Never Look Away is a three-hour long wasted opportunity for a phenomenal film. A German historical drama/romance from Oscar-winning director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others, 2006), the story centres on a German painter named Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), a character based on artist Gerhard Richter. We meet Kurt at the age of six and follow him through to his thirties as he finds love and pursues his passion for art, all in the midst of WWII and post-war Germany. Due to Richter’s wishes to not have a biographical film made about him, Donnersmarck has created a film that is torn between fact and fiction and is disappointing for audiences who expect more from a creative story.
The film is laden with plot twists and likeable characters, even in spite of what appears to be a main character dying a mere thirty minutes in. The acting is predominately strong: Cai Cohrs is phenomenal in his role as six-year-old Kurt, with powerful facial expressions, glances and a very mature aura. Sebastian Koch creates a selfish, powerful and manipulative Nazi doctor in Professor Carl Seeband, and his performance just makes it too easy to hate the Professor with every ounce of your body. With the film carefully and explicitly building towards his demise – via discovery for his role in a Nazi-led euthanasia program – the abrupt ending of the film before such a conclusion was reached was stunning and heartbreakingly disappointing.
In a film that is not clearly proclaimed to be based on true events, Donnersmarck had room to be flexible with the ending. In reality, Richter may not have known that his father-in-law was a high-ranking Nazi until he was about 70 years old and may have unintentionally created artworks that could have revealed everything, but this is apparently not a film about Richter. It’s a film about the fictional Kurt, who had traumatic life experiences to tell but chose to be silent on whatever details he knew.
How filmmakers can expect their viewers to invest their emotions into these characters for three tense and fingers-crossed-inducing hours only to leave them with no resolution is beyond belief. Kurt is a waste of a character who throws away his talent and opportunity to create artwork that is more than paint on a canvas. Intended to be emblematic of Richter’s tendency to be vague about the stories behind his work, the fictionality of the tale allowed for Donnersmarck to identify this as a character flaw and rewrite the trajectory of Kurt’s life. Instead, Kurt sits before an eager press gallery and chooses to let the injustices that the subjects of his paintings have perpetrated and suffered be forgotten and hidden.
The adult Kurt is a surprisingly bland character. With minimal dialogue, he becomes increasingly difficult to connect with and comprehend. His love for his wife and passion for his art is always clear, however the motives behind his decision-making – such as what to paint and why – are not.
Nevertheless, his paintings are incredible. Merely watching the film to see these works is a pleasure and highly recommended. The scenes of Kurt working on his pieces are fascinating as they show the intricate and impulsive techniques that artists employ. During the film, Kurt escapes to West Germany from the East with his wife (Paula Beer) where he is able to more freely express his artistic talents. The artworks the audience is shown as Kurt tours his new modern art academy are unique and innovative, and a stunning representation of the unbounded limits of exactly what ‘art’ is.
Donnersmarck’s obsession with including female nudity is apparent from very early in the film when Kurt’s aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) is discovered playing the piano in the nude, then stands up unashamedly in front of her nephew and demands he not look away. A group of mentally and physically disabled women are later forced to strip down before being herded into a gas chamber and killed. This scene is awfully sad but it is interesting to consider how idealistic and in-line with beauty standards the body of the woman that the audience is made to connect with is – as opposed to the other women. The film connects her beauty with innocence and thus positions viewers to feel sympathy towards her and anger at what has occurred.
Both of these nude scenes are confronting but the later ones are portrayed with greater artistry. The many sex scenes, for example, are beautiful sequences of two bodies connecting and entwining into one and a brand new mother’s exposed breast is a sign of her incredible ability to carry and grow life. Take a walk through a gallery and you will of course be faced with countless nude artworks, often female, so the inclusion of such in this film does fit with its setting in the art world. This idea culminates with Kurt painting a nude portrait of his wife, but the emphasis on female rather than male nudity is impossible to ignore. All of the sex scenes exclusively show the female body in its entirety; a naked male body is shown twice in the film, but covered in paint to reduce the impact. It leaves the impression of a story where women’s bodies are the epitome of who they are, designed only to be looked at and enjoyed by the serious and professional men. It is yet more evidence from Laura Mulvey’s theoretical work on the concept of the ‘male gaze’ in filmmaking, which suggests women are included and positioned in films only for their “to-be-looked-at-ness” and to satisfy straight male viewers (from Mulvey’s essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, 1975).
This is a film set in the decades spanning WWII and its aftermath, when women were largely seen only as child bearers. Nevertheless, modern day films cannot perpetuate this inequality by objectifying women as items of beauty and display. A sex scene hiding a man’s genitalia but completely showing the woman’s is not reflective of a historical time period. When a couple have sex in their bedroom, the public sees nothing; they do not see the woman, they do not see the man. And inside the bedroom, the partners see all of each other. So filmmaking that depicts only naked women, is not realistic or justifiable by any means other than the idea that women’s bodies are free to be used and seen by any and all.
Better handled is the film’s depiction of abortion. Abortion is a timely issue and its appearance in this film doesn’t bode well from being attached to this. Never Look Away shows a powerful, authoritative father force his daughter into aborting her pregnancy conceived with a partner he doesn’t approve of. It presents an alternate storyline to the current abortion discussions in that this is a woman forced to abort, rather than a woman prevented from the freedom to do so. However, this is really just another example of male determination to have power and autonomy over women’s bodies and choices. The audience is privy to the unjust nature of the act, so they are positioned to sympathise with the woman. But it is sad to see that an issue that was so clearly wrong in WWII era is still thriving today.
Despite its flaws and non-fulfilment of its potential, I would recommend seeing Never Look Away. Don’t be daunted by its length as the story is enthralling and left me wishing for another hour so Donnersmarck could finish telling it.