Never Look Away: The Oscar Foreign-Film nom no one is talking about (with good reason)

By Liam Lacey

Rating: C

Never Look Away, a drama about a painter growing up in the shadow of Nazi Germany, is nominated for a best foreign film Academy Award.

But don’t get too excited. According to the Oscars’ quaint rules, only one foreign-language film can be submitted per country -- there were 87 submissions this year -- which means cinematic powerhouses as Japan and France are put on the same footing as countries that produce fewer than a dozen feature films per year.  In addition, each country’s film is submitted by an official nominating committee, a process that often results in weeding out provocative choices; in the case of Germany, for example, last year’s Christian Petzold’s Transit.

Kurt (Tom Schilling) seeks to exorcise demons of Naziism and Communism through art in Never Look Away

Kurt (Tom Schilling) seeks to exorcise demons of Naziism and Communism through art in Never Look Away

The film is directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who previously won the foreign film Oscar for his 2006 film The Lives of Others, a drama about East Germany’s surveillance state in the years before the 1990 reunification.(In between, the director made 2010’s risible The Tourist the Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie disaster). 

On the face of it, Never Look Away has most of the ingredients for award-season royal jelly: There’s a lot of traumatic history, spaced over more than three decades, from Nazi-era Germany, the police state of East Germany to the flourishing art scene of Dusseldorf in the early 1960s. There are attractive young leads, romance and tasteful nudity, dialogue about truth and beauty, radiant cinematography (from Caleb Deschanel of Black Stallion fame), an orchestral score by Max Richter and meticulous period-production details, gussying up what is essentially a crude, reductive melodrama.

The historical events are connected through the experiences of an artist named Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling as an adult), his relationship to his lover Ellie, and to her father, a former Nazi doctor and eugenicist (Sebastian Koch).  

But we begin with Kurt (Cai Cohrs) as a six-year-old Dresden with his beautiful and independent aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) on a guided tour of the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition (the time and place have been fudged; the exhibition took place in Munich, though there had been a Reflections of Decadence exhibition earlier in Dresden in 1933). 

Because the guide insists on how terrible these abstract (Kandinsky) and expressionist (Van Gogh) works are, aspiring artist Kurt opines that perhaps he doesn’t want to become a painter after all, though Elizabeth assures him she likes the degenerate art.

Elizabeth, who hugs the boy to her cleavage, is a free-spirited unabashedly erotic young woman. She tells young Kurt that “everything true is beautiful” and tells him to “never look away,” even when the child walks in on her playing the piano naked. Elizabeth - who achieves a kind of trance state when listening to an assemblage of bus drivers hitting their horns - is soon taken away to an institution where she is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Young Kurt watches through his fingers as she is dragged into the van that takes her away, struggling to maintain her dictum to always keep looking.

Elizabeth is sent to see the haughty gynecologist Dr. Carl Seeband (Koch), who is under orders to clear more beds for wounded soldiers. When Elizabeth makes a comment about his daughter’s drawing, the doctor arranges to sterilize her before signing her death warrant.  In a scene made more grotesque by its prurience, we are witness to a scene of naked women, including one with Down Syndrome, who stops to tell the guard that she likes her, before they are pushed into the gas chambers. 

Within the same few minutes of film, Dresden is destroyed by allied bombs and Kurt’s two soldier uncles are killed on the Eastern front, and the war crashes to an end. 

We jump forward to post-war East Germany where Kurt (Schilling, who projects a watchful intelligence), is, like his late aunt, also prone to experiences that invoke the mystical interconnectedness of things (which causes his parents concern). 

He lands a sensible job at a sign painting company, while pursuing his drawing on the side until he gets into art school. While the Nazis condemned degenerate art, the Communists are similarly restrictive, permitting only “socialist realist” art that is designed to celebrate and motivate the masses. The policy is openly mocked by the art students, but they paint earnest pictures of hammer-and-sickle wielding couples as they are told.

Meanwhile, Kurt falls in love with a young fashion student, Ellie (Paula Beer) who resembles his late aunt and has the same name (Ellie, short for Elizabeth). Unknown to Kurt, Ellie’s father turns out to be the haughty Dr. Seeband, the same man who signed his aunt’s death-warrant, and who is now flourishing as a hospital director in East Germany. There he operates under the protection of a Russian army officer after saving the life of a Russian child.

Fed up with his sadistic father-in-law, as well as the artistic restrictions, Kurt and Ellie take a walk across the border (the Wall hasn’t yet been built) and find themselves in the modern world. 

Never Look Away’s last third takes place in West Germany in the early 1960s, where Kurt, now in his late twenties, gains admission to the avant-garde Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf. There he’s surrounded by various comically eccentric avant-garde types and mentored by Antonius Van Werten (Oliver Masucci), a louche character in a broad-brimmed hat, given to oracular pronouncements, and obviously based on the artist, Joseph Beuys. (Van Werten repeats Beuys’ autobiographical invention that, during the war, he was saved by Tartars who wrapped him in animal fat and felt).

Soon, Kurt’s artistic drive and repressed trauma come to a head, triggered by the arrival of Kurt’s father-in-law from East Germany. (How evil is Dr. Seeband? He’s even bad at sex; in contrast to Kurt and Ellie, who embrace in a series of poetic nude tableaux, we see the doctor jackhammering away atop his bored wife.) 

Struggling to find an authentic personal style, Kurt tries working in different media until – eureka! – he finds a form of photographic paintings which combines autobiographical photographs onto a campus, which are then blurred to lend them a fashionable abstraction.

While all the family secrets aren’t spelled out, it seems Kurt’s unconscious intuits the dark secret about his father-in-law that his conscious mind could not. The instant breakthrough is a cliché of artist biopics (Ed Harris discovering drip painting in Pollock), Never Look Away’s pushes the idea of epiphany therapy to an extreme.  

The story of Never Look Away is based on the life of the now 87-year-old Gerhard Richter, who has repudiated the film, which he says, with justice, grossly distorts his biography. (In reality, for example, Richter’s aunt, who spent 21 years in an institution, was starved to death as part of the Nazi euthanasia program). 

Although it’s not necessary to have seen Corinna Belz’s 2011 documentary, Gerhard Richter Painting, that film helps show how unsophisticated Never Look Away really is about the creative process. Richter created those “photo paintings” on various subjects in the 1960s and early 1970s, but he has worked in many different styles since then, mostly abstract. 

The simplistic idea that a form of representational art led him to the “truth” borders on a travesty, though a very tony travesty, to be sure.

Never Look Away.Directed and written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Starring: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl, Oliver Masucci, Cai Cohrs. Never Look Away shows at TIFF Bell Lightbox