Part thinly-veiled biopic of Gerhard Richter, part historical thriller, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s third feature is the only German production in Competition at this year’s Mostra and a return to form after 2010’s best forgotten The Tourist. It hits screens in Germany on October 3. Here’s our first look review…
Loosely inspired by the life of Gerhard Richter, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s ambitious third feature is a generation-sweeping story which follows the life of Kurt Barnert (Oh Boy!’s Tom Schilling), an artist haunted by a loss and who channels his trauma through art.
We meet a young Kurt (Cai Cohrs) in an art gallery for “Degenerate Art”, a term adopted by the Nazis because modern art was considered decadent and modernism an insult to more ‘valid’ artforms depicting racial purity and pride for the Reich. He wants to be a painter and his free-spirited aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) whispers to him that the stern and dismissive tour guide might not be the voice of reason when it comes to art appreciation… Days later, Elisabeth is committed to an institution under the care of SS doctor Professor Carl Seeband (The Lives Of Others’ Sebastian Koch, here on sturdy but one-note villain duties), who heads the Hereditary Health unit. From there, we follow Kurt and the rippled implications of this event through his life, as he enrols in art school, falls in love with Ellie (Paula Beer), and faces Ellie’s father, who opposes their relationship and whose dark past seems to have sealed our protagonists’ fates before Kurt and Ellie even met.
The story spans three decades in three hours but never drags at any point. The distinctive eras, from 1937 to 1966, are smoothly navigated, especially the transitions from pre-war Nazi Germany to WWII, to the newly-formed East Germany and the trading in of Nazi rule for communist dogma. Donnersmarck neatly addresses this substitution as being equally constricting sets of doctrines merely under different name and insignia. The filmmaker also has a sharp eye for detail when showing life under pre-Wall GDR, when defecting to the West of Berlin was merely a matter of packing lightly and convincingly looking like you were coming back on the U-bahn. The screenplay, penned by Donnersmarck, is of note: what begins as a seemingly conventional historical drama progressively manages to surprise by deviating its trajectory and mostly dodging all-too-neat resolutions. Much like the expansive scope of this particular canvas could have overwhelmed a less assured directorial hand, it’s not a stretch to imagine another filmmaker indulging more conventional beats inherent to revelation-driven dramas. Instead, the film’s deftly handled tonal shifts allow it to stand as an entertaining thriller that recounts three decades of Germany’s complex contemporary history, as well as a meditation on art as a revelatory form.
Less convincing are the performances, which limit themselves to broad brushstrokes. This is especially true when it comes to the women, as Paula Beer is given precious little to do. More’s the pity, as the actress has proven to be a formidable screen presence, following her award-winning turn in François Ozon’s Franz and TV series Bad Banks. The story does address this to varying degrees of satisfaction, as the powerful hold that Ellie’s father has on her is dwarfing; still, she’s largely backbenched to the role of Kurt’s (frequently denuded) partner and mother-in-waiting. Saskia Rosendahl fares a bit better in the role of Elisabeth. Having made her mark in Cate Shortland’s Lore, the actress is brilliant here and disappointingly short-changed when it comes to meaningful characterization. Still, she does provide some emotional weight and shines in a memorable sequence in which her character trades a repeatedly-played piano key for repeated blows to her head with a glass ashtray. It’s a satisfyingly underplayed yet striking moment that greatly benefits from Max Richter’s stirring score when she is forcibly taken under state-sanctioned rule. Shame that her part is largely limited to the first act.
While not without fault, nor as memorable as Donnersmarck’s Oscar-bagging The Lives Of Others, Never Look Away manages to make up for a few narrative shortcuts and the occasional melodramatic écart to impress as a handsomely-crafted drama. The recent announcement stating this would be Germany’s submission for the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category makes sense, as it stands head and shoulders above recent big German productions and festival contenders like Markus Goller’s Simpel, Thomas Stuber’s underwhelming In den Gängen (In The Aisles), or even Christian Petzold’s infuriating adaptation of Anna Seghers novel, Transit, which also stars the ubiquitous Paula Beer. The odds are that Never Look Away won’t be a repeat performance of 2006, but after his misguided mess-around with the higher echelons of Hollywood which gave us the groan-inducing The Tourist, it’s good to say Willkommen zurück.
Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor) | Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (Germany 2018) with Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer. Starts October 3.