Never Look Away

Review by Willard Manus

Florian Henckel 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 daughter.
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.