By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s new movie, “Never Look Away,” has been nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards. And no wonder. It has the epic incident-laden sweep of something by Tolstoy or Dickens.
If von Donnersmarck’s name is in the least bit familiar, it’s probably for one of two reasons. He directed one of the best films of the last decade or so, “The Lives of Others,” which did win an Oscar. Less happily, he was lured to Hollywood in 2010 to make the abysmal Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie bomb, “The Tourist.”
“Never Look Away” is a much-appreciated return to form. Taking place in Germany from 1937 to 1966, the picture is a kinda/sorta biography of the celebrated painter, Gerard Richter (who has vehemently distanced himself from the film)
Five-year-old Kurt is taken by his vibrant young aunt, Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) to an exhibit of so-called “Degenerate Art.” (Such an exhibit actually happened in Germany, though a few years earlier). Such art, the guide explains with evident disgust, glorifies the demented and bizarre. “Such art” is by the likes of Kandinsky and Duchamp.
But Elizabeth is taken with the work. Unfortunately, the next thing you know, she’s playing the piano naked, smashing her head with a glass candy dish and imploring Kurt to “Never look away.”
She says the same thing as she’s hauled off to the loony bin where her occasional lapses into madness are viewed as a threat to the state. Why should a “useless” life take a bed away from a good Nazi solider, wonders the institute’s director, Dr. Seebond (Sebastian Koch). Despite her pleas, she’s sterilized and shipped off to an even worse fate.
Elizabeth’s story, chilling as it is, is merely prologue. The rest of the movie is concerned with the adult Kurt, now an artist, faced with the twin repressions of Soviet social realism and German post-Reich avant-garde silliness. For example, one of Kurt’s teacher’s works exclusively in felt and grease (though there’s a moving story behind his choice, as we later learn).
Paralleling Kurt’s journey toward artistic fulfillment is a politically-tinged tale that entwines his life with his aunt’s tragedy. Kurt falls for a young fashion designer, also named Elizabeth (Paula Beer), whose father, it turns out, is the same arrogant monster who sent the other Elizabeth to her doom. As we will soon see, he has more havoc to inflict on Kurt and on his own daughter.
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Known as one of the go-to actors for romantic leads in German movies, Tom Schilling as Kurt is an appropriately passive presence. He is more witness than protagonist, which ties in with the film’s title. He can’t look away, even when forcing himself to conform to whatever regime’s idiotic strictures come along.
Koch, who was one of the stars of “The Lives of Others,” expertly embodies the malignant ease of a man who is as much at home with the Nazis as he is with the Soviets. His energy propels the picture.
Beer’s beauty is showcased in numerous nude scenes, but her character, initially feisty and independent, fades into the background as she is relegated to the role of “love interest” and pawn in her father’s machinations.
At a little over three hours, “Never Look Away” is the sort of movie you want to settle in with on rainy day. If the emotional pay-off is slightly less than expected, it’s more than out-balanced by the film’s rich cornucopia of characters and events.