German film celebrates the power of creativity to resist oppression

Film Review | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Never Look Away

Opens March 15
4 out of 5

The Nazis committed countless atrocities during World War II. One that specifically targeted the non-Jewish German population was the eugenics program which aimed to “improve” the Aryan race by eliminating people with disabilities, including mental disorders.

That’s the horrifying starting point for Never Look Away, a terrific German drama that examines totalitarianism from a seldom explored perspective: the artist who captures it for posterity.

Loosely based on painter Gerhard Richter’s experiences in WWII and post-war Germany (Richter has loudly distanced himself from the film), Never Look Away is anchored by Kurt Barnert, a sensitive boy whose outlook on life was influenced by his aunt Elizabeth. She introduced him to what the Nazis called “degenerate art”, and was later sterilized and murdered because of her schizophrenia.

Directly responsible for Elizabeth’s misery was Carl Seeband, an opportunistic ob-gyn not above sending his patients to death camps to further his career.

Unbeknownst to Kurt and Carl, their paths cross again in post-war East Germany when the budding artist falls in love with Seeband’s daughter Ellie. The doctor is not particularly fond of Kurt. Neither has he abandoned his eugenics beliefs, which leads him to betray Ellie when she becomes pregnant by Kurt.

Based on the devastating first third of the film, one might expect the plot to venture into melodrama. No such thing. The movie sticks with Kurt becoming an artist. Frustrated at first by the Nazis’ conventional view of art, and later the propagandistic focus of Soviet socialist realism, Kurt escapes to West Germany to allow his creative juices to flow. One final hurdle materializes: aesthetics only get you so far. Art needs to matter.

Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmark (back in Germany following The Tourist disaster), the film is light on its feet despite being three hours long. The writer/director manages to ground abstract ideas about art, supported by the extraordinary cinematography of Caleb Deschanel, who showcases the power of colour in the darkest of moments.

Never Look Away also benefits from Max Richter’s superb score and strong performances from German mainstay Sebastian Koch (The Lives of Others) as the narcissistic ob-gyn, and the gorgeous Paula Beer (Frantz) as Ellie. Tom Schilling as Kurt is a bit bland, but that suits the David Copperfield-esque journey of a man trying to find himself.

The film’s title refers to a lasting piece of advice Elizabeth gave Kurt. By never averting his gaze, the artist is able to register memories that would later inspire his art. Never Look Away also conveys the idea that authoritarian figures, regardless of their ideology, fear creative pushback. Trump railing against SNL isn’t cute, it’s a symptom.