Recently, a couple of notable filmmakers have chased after the most elusive of subjects: how artists discover and develop their vision. In At Eternity’s Gate director/artist Julian Schnabel offers a gorgeous account of Van Gogh from the inside out by becoming his subject’s “eye” and projecting almost literally on the screen the painter’s ecstatic prism on the world. Now in Never Look Away Florian Henckel von Donnersmark (The Lives of Others) explores the evolution of a painter based on Germany’s Gerhard Richter, one of the world’s most beloved and esteemed artists.
Von Donnersmarck’s ambitious, hugely rewarding film is something of a paradox. A traditional, multi-generational narrative that sweeps across thirty years, it’s centered on a painter who struggled to break with tradition to produce a radical vision of his own. Despite it’s three hour plus running time, the film never feels long. American audiences are starved for work that embraces a larger historical frame of the sort that brings amplitude and richness to a narrative. Never gathers in the world. We witness an artist as he comes of age starting in Nazi-era Germany, then moves on to the post-war GDR, the artistic hotbed of Dusseldorf, finally fleeing (with surprising ease) to West Berlin.
In the opening scenes (which artfully preview much of what follows), Richter as a boy named Kurt Barnert is taken by his adored Aunt Elizabeth (lovely Saskia Rosendahl) to the famous Nazi era exhibit of “decadent art,” where the guide lambasts canvases by the likes of Picasso, Otto Dix, etc. Elizabeth will prove a key figure in Kurt’s life: she not only nourishes his creative impulses — a scene that’s both innocent and suggestive plays up the boy’s erotic fixation on her, which will persist over the years. Tragically, Elizabeth turns out to be mentally fragile; playing the piano naked in front of him, she tells him, “everything that is true is beautiful” … “never look away.” Eventually she’s forced into the clutches of one Dr. Seeband (Sebastian Koch) a Nazi medic assigned to sterilizing, then murdering those unfit to breed members of the master race.
With bravura editing, von Donnersmarck then crosscuts between the 1945 allied bombing of Dresden, Elizabeth’s fate in the gas chambers, and the death of family members on the eastern front. Cut to 1945 in the GDR, where the grown Kurt (Tom Schilling, German’s go-to actor for sensitive, artistic types) works in a stencil workshop, painting on the side. Admitted to the art school, he gets hamstrung by the regime’s insistence on social realist — boy loves tractor — art.
The dreariness is alleviated when he falls in love with fellow student Elizabeth (ravishing Paul Beer) — who looks remarkably like Kurt’s aunt of the same name. Both piqued and troubled by the resemblance, Kurt insists on using her nickname, Ellie. One of the film’s most provocative themes is the link von Donnersmarck draws between the creative spark his aunt nurtured and Kurt’s erotic “imprinting.” When Ellie turns out to be the daughter of Seeband, the doctor who killed Kurt’s aunt, rather than pull out all the stops with an explosive confrontation, von Donnersmarck chooses instead to let the connection fester in the background, suggesting how war criminals wove themselves into the social fabric and escaped apprehension.
A season of frustrating efforts among the young innovators in Dusseldorf’s academy culminates in Kurt’s breakthrough. The horrors of his past coupled with the monsters still living in his midst lead him to tap into photographic images, but hauntingly blurred out. These scenes in which one period of Richter’s work becomes thrillingly recognizable raise goose bumps.
The lensing by Caleb Deschanel is first rate, the actors are all superb. Sebastian Koch as Seeband, who fights his daughter’s marriage to Kurt, is especially fine when sensing like a wary animal that Kurt is on to him. Paula Beer’s Ellie is underdeveloped as a character, but lights up the screen in the manner of Saorise Ronan. Above all, Tom Schilling as Kurt — magnetically handsome and a big star in Germany — commits to conveying the inner turmoil of an artist, telegraphing his ambitions and loves with few words, through eyes and body. One sex scene with Ellie slyly reprises a blissful moment between young Kurt and his aunt.
A quibble, maybe not so minor: why the abundant full frontal display of the female characters? And none of Kurt? A hoary cinematic tradition, of course; or maybe it was in Tom Schilling’s contract? It might also be objected that the career of Ellie, a clothing designer, is given short shrift, and she’s mainly an amorous object and baby-maker. The score is at times too soaringly manipulative and on the nose. While the satire of the social realist style of painting endorsed by the GDR is a bit broad. Worse, the equivalencies von Donnersmarck underlines between the Soviet and Nazi esthetics are a bit dangerous and facile. Overall, though, Never is an epic-scale, sweepingly emotional journey about how a major artist arrives at his vision.