Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor)

Germany (2018) Dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

So, what is art? Is it simply drawing nice pictures, or creating something abstract with profound meaning? Or is it expressing something truthful or powerfully political? For most people it is probably the sum of all these parts as much as any individual tenet, so leave it to the Nazis to equate artistic merit with social value.

In 1937, Elisabeth May (Saskia Rosendahl) takes young nephew Kurt Barnert (Cai Cohrs) to an exhibition of modern art which the Nazis have dismissed as “degenerate”, exciting both of them. When Elisabeth displays signs of odd behaviour, she is taken to a clinic run by SS officer and gynaecologist Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), where she is sterilised then later exterminated.

By 1948, Kurt (Tom Schilling) is an art student having inherited Elisabeth’s passion for finding beauty in art, at an academy in Dresden, where he meets fashion student Ellie (Paula Beer). They secretly become a couple when Kurt is taken in as a lodger in Ellie’s family house but come clean when Ellie falls pregnant and marry. Except Kurt is unaware his father-in-law is ex-Nazi Seeband.

Remarkably, this epic 189-minute film from Oscar winning director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is actually inspired by the true story of artist Gerhard Richter, essentially a case of “the names have been changed to protect the innocent”. In asking the question “Is it about war or about art appreciation?” yields the answer “It’s both”, concerning two different stories linked inexorably yet somewhat tenuously to each other.

The first hour is set in the 1940’s, detailing how the cruelty of the Nazis wasn’t limited to Jews and other nations. Just like our Tory government, they had it in for the mentally ill too. Nazi belief was mentally ill people lived worthless lives and considered a blemish on Hitler’s Aryan utopia. So, they would be kept in hospitals until the space was needed for injured soldiers then they would be terminated to make room.

Seeband may not have killed Elisabeth himself but she was in is care and he signed the form sanctioning her execution, so his culpability is not in doubt. He gets a taste of his own medicine when arrested by the Russians, but earns his freedom after helping a senior officer’s wife during a difficult pregnancy. Suddenly the evil doctor is a hero and his crimes are conveniently forgotten, whilst Kurt’s father (Jörg Schüttauf), a teacher, is reduced to cleaning floors as no-one will employ him for being an ex-party member.

Once the focus switches to Kurt and Ellie’s story, Seeband’s Nazi past stays there, which is why this feels like two different films. But as we know, the past has a habit of catching up with us and for the next two hours we are teased as to when this will happen to Seeband. Before then, old habits die hard for Seeband, regarding Kurt as genetically inferior to him and his family, and tries to sabotage Kurt’s relationship with Ellie, going to truly horrific lengths to do so.

Kurt’s artistic talents get him many work opportunities but state commissioned “Social Realism” doesn’t inspire him, and it is not until he and Ellie leave the East for the West in 1960 and joins the Düsseldorf Art Academy that he is exposed to the various branches of modern art. The war may be long over but political unrest is still rife in West Germany, and forms much of the philosophies of the art students, using it fuel their creativity by way of rejecting the past and create bold new works.  

It’s hard to believe that 90 minutes earlier we saw a group of women being gassed to death and now we watch as people roll about in paint in the name of progressive art. This might quite deliberate however – von Donnersmarck relies on engendering this feeling in the audience so we can occupy the same space as the characters who have moved on from the past.

However, to move forward one must face the past and this becomes a dual concern for Kurt and Seeband, the eventual converging of their pasts creating the quietest yet oddly satisfying seismic explosion. Considering what it did for Richter in real life, the idea that art is a powerful tool is quite meta when you realise von Donnersmarck affirms this via a different artistic medium.

Similarly, there is a lot of mostly female nudity which will prove divisive; the way they and the sex scenes are shot is typically “cinematic” and “tasteful”, which can be inferred as von Donnersmarck overdoing the “art is beautiful” allusion by presenting them as natural and honest rather than gratuitous, which frankly the sex scenes are. At least there is a genuine pay off for the nudity late in the film.  

Whether von Donnersmarck was deliberately being that clever is something only he will know, but judging by how rigidly he stuck to replicating the core facts of Richter’s story with only the details changed, maybe this was simply von Donnersmarck honouring a hero of his. This is found in the effort put into the accurate multi-period recreations and meticulous mirroring of Richter’s paintings, and the emotive and believable performances from the stellar cast.

Even though she was only in it for roughly 15 minutes, Saskia Rosendahl as Elisabeth gave, for me, the most compelling turn but this isn’t a slight against Paula Beer as Ellie, proving quite a hand at period dramas, the boyishly charming Tom Schilling as Kurt, and the ineffably consummate Sebastian Koch.

Never Look Away is not just a loaded title thematically and philosophically but accurate in how von Donnersmarck ensures we don’t do this for the duration. People will debate if it is a work of art or mere overindulgence because of the bum-numbing run time which I must confess could do with some trimming. Whichever side you end up on, it is still a committed and masterful work to behold.