Film review: Never Look Away; Camerimage Festival

A bildungsroman about a painter, set in Germany during and after the Second World War.

Never Look Away (German: Werk ohne Autor, ‘Work Without Author’) is written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. It has been nominated for a number of awards including the Academy Award for foreign language film.

Many people know Von Donnersmarck’s earlier film The Lives of Others, which is a true masterpiece. In the new film, the director again engages in an examination of German history – but the two are very different. The Lives of Others is a disciplined, focused study of one man, a Stasi minion, and his scrutiny of a small, specific, ‘bohemian’ artistic milieu in East Germany. This tight, almost claustrophobic focus gives the film immediacy, and a tension which is remarkably powerful.
By contrast Never Look Away is extraordinary loose and at about 3 hours long it could have easily lost at least 45 minutes. I wish the film had been given over to a powerful editor ready to challenge the writer-director’s insistence on showing everything at least once (maybe twice) and loading too many scenes with heavy-handed symbolism. The ending, sorry, is just dumb.

That’s not to say I disliked it; not exactly. I stuck with it and found in it some great stuff, mainly involving Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography. The film’s world comes alive through his camera, and the performances by Tom Schilling (who is always good) and Sebastian Koch (ditto) are convincing and satisfying. However, I felt that though Paula Beer’s performance was good, her part was too underwritten and this was unfair.

The film is said to be “inspired” by Gerhard Richter. (More on this in Dana Goodyear’s article in the New Yorker https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/01/21/an-artists-life-refracted-in-film )

Richter, who is the subject of Corinna Beltz’s 2011 documentary ‘Gerhard Richter Painting’, has had an interesting life, though I’m not sure it’s fascinating enough to make a full-on drama film (compared to Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden’ directed by Dieter Berner which is brilliant partly because Schiele was such an amazing character). Richter’s important because he’s so darned successful, but he’s only one of a number of East German artists who survived Nazism and the DDR to find fame in the West. In fact his most interesting work, the 1988 series October 18, 1977 – paintings based on photographs fo the Baader-Meinhof Group the Red Army Faction – isn’t even in the film, not is his ‘invention’ of the squeegee as a painting tool. These are the things I find interesting about Richter.

But it’s not supposed to be Richter – right? In any case, the artist has rejected the film and his association with Herr von Donnersmarck. Still, the portrait of Joseph Beuys in the film is entertaining (Beuys is dead and has no comeback, after all) and the game of recognising the giants of the postwar German art scene, in von Donnersmarck’s disguised form, is fun – but must be quite a niche activity.

The story structure, setting up the protagonist Kurt against his antagonist the Nazi doctor Seeband, is good, as is Von Donnersmarck’s point about how old Nazis kept reinventing themselves and prospering. Though in a sense this makes Never Look Away two movies: the one about the bildungsroman of the artist, the other about the (operatically bad)  Nazi father in law and the toxic legacy. The film swings between the two with the heaviness of pendulum. Moreover, while Kurt’s relationship with Seeband is explored, his own family just disappear from the plot.

I don’t mind a film being long, but there ought to be a solid reason and I didn’t really find the reason for the longeur in Never Look Away. Since I’m researching and writing about historical film and films about artists, I found Never Look Away a useful film to consider in these terms. My verdict is, it’s interesting but too bloated. I will be unlikely to ever sit through it again.