Never Look Away




The new German drama from the man who gave us The Lives of Others is a long film requiring a long review.

Never Look Away

Saskia Rosendahl


The arrival of this film, a third feature from the German writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, can be seen as a crucial moment in his career. The first of the three, 2006’s The Lives of Others was widely seen and won an Oscar thus giving him a remarkably auspicious start. His English language debut followed in 2010 with The Tourist which was a decidedly lightweight work and it is only now that we have his second German language feature Never Look Away made last year. It bears every sign of being a work intended to re-establish the high standing that resulted from the acclaim for The Lives of Others, that study of life in East Berlin in the 1980s when the Stasi was operating in force. 


It would appear that American critics have given huge praise to Never Look Away and it is certainly not a film short on ambition. It tells a story set in Germany between the years 1937 and 1966 and it lasts for over three hours. The film has the advantage of being handsomely mounted and splendidly photographed by Caleb Deschanel while the director carries off the not inconsiderable feat of sustaining a running length of 189 minutes without ever letting the narrative fall into longueurs. Indeed, one’s initial impression is that, given the authority with which it is made, this could well prove to be a major arthouse film just when we need one. However, although my interest was held throughout, the longer the film went on the more I found myself questioning if it really had the weight which its first quarter seemed to promise.


The fact is that Never Look Away involves no less than three interconnected threads within its single narrative, but they are of variable quality and come together in a way that makes for an uneven film. The central character here is Kurt Barnert played by Tom Schilling, but that is not established for some time since we first see Kurt as a child in scenes set in Dresden which are mainly centred on the boy’s aunt, Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl). Cai Cohrs who plays the young Kurt, then aged six, is very good and the opening scene, one in which the aunt takes the boy to an exhibition of Degenerate Art, does at once bring in the subject of painting which will become increasingly important when Kurt grows up with ambitions to be an artist. It also establishes the Nazi mentality so crucial to the period and does so initially by touching on the insistence of those in power that social realism is the necessary mode to be adopted by painters. Shortly thereafter, the film introduces us to another major character, Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch). He is a Nazi doctor and, when Elisabeth starts to show some signs of mental instability, he is the man who decides that, having been committed to a mental hospital, she should be sterilised. Furthermore, as someone who totally endorses Nazi beliefs about eliminating those who are impaired, he is the one who condemns her to death so that she dies in a gas chamber.


Koch, who also appeared in The Lives of Others, is a strong presence as Seeband and, relatively short as her role is, Saskia Rosendahl is immediately engaging as the ill-fated Elisabeth (indeed she could well deserve an award as Best Supporting Actress in due course). Consequently, this first part of the film has real impact and this continues when, without much delay, we move on to the post-war period and find that Seeband is thriving. He is lucky enough to have won the protection of a Russian major played by Evgeny Sidikhin having aided the major’s wife in giving birth in dangerous circumstances. Consequently, it looks as though Never Look Away will centre on the way in which certain staunch Nazis survived to flourish in Germany after the war. This was the theme in a favourite film of mine, Jean-Marie Straub’s avant-garde masterpiece of 1965 Not Reconciled and all these years later it remains a powerful subject. Where Straub embraced the issue in a film lasting less than an hour, this new work, as already indicated, is more than three times longer, but different approaches are perfectly valid and one accepts the style adopted in Never Look Away including the way in which it embraces a music score by Max Richter which rarely holds back but which works for the film.


That said, however, having reached the post-war period it is here that Never Look Away brings in the second of its three key plot threads while at the same time establishing the character of Kurt as a young man who is studying painting. What takes over now is a love story as Kurt woos a fellow student, Ellie (Paula Beer). In due course (but it would be wrong to reveal how) this plot line leads to the reappearance of Professor Seeband. However, this aspect of the plot, which embraces contrivances more appropriate to melodrama, comes across as a work on a much lower level than what has preceded it. The romance prompts thoughts of many a TV period drama and, although the dialogue only occasionally sinks into banality, these scenes (by no means insubstantial in length) prevent the film from maintaining the quality that one had hoped for.


We now come to the third theme which, hinted at early on, becomes increasingly central. The subject here is art, what painting can do and the search undertaken by Kurt in finding a style that properly expresses his individuality as an artist. It’s again a valid subject for a film but, only partly because the film has kept back the introduction of Kurt as an artist for so long, it seems minor compared to the drama being built around Professor Seeband. Admittedly, links are made with the history of the period. Kurt when in the GDR is forced to follow the dictates that demand social realism in painting and then, after he and Ellie flee to the West just before the Berlin Wall goes up, he finds himself studying in Düsseldorf where new ideas in art are encouraged. Here, however, the film takes a dim view of modern art, one that seems to go beyond Kurt’s feeling that whatever he tries out still fails to be what he is seeking. I am told that Kurt is in part a fictionalised version of the German painter Gerhard Richter whose achievements include applauded works described as photo-paintings which have their roots in actual photographs. In the film that is the style eventually adopted by Kurt and presented as his breakthrough (it seems to counter to some extent earlier comments about more truth being found in photographs than in most paintings). Certainly, it finds Kurt taking account of past history including that which has been hidden and creating works that derive from his own earlier life. Although Seeband has hardly come over as a person with a conscience, he reacts to Kurt’s photo-paintings in a manner that recalls Claudius in Hamlet responding to the play staged to confront him with his guilt.


However, that is not quite the end of the film which seems more interested now in the questions about truth expressed in art. Already much time has been given to the various phases through which Kurt’s painting passes, but this would be more interesting if the adult Kurt had been presented in more depth so as to make us really care about his progress. Furthermore, some of the film’s ideas about art appear over-simplified (the unqualified suggestion that everything that is true is beautiful comes up twice). In addition, when Kurt indicates that the photo-paintings put on display are merely a phase he is going through, it’s a statement that if taken seriously oddly undermines the supposed importance of Kurt finding personal expression through that form. While the love story with its attendant melodrama will probably prove acceptable to many viewers, they may be less ready to find this third thread clear enough and meaningful enough to satisfy them. In the first section of the film there has been one scene which had seemed forced: this is when Elisabeth becomes ecstatic on persuading a group of bus drivers to hoot their horns for her (the fact that the camera joins in the ecstasy approvingly by circling round and round her at this moment prevents this from being merely an illustration of her mental imbalance). At the close of Never Look Away this scene is replayed, but with Kurt taking Elisabeth’s place: doubtless intended by von Donnersmarck as a deeply significant moment in view of its placing, it again fails to ring true and thus underlines my belief that for all its many qualities Never Look Away is a deeply flawed film. But most serious filmgoers will want to see it and to make up their own minds.


Original title: Werk ohne Autor.




Cast: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl, Oliver Masucci, Cai Cohrs, Ina Weisse, Evgeny Sidikhin, Mark Zak, Ulricke C. Tscharre, Bastian Trost, Hans-Uwe Bauer, Lars Eidinger.


Dir Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Pro Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Jan Mojto, Quirin Berg, Max Wiedemann and Christiane Henckel von Donnersmarck, Screenplay Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Ph Caleb Deschanel, Pro Des Silke Buhr, Ed Patricia Rommel, Music Max Richter, Costumes Gabrielle Binder.


Pergamon Film/Wiedemann & Berg Film/Buena Vista International (Germany)/Beta Cinema-Modern Films.
189 mins. Germany/Italy/USA/Czech Republic. 2018. Rel: 5 July 2019. Cert. 15.