Synopsis: German artist Kurt Barnert has escaped East Germany and now lives in West Germany, but is tormented by his childhood under the Nazis and the GDR-regime.
Stars: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl, Oliver Masucci
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Running Length: 188 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Most movie nerds like myself keep a director like Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck in their back pocket when they need to dole out a bit of comedy with their film trivia. After his 2006 film The Lives of Others won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, von Donnersmarck likely had his pick of projects to undertake and he settled on what looked like a sure bet. 2010’s European spy thriller The Tourist starred Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, both at the height of their box office potential, and when it was released it was a notorious bomb. Nevertheless, the Hollywood Foreign Press nominated it for three Golden Globes (for Depp, Jolie, and Best Picture) which has become a long-standing joke in Hollywood and a central reason people point to that nominating body as being enchanted by getting movie stars to attend their award shows instead of recognizing quality films.
It’s been eight years since that fiasco and von Donnersmarck has returned for his third film and found himself nominated again for Best Foreign Language film for Never Look Away (or Werk ohne Autor/Work Without Author as it was known in Germany). I admit that I’ve not seen The Lives of Others but know it to be a respected winner of the Oscar and with a nomination for Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography as well, it’s obvious the Never Look Away represents an embraced return to form for von Donnersmarck after what had to have ultimately been a bruising experience with the Hollywood system. With a stellar production design and Deschanel’s stunning camerawork, it’s a high-class picture.
Never Look Away follows Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling, Woman in Gold) an artist in post-war Germany haunted by the memories of his past and attempting to exorcise his demons through art. As a child, he saw his beloved aunt suffering from undiagnosed mental health issues taken away and his town destroyed by bombings as the Nazi’s were rising to power. Though he doesn’t follow her journey, the audience sees his aunt relegated to a hospital where she’s barely treated before being sterilized and eventually shipped off to the gas chambers with other people deemed risks to the survival of a pure society.
The first twenty minutes of the film provide several thematic threads that von Donnersmarck will pick up and discard several times over the next two and a half hours. There’s the SS doctor (Sebastian Koch, The Danish Girl) who treats Kurt’s aunt that will enter his life again when he becomes an adult studying art in East Germany. This doctor also figures into a subplot involving his arrest after the war and eventual clemency at the hands of a Russian officer who continues to protect him as the years go by. When Kurt falls in love with another student (Paula Beer) she provides still another link to the past that we’re all privy to but our main characters aren’t.
With a running time of over three hours, knowing this is another WWII story involving Nazis may suggest a daunting sit but it unfolds at just the right pitch. With such a dark subject matter, von Donnersmarck grasps onto moments of levity when he can and uses them to break up some of the heavier passages. The performances are strong, particularly Koch as a severely morally compromised man who manages to get more deplorable with each chance he gets to redeem himself. Adding to a strong list of nominees this year (Capernaum, Shoplifters, Cold War, and the favored winner, Roma) Never Look Away more than makes its case for your attention.