Never Look Away review. By Halli Burton.
A 189-minute work of art
There are so many joyous and equally horrific moments in this 3-hour visual masterpiece, written and directed by Oscar winner (The Lives of Others) Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. His latest Academy Award contender, Never Look Away, otherwise known in German as Werk ohne Autor (Work Without Author) is a romantic historical drama loosely based on the life of painter Gerhard Richter (renamed Kurt Barnert in the film).
The film takes its audience on a kaleidoscopic 30-year journey through every human emotion, from the most innocent of all at one end, love, to the most terrifying at the other, that being unimaginable cruelty.
The opening scene is set in Nazi East Germany in 1937, with a young Kurt on a day trip to a museum with his adored but troubled aunt Elizabeth (played by the beautiful Saskia Rosendahl), who advises him to ‘never look away’ and that ‘everything true is beautiful’. Words of wisdom that Kurt later applies to his work, leading him to become an acclaimed artist in his hometown, Dresden, and to further notoriety in 1960s West Germany.
After an unfortunate self-harming incident, Elizabeth is diagnosed with schizophrenia and is sent away to an asylum, which led to her not only being brutally sterilised but also to her death in a gas chamber. This was Hitler’s Germany after all, where the nation’s bloodline had to be kept pure by any means necessary. Kurt never forgets his aunt, who becomes the subject of some of his most famous work.
The man in charge of the asylum is gynaecologist and let’s face it, killer, Professor Carl Seaband (the brilliant Sebastian Koch). Rather conflictingly, he’s a member of the SS and a doting father to fashion student Ellie (Paula Beer), whom the adult Kurt (Tom Schilling) falls in love with and later marries. It becomes apparent that Professor Seaband’s cruelty extends beyond his place of work to his home, where upon finding out that Ellie is pregnant with Kurt’s child, performs a botched abortion thus ensuring that she never conceives again. Why would the professor condemn his own daughter to heartbreaking infertility? For the simple reason that Kurt mentions his family’s history of mental illness and his love of art, both of which are considered worthy of Nazi contempt and elimination.
That being said, this is the same man who years earlier, and unbeknown to Kurt, signed the order to sterilise his beloved Aunt Elizabeth. Professor Seaband doesn’t make the connection either until many years later, when he sees Kurt’s portraits of his aunt in his studio. It’s at this point that Henckel von Donnersmarck’s superb storytelling reaches its climax. Professor Seaband’s shock, pain and fear is palpable.
There’s an inevitability about the professor’s past catching up with him, it was never about when, but rather how. He escaped capture before when a Russian soldier showed him mercy after safely delivering his child, and again when he fled to West Germany with Ellie’s mother. But it becomes apparent to viewers that Professor Seaband has been suffering in his own mental prison for years.
Never Look Away is a compelling masterclass in creativity, history, politics and the complexities of human behaviour.
We hope you're enjoying BRWC. You should check us out on our social channels, subscribe to our newsletter, and tell your friends. BRWC is short for battleroyalewithcheese.