Never Look Away – An engrossing and sweeping emotional drama

Posted in On DVD by - August 20, 2020
Never Look Away  – An engrossing and sweeping emotional drama


         Never Look Away, the sweeping period drama from German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck covers nearly three decades spanning war, the role of art, young love and the trauma of a nation. With an over three-hour running time, the film truly fits the definition of an epic in all the right ways with stunning cinematography and score, powerful and harrowing direction and a strong ensemble cast. 

         Never Look Away follows Kurt Barntert and his growth and rise as an artist among the tapestry of WW2 and post WW2 Germany. His life is impacted by the war in severe ways including the horrible crimes done to his aunt who had previously inspired his artistic pursuits. These crimes are committed by the SS doctor Carl Seeband who will later re-enter Kurt’s life in a new way as the father determined to stop Kurt and his daughter Elisabeth from falling in love. 

         Using the historical background of post WW2 Germany to tell a story that is decades wide in scope and intensely personal in character is tricky enough. And to have those characters also reflect their changing nation and divisions in it could easily be over ambitious or boring. However, Donnersmarck does a fantastic job keeping the characters developed and the scope precise in his direction. The first act as the familial trauma for Kurt to overcome is shown is harrowing and unsparing in its emotional devastation and violence. This leads to a tough watch as Donnersmarck showcases the horrors of Nazi Germany. Later in the film, key sequences of Kurt painting his art and eventually, his breakthrough paintings are beautifully done showcasing the love of art that both character and director seem to share. It builds to when Kurt begins to paint his first blurred photograph painting in a beautiful sequence due to Donnersmarck’s care and composer Max Richter’s beautiful score. That love for art is present throughout the film as something that Kurt and then Ellie connect over and treasure for themselves even as society tries to dictate what it should be.

Kurt’s use of art as a way to navigate his emotions and heal his trauma to find himself and his love again is used wonderfully. When he gets to the Dusseldorf Academy and meets Professor Antonious, those scenes are eye opening for Kurt and very well executed. The mentorship relationship that then develops between Kurt and the Professor is touching to see develop as Kurt is inspired to paint true to himself. These are among the highlights of the film as Kurt finds his artistic perspective in moving scenes. The friends that he finds at the academy also help him stay in touch with himself and are humorous characters in their own right helping to balance the tone of what can be a dark war drama. Kurt’s relationships that provide his boost as an artist that are key including one very emotional one. The relationship between him and Ellie is romantic and sweet but also heartbreaking as they struggle under the weight of her abusive and conniving father who will go to great lengths to stop their relationship. The tender moments of escape that the couple share is a welcome relief to the struggles that Kurt faces in his career and life and the feeling of watching love defy the odds is moving. The film takes place from the breakout of WW2 to the 1960’s capturing the growth of his work that was forced to be Socialist Realism in the East to his unique eye in the West. The final paintings are beautiful and showcase Kurt’s true love for art. 

         The direction is strong and the story is engrossing and both devastating and hopeful. But what really kicks Never Look Away into high gear is its technical aspects. The cinematography by Caleb Deschanel is stunning in its use of lighting and framing. It showcases the various locations in Germany and the art that Kurt creates wonderfully. It is crisp and a pleasure to look at the greens in the forest and the nighttime sky and some of the shots could even be paintings that Kurt could paint over. And the cinematography is assisted by a beautiful score by composter Max Richter. Richter is a well-known and regarded composer and he delivers another strong score with his compositions for this film. The piano and strings that kick in when Kurt is painting are hopeful and watching Kurt paint is gorgeous to see. It is life coming back to his work especially in the Academy scenes. The major three paintings that he does that shatter Seeband are done in terrific scenes. The payoff of Kurt working on them while Seeband’s life is falling apart as his fellow conspirators are caught is fantastic as emotional justice is finally done and the harrowing first section gets paid off. And the joy that the film takes on after that is euphoric and the final gallery of Kurt’s paintings are mesmerizing and a terrific pay off to the previous three hours. And the final callback scene of Kurt finding the art in the honking of the bus horns like his aunt did all those years ago is a nice bow on top of a great film. 

         What also builds Never Look Away are the performances. Tom Schilling portrays Kurt throughout his tumultuous coming of age and he is a strong center for the story to base around. In love with art and Ellie, he fights for both and pays off the ending beautifully. Sebastian Koch as the SS Doctor is an intimidating and cold antagonist who must reckon with his deeds. Paula Beer is terrific and warm as Ellie as she tries to define herself and start her own family through tough odds. The treatment of her character is one of the questions I did have with some of the directorial choices however. There are numerous nude scenes and the camera does focus on her more often. Is this a stylistic choice to evoke old paintings? The male gaze in film? Or a comment on the male gaze of the time or in film in general? Even with those questions, the relationship between her and Kurt is a strong emotional core and the couple is very likeable and easy to root for. Their defeats are as heartbreaking as their joys are heartwarming. And the supporting cast is good as well. Oliver Masccui is a wise advisor to Kurt as the Professor with his enthusiasm for art palpable and his story that he connects with Kurt’s is moving. Kurt’s friends are likeable and joyful as well. And Kurt’s aunt is devastatingly acted as well in her brief screen time as her joy for life is soon turned to ruin. 

         Never Look Away is a sweeping and emotional historical epic. With a strong cast and an emotional story of finding one’s voice backed by powerful direction, sweeping cinematography and a beautiful score, it’s truly a piece of art itself. 



Trailer –

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