NEVER LOOK AWAY
Opening Friday, Mar. 1
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s third feature, Never Look Away, is a history film for the post-truth era. Very loosely based on the biography of German painter Gerhard Richter, the film weaves fiction and fact, mythos and history, into a somewhat glib cultural history of the traumas of the Second World War, which shaped late-twentieth-century art. The film follows the life of painter Kurt Barnert, from the bombing of his hometown, Dresden, to his start as a successful socialist realist painter in East Germany, and finally to the astronomical rise of his star after he defected to the West.
Over the course of an uneven three hours and eighteen minutes, the film wends in and out of many genres, but one of its major modes is the crime thriller. Much of the plot revolves around the oppressive power that Nazi war criminal and gynecologist Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch) wields over Kurt’s psyche long after the war has ended. In these sections, the mix of atrocity and sentimentality, which borders on exploitation, still manages to transmit some genuine pathos. The melodramatic script is considerably tempered by Schilling’s canny ability to express deep suffering through an otherwise quiet, modest countenance.
But Never Look Away really lapses into bathos in the final act, in which Kurt arrives at the Dusseldorf Art Academy determined to prove himself as more than just a realist painter. In this section, the director’s soapy sensibility seeks to tie the intellectual history of post-war conceptual art into a tidy little package with Kurt’s trauma. In the grand narrative that Never Look Away crafts from fiction loosely cut with fact, art is a salve uniquely capable of healing our wounds.
For example, at the academy, Kurt is placed under the tutelage of a larger-than-life conceptual artist based on Joseph Beuys (Oliver Masucci). The film uncritically takes up a disproven story that Beuys himself perpetuated through his life—that, as a Luftwaffe pilot, he crashed his plane and was saved by Tartar tribesmen who wrapped his burns in felt and fat. The film parrots this apocryphal myth as a humanist parable of how the people Beuys was sent to kill saved the artist’s life. But a more interesting approach would acknowledge the fine line between heroic self-making and the ways that myth creates emotional distance from the heaviness of history.
Henckel von Donnersmarck’s disregard for truth in favor of sensationalism makes heroes of the usual suspects and casts villains as caricatures of absolute evil. Never Look Away has moments of great beauty, mainly residing in limpid cinematography by Caleb Deschanel, but these are diluted by a redemptive morality that rings slightly phony. Still, with Richter himself having disavowed the film, it does raise interesting questions about movies’ obligations to history.