Is it contradictory to say a film is both ambitious and cliched? Both classifications describe “Never Look Away,” the third film from Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck. Much like his Academy Award winning debut, “The Lives of Others,” “Never Look Away” represents Germany’s Oscar submission for Foreign Language Feature. While Henckel Von Donnersmarck bites off a particularly substantive topic, he addresses said topic with traditional, if overdone, tropes of biopics and melodrama. “Never Look Away” traces three decades of German art in conjunction with the history of the country before, during and after war. However, it strings these pieces of information together using a paperback-ready romance drama.
We have to wait a bit for the steamy romance, however. The film begins in 1937 as the Nazis rise to power throughout Germany. The section introduces us to Elisabeth May (Saskia Rosendahl) as she takes her precocious nephew, Kurt (Cai Cohrs) to an art museum. Elisabeth’s outbursts during this period brand her with the diagnosis of schizophrenia. Under the Nazis, mental health diagnoses were essentially death sentences. Those considered “sick” were sent to concentration camps and met with ghastly fates. As distressing as this sounds, this first section boasts some beautiful, sunny imagery. This level of crisp cleanliness sets the stage for the visual language of the rest of the film. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel turns every frame into a work of art ready to hang on the wall. Everything is beautiful to watch, even if it never seems to offer much comment to the images it presents.
From here the film jumps forward to the meat of the story throughout the 40s and 50s. Kurt (Tom Schilling) is now a young man and full of hope and ambition. He moves from his stencil assignment in his small, war-torn area of Eastern Europe and pursues art at the Academy. It’s here that he meets Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer), a fashion student who instantly takes a liking to him and his art. The same could not be said of her renowned gynecologist father, Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch). Carl disapproves of Kurt almost immediately. As their relationship progresses, Carl seeks to mold Kurt into a more traditionally respectable man for his daughter.
This section works mostly as an extended, steamy, forbidden love tale. Schilling and Beer have strong enough chemistry. However, the section delivers on what makes a great, trashy beach read. It’s sexy, it’s got conflict, secrets abound related to Carl’s involvement in the war. Schilling works well as a romantic lead, possessing the looks of a late-90s DiCaprio with roughly 75% of the charm. Koch, the standout from “The Lives of Others,” emerges again as best in show. He’s tasked with playing to the rafters as a villain, but does so very well. Unfortunately, Beer comes off as the weak link. Her underwritten part is mostly to blame. Ellie only exists as a love interest, a scorned daughter, or someone to lie naked on top of Kurt for extended periods of time.
All this juicy drama entertains, but adds little to what Henckel von Donnersmarck seems to want to say with the film. His script wants mostly to talk about art and how it changes through Kurt’s eyes throughout this period. While at the Academy, Kurt’s professors discourage modern art, calling it “degenerate” and all about “me, me, me.” In contrast, the socialist art Kurt learns focuses on bringing value to the community. This involves lots of still paintings, murals and figure drawing classes. All valuable and attuned to Kurt’s fine skills, but never allowing him the freedom of expression he longs for.
All of this leads to the 60s, as Kurt and Ellie make their way to West Germany. Kurt finds himself studying modern art in Dusseldorf, where artistic freedom is all around. Despite being nearly two hours into the three hour plus film, “Never Look Away” finds new life. This section still finds some new cliches to exploit. Oliver Masucci does the best he can with the role of Professor Antonius van Verten, a standoffish professor who comes around to our protagonist. However, it’s here Henckel von Donnersmarck finds the story he wants to tell. Is art about elevating the community or about the freedom of self expression? How does the history of a nation shape which way the pendulum swings between the two?
One of Kurt’s collections involves the painting of key photographs, only to have a sheen blur them. In some ways, “Never Look Away” mirrors this integral series of paintings. Henckel von Donnersmarck begins with a concrete and interesting idea. How was German art shaped over 30 years by war, desolation and reconstruction? In order to answer that central thesis, Henckel von Donnersmarck adds a blurry gloss to his picture. This comes in the form of chic, shiny production values, familiar archetypes and a paint by numbers script. All of it works in the end. The film entertains for three hours and teaches about the evolution of German modern art in the process. However, the more traditional narrative trappings of the film obscure the elements that are interesting and new.