von Donnersmarck, who won an Academy Award in 2016 for "The Lives
of Others," will certainly be in contention again for the same prize,
thanks to his latest German-language feature, NEVER LOOK AWAY. A three-hour
epic drama, it spans three decades of German history beginning in the
Nazi era and ending in the 1960s. Writer/director Donnersmarck follows
the fortunes of three main characters during the course of his film: the
artist Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), his wife Elisabeth (Paula Beer) and
her father, Prof. Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch).
The opening scenes are set in 1937, when Kurt, as a small boy, watches
as his beloved aunt, played by Saskia Rosendahl, is seized by a Nazi medical
team and dragged off to a sanitarium against her will. The reason? She
sometimes saw visions and acted erratically. Her mildly schizophrenic
behavior was treated as a crime by the Nazi authorities, who actually
passed a law calling for the incarceration and sterilization of those
they deemed mentally ill, severely disabled, or simply "undesirable."
Not only that, when war casualties mounted and hospital space became limited,
many of those unfortunate wards of the state were gassed to death (shades
of the Final Solution).
The man in charge of the medical death squad was Prof. Seeband, a cold,
vain, inhuman gynecologist who was proud of his Nazi beliefs and had no
compunctions about murdering young women like Kurt's aunt. Donnersmarck
shows, as he did in "The Secret of Others," that he is unafraid
to confront the dark history of his country, expose its monstrous behavior
under Naziism. Actor Sebastian Koch masterfully captures the twisted values
of the professor, an iron-jawed, stiff-backed man who thought of himself
as an upright citizen and a perfect husband and father.
His daughter Elisabeth, who knew nothing of her father's secret crimes,
is in her early twenties when, after the end of WW II, she attends art
school in Dresden and meets her fellow-student Kurt. Dresden is in East
Germany, of course, and has been colonized by the Soviet Union. That means
they must behave like good communists and, as budding artists, obey the
party line on socialist realism.
Kurt falls for the bright, beautiful Elisabeth and has no idea that her
father was responsible for his aunt's murder. As for the professor (who
escaped to East Germany with the connivance of a Soviet general), he is
equally unaware of Kurt's history. In his eyes Kurt is just another talented
but impoverished student, one who is eminently unsuitable for his precious
Kurt and Elisabeth defy the professor and proclaim their love for each
other. Donnersmarck handles their love affair and subsequent marriage
with admirable skill and sensitivity, bringing a much-needed warmth and
humanity to his gripping historical drama.
The third hour of NEVER LOOK AWAY deals mostly with Kurt and Elisabeth's
time in West Germany (having fled there just before the Berlin Wall went
up). Kurt enrolls in an art school and, for the first time in his life,
is free to make art that is personal and undogmatic. But what should he
do with all this freedom? He gets advice from a fellow student but the
person who really sets him on the right course is his professor (brilliant
performance by Oliver Massuci). A believer in tough love, he dismisses
all of Kurt's giddy experiments in modern art and tells him he will never
do anything significant until he goes deep inside himself and discovers
who he truly is as a person and an artist.
Kurt's quest to control his destiny once again results in a confrontation
with Professor Seeland. Opportunist that he is, Seeland has also jumped
to the west--and landed a prestigious medical job there. But finally his
hidden crimes catch up with him and there is an overdue reckoning.
NEVER LOOK AWAY was shot by Caleb Deschanel and designed by Silke Buhr.
Its composer was Max Richter. These craftsmen have helped Donnersmarck
put together one of the finest, most provocative films to come out of
Germany in recent years.