culture and politics.
Never Look Away opens on 5 July. For more details, visit Modern Films.
1. Still from Never Look Away.