The term “degenerate art” was coined by the Nazis to classify the works of such early 20th-century masters as Klee, Kandinsky and Mondrian. The “afflicted” vision of these artists, in the Nazis’ opinion, failed to properly celebrate the Aryan perfection of the master race. To modern viewers, the infamous degenerate art exhibit mounted by the Nazis in 1937 is a treasure trove of visionary work—an opinion shared by an awestruck young German boy visiting the exhibit at the beginning of Never Look Away, absorbing it all in big-eyed wonder.
Nominated for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar, Never Look Away is an often-striking portrait of art, politics and life in collision. German filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck scored big a few years ago with his exceptional The Lives Of Others, about a solitary East German spy and the life-embracing playwright he has under surveillance.
Never Look Away doesn’t quite have the same powerful impact. Its three-hour-plus running time gives Von Donnersmarck plenty of room to tell his story in meticulous detail, but the storytelling loses tension in the midsection. Still, the journey of its protagonist, that little boy of the first scene who survives personal tragedy, political upheaval and the Communist regime that succeeds the Third Reich to find himself as an artist, remains compelling.
In a story inspired by the life and career of artist Gerhard Richter, little Kurt Barnert (Cai Cohrs) is visiting the exhibit with his beloved, free-spirited young Aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl). Despite the tour guide’s profound disgust, Elisabeth confides to Kurt that she likes the paintings, and advises him to “never look away” from life or art, no matter how disturbing, because, “Everything true is beautiful.”
In his next few formative years, Kurt loses several people important to him and survives the bombing of Dresden, reducing his city to rubble. As a young man (now played by Tom Schilling), his work as a sign painter gets him into the postwar art academy, even though his teacher questions how Kurt’s private drawings “help the working man.”
Like their predecessors, the Communists now in charge condemn modern artists like Picasso as “decadent,” teaching new young German artists to paint not Aryan perfection, but Social Realism. A bright spot in Kurt’s dreary routine is spirited, forward-thinking fellow student Ellie (Paula Beer). They marry, despite the disapproval of her icy father, Professor Seeband (Sebastian Koch), who has ingratiated himself with the East German Communist elite—and whose past as a doctor for the Third Reich is entwined with Kurt’s in ways neither of them yet realizes.
Schilling looks just like the young Richter of the postwar era. But the role of Kurt is mostly passive and reactive, as events unfurl around him; he doesn’t really protest the stifling art school dictates, or his father-in-law’s smug campaign to demean him and control the young couple’s married life. But Schilling’s performance warms in his scenes with Beer’s Ellie, when Kurt uncorks his true feelings. (Although it’s a bit obvious when one of their gently erotic love scenes is offered in counterpoint to the strictly missionary encounter between her parents.)
Von Donnersmarck portrays art, society and youth itself in transition between stale and modern, repression and freedom, past and future. The pomposity of critics, teachers and students alike (in both East and West Germany, where Kurt and Ellie end up) is duly skewered, along with the students’ often-loony attempts keep up with audacious new trends in modern art.
Unconstrained at last, yet unable to fill a canvas, Kurt begins a series of photo-realistic images in black and white, intentionally blurred, and based on old family snapshots. (The signature style with which Richter first made a splash in the art world.) The movie suggests that only by reconciling his past and present can Kurt discover his own artistic voice. Any artist will tell you it’s a lot more complicated than that, but the filmmaker’s homage to the artist’s journey keeps us engaged.
NEVER LOOK AWAY
With Tom Schilling, Paula Beer and Sebastian Koch. Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 189 minutes. In German with English subtitles.