Film review: Never Look Away

This film spans decades of German history


Back in 2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut feature The Life Of Others became a surprise international hit and went on to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. After the monumental box-office and critical failure of his sophomore film The Tourist in 2010, a spy thriller starring Johnny Depp, Henckel von Donnersmarck is finally back with Never Look Away, a beautifully detailed saga spanning three decades of German history.

Loosely based on the life of enigmatic German painter Gerhard Richter—Richter has since distanced himself from the film citing inaccuracies—Never Look Away stars Tom Schilling as Kurt, a talented art student who is tormented by memories of a childhood under the Nazis and the GDR regime.

The film opens in 1937 as young Kurt (Cai Cohrs) is seen accompanied by his troubled and free-spirited aunt Elisabeth (an impressive Saskia Rosendahl) to the infamous Nazi exhibition of “Degenerate Art” in which Jewish and modern artists such as Picasso, Kandinsky and Klee are denounced as frivolous and un-German. Not long before their visit to the exhibition in Dresden, Elisabeth is diagnosed with schizophrenia and locked up in a clinic where sadistic SS doctor Professor Carl Seeband (the brilliant Sebastian Koh) is entrusted with deciding her fate.

Years later, and after the separation of Germany into East and West, a now grown up Kurt (Schilling) is living under Russian rule. As a student at the Dresden school of art, Kurt meets and instantly falls madly in love with fashion student Ellie (Paula Beer) who also happens to be the daughter of Doctor Carl Seeband. Things take on a complicated turn when Dr Seeband learns of their burgeoning relationship and makes it his mission to separate the couple by any means necessary.

With expertly executed sequences detailing the destruction of Dresden in the 1940s, and the harrowing treatment of mentally-ill patients at the hand of the Nazis, the director has given us a film which is as precise as can be without ever falling into the superfluous or mundane.

Presenting a long and detailed account of stories seldom told, Never Look Away does a great job in addressing issues relating to Germany’s shameful and painful past under Hitler and later the GDR’s totalitarian regime.

Tom Schilling gives an arresting and deeply affecting turn as Kurt whom he depicts as a wide-eyed optimist who is having trouble letting go of the past. Sebastian Koh (The Lives Of Others, Bridge of Spies, Unknown) puts in an extraordinary, and slightly unnerving, turn as the enigmatic and decidedly sadistic Dr Seeband.

At 189 minutes, Never Look Away might seem like a chore to some, but in reality the story flows so smoothly that one might find it hard to believe that three whole  hours have gone by. A truly outstanding film and return to form for one of the most talented European filmmakers.

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