Can a three-hour-long film from Germany, set during the Nazi and Communist eras, actually form the basis of an entertaining love story, one in which political and philosophical content can coexist with torrid love scenes and ghastly acts of evil? The writer/producer/director of Never Look Away, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, proves it to be possible, by bringing a painter’s eye – and an unabashed love for broad strokes – to a story that is serious-minded yet at times grandly melodramatic. It’s also passionately sexy and warmly romantic, with a level of ambition and fearlessness that commands one’s attention and makes the running time fly past.
Kurt Barnert (played as an adult by Tom Schilling) has been encouraged from a young age (by his free-spirited but troubled aunt, played by Saskia Rosendahl) to see the beauty in truth and the truth in beauty. He clearly displays the makings of a potentially significant artist – but Kurt and his family must first find their way through the hellish maze of terrible consequences inflicted on their country by the destructive philosophies of the Nazi party…
The makers of Never Look Away were inspired by the life story of a real artist, one who, interestingly, has condemned the movie’s existence. Regardless of its historical accuracy or otherwise, the movie knows how to grip an audience over its generous length (allowing for an occasional bit of down time in the middle).
Max Richter’s music is a tremendous asset in capturing our emotions – particularly in scenes that involve Kurt’s eventual artistic inspiration/epiphany. Caleb Deschanel’s Oscar-nominated cinematography at times takes on the qualities that were captured on canvas in their day by the Old Masters. In this way, the level of nudity on display, while powerful in both the dramatic and erotic sense, is also made to feel natural and appropriate in context.
Despite the many achievements that make it largely a pleasure to watch, there are elements that weaken the overall impact. The inherent seriousness of the setting – and of the subject matter – isn’t always respected or represented to the degree that it ought to be. Heavy-handed choices in scripting, direction, scoring, editing, and lighting leave the character of Nazi eugenicist Professor Carl Seeband radiating similar vibes to those of a silent-cinema moustache-twirling ‘heavy’ that the audience can happily hiss at (despite the admirably restrained work of actor Sebastian Koch). Yes, Nazism fully deserves to be portrayed as the abomination that it was/is, but surely this fact can still be communicated even while leaving room for a bit more nuance and dimensionality to the Professor’s character?.
There are also stretches during the epic run-time of this film where lead actor Schilling – though handsome and highly watchable, as well as being a basically competent performer – is significantly overshadowed by those around him. Schilling just can’t match the quiet expertise of Koch, nor the radiant beauty and magnetism of Paula Beer in the role of Kurt’s sweetheart. One especially wishes that she and her character had been given more screen-time in the film’s last hour.
It’s great to see that enterprising distributors and festival programmers have, for the second year in a row, made all five eventual Oscar nominees in the Best Foreign Language Film category available to world-cinema buffs for viewing on Adelaide’s big screens. Never Look Away might be the most flawed of the five, but it’s still an impressive, satisfying cinematic achievement, as well as a very solid bet for anyone who appreciates an artistic historical/romantic war-themed family saga that is unashamedly aiming to broadly entertain as well as to inform.
Never Look Away opens this Thursday, 20th June.
For further information, click here.