So much is packed into “Never Look Away” that its three hours, 2 minutes running time doesn’t seem excessive. We follow various threads in the story that begins in Nazi Germany, develops further in Germany’s east under post-war Soviet dominance and moves into the 1960s art scene. Meanwhile, there are personal lives that get close inspection against the background of all that is happening. We are privy to horrendous acts under the Nazis and long-lingering inspiration that a boy who likes to draw nudes carries with him into manhood as a budding artist, with his character seen as a fictionalized reminder of artist Gerhard Richter.
At the outset we view an impressionable six-year-old youngster, Kurt (Cai Cohrs ), whose aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) dotes on him and takes him to art exhibits in Dresden, notably one which the Nazis label degenerate art. Elisabeth is warm but also has neurotic problems manifested in odd behavior. Tragedy strikes as little Kurt watches his aunt being dragged away to an institution under the Nazi policy of eliminating those judged genetically unworthy of living, portrayed with all its horror as Elisabeth fights for her life. The spectacle of his aunt being taken away in a van will remain with Kurt into adulthood.
Excellent actor Sebastian Koch plays Carl Seeband, the wicked Nazi gynecologist who is responsible for sending Elisabeth to her doom, and when the Russians take over at war’s end, he is held prisoner. However, he saves himself by aiding in the delivery of a difficult birth, and the Russian in charge, appreciating the favor done, gives him protection. Seeband, who comports himself with haughty authority, is the sort of slimy operator who will adjust to whatever system he has to appease.
Meanwhile, with time marching on, Kurt, grows into adulthood and s portrayed by Tom Schilling. While entering art school in Dresden, which has been thoroughly bombed in the war, he meets Ellie (Paula Beer), a beautiful young woman who quite resembles his late aunt. The film’s construction shows its labored side here; Ellie turns out to be the daughter of Seeband, who dispatched Elisabeth. Will Kurt ever learn of the connection?
Kurt and Ellie bond as lovers, and when Ellie becomes pregnant, her father is aghast. You’ll be appalled at what follows.
All the while, the film progresses as Kurt wends his way to discover his abilities as an artist, but with no clear direction. He bides his time and earns money painting socialist realist propaganda in the form of a huge mural that he detests. A break in the pattern occurs when he and Ellie, now married, leave the East before the wall is built.
Part of the film deals with the art scene in Dusseldorf, a haven for artists who want to experiment, western style, with new, modern art trends, and there is humor in observing some of the outrageous work passing for art. Kurt struggles in this atmosphere but still has a way to go to set his course. As one might expect, we witness the point at which Kurt finally follows his inner instincts to create works in which he takes pride, and of course, he gains recognition.
Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck works with a lush style and sweeping imagery. Cinematography is by the superb Caleb Deschanel, with often intense music by Max Richter. The overall result is a span of history, within which the unfolding personal stories provide emotion. Schilling as Kurt uses a laid back style, but his good looks and intelligent expressions give weight to his characterization by making him intriguing both as the aspiring artist and the ardent lover. Beer as Ellie makes a most sympathetic partner as they struggle together with deep affection, demonstrated in part by some tastefully explicit lovemaking scenes.
The film thus accomplishes the feat of mixing the art world with the trajectory of history by linking Kurt’s self-discovery to his burst of portraying evil versus beauty in his art work. Despite the film’s various story contrivances, it carries weight and provides pleasure of a good yarn well acted and told with directorial skill. “Never Look Away” already earns special distinction in the early period of 2019. A Sony Classics release. Reviewed January 26, 2018.