Never Look Away (2018)

Although The Tourist was far from being a good film, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) is one, if not the best German film, a stunning and intense character study that authentically portrays the life in 1980s East Germany. This and the several Oscar nominations — Best Foreign Feature and Best Cinematography — are the reasons I really wanted to see his latest film, Never Look Away (Werk ohne autor), which I sadly avoided for more than a year because of its runtime of 188 minutes. What a silly reason to avoid a film that not only I was able to watch in one sitting but that engaged and intrigued me from start to finish as it is a poignant, astonishing work of art. 

The film opens as six-year-old Kurt Barnert (Cai Cohrs) visits with his aunt Elisabeth May (Saskia Rosendahl) a museum's "Degenerate Artists" exhibit mounted by the Nazi. A beautiful woman in her 20s, Elisabeth disregards the Nazi's stance that modern art is problematic and makes no sense; she actually likes it and took Kurt to the exhibit to encourage his artistic talents. 

Unfortunately, Elisabeth was too free-spirited for her times and, after being found naked bashing an ashtray on her head, she is committed to an insane asylum. Diagnosed with "youthful delusion and mild schizophrenia", she is scheduled to be sterilized by Professor Seeband (Sebastian Koch), an esteemed gynaecologist. But there's no place for mentally ill people in Nazi Germany and she is soon ushered into mass showers.

After the war, now a young man, Kurt (Tom Schillings) enrols in a Dresden art school where they discourage creativity and experimentation and bridle his talents in service of socialism and realism. Ellie (Paula Beer), a young fashion student, is the reason he stays as he's completely smitten by her and they soon fall in love. Alas, she is the daughter of Professor Seeband, who after saving the life of a top Soviet officer's pregnant wife, switched his loyalties to Communism, and is just not going to let his daughter marry a poor art student like Kurt. 

After a promising career as a Socialist Realist painter of murals, Kurt and Ellie flee East Germany a few months before the Berlin Wall is built and he enrols at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie of modern art where he struggles to find his trademark as he's haunted by the traumas of his past. 

Inspired by the story of renowned visionary social realist painter Gerhard Richter, Never Looks Away tells a beautifully woven, fascinating and perfectly paced story. While Ellie and her father have a fair share, this is arguably Kurt's story, the story of a boy growing up facing many difficulting, of a young man facing disappointments and life-changing moments and struggling to decide who he wants to be in a world that is constantly changing.

Never Look Away is an exploration and discussion of art that captures the horrors and pain of humanity, one that never fails to point out how repressive regimes consider art either as good or bad depending on its political subtext as art is regarded, both in Nazi and Communist Germany, as a vessel to propagate an ideology. What von Donnersmack is urging us to do here is to judge art in a different way, by its beauty or the artist's skills. 

The main characters are well-written and equally well-portrayed. Kurt is such a multi-layered character and Tom Schillings gives an inspired, intense performance as he captures the character's struggles and drama. Sebastian Koch is downright terrific as he gives a chilling and quite unsettling performance as Professor Seeband. However, it's Saskia Rosendahl who steals the show — despite the limited screen time as her character dies soon, Rosendahl gives a heartbreaking and powerful performance as Elisabeth and lights up the screen every single time. 

Another outstanding aspect of Never Look Away is the cinematography from Caleb Deschanel as it is absolutely gorgeous and makes it even harder to look away. And the musical score makes the perfect companion. 

Ultimately, this is a terrific, moving and thought-provoking film, one that film lovers should absolutely watch. 


  1. I have this film on my DVR watchlist as I hope to see it as I have no problem with films that are over 3 hours as long as it has something to say.

  2. Lo vidi alla Mostra di Venezia dello scorso anno e mi piacque subito alla prima visione. Von Donnesmarck ha un talento unico nel saper raccontare storie: magari in certe parti il ritmo è un po' da fiction televisiva, ma la storia ti tiene incollato allo schermo fino alla fine, le tre ore non si sentono davvero. E non è poco :)

    1. Infatti! A me preoccupavano molto quelle 3 ore ma sono volate via e lo rivedrei molto volentieri.