Chew's Reviews - Never Look Away

By Gary Chew |  

I first learned of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's existence when Arnold Schwarzenegger lobbied that the Best Foreign Film Oscar ought be awarded to Donnersmarck's first picture, The Lives Of Others. At first blush, I was dubious. Then I saw the movie. Wow, I was “all in” with the Golden State's former governor/movie star/strongman. Like a good novel, the film wrenched all kinds of emotions from me. Moreover, it did snag that Oscar.

As did the first, now Donnersmarck's third feature film ascends to the same possibility: Never Look Away. It's difficult to know where to begin with a movie that runs 3-hours and 9-minutes. (Yes, an intermission would have been neat, but I saw it on my computer monitor. Not surprisingly, I was unable to watch Herr Donnersmarck's entire work in one fell swoop, although I did in one afternoon.)

“Everything true is beautiful!” That line is important to remember on seeing this German language work of cinema. What is art? What kind does a true artist create? Do artists have difficulty finding what's right for them undertaking a particular manner of expression? And If so, how does the artist find her or his muse.

When the muse finally arrives for Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), a young German painter ... you know it! This moving scene implies the muse has blown into Kurt's studio on the wind. Artful cinema? Oh yes, especially when you see what kind of photographic art he begins making that still incorporates his talent as a painter. Just visualizing this process onscreen is engrossing, the plot notwithstanding.

But the story stands strong too, showing the politics that have taken hold of Europe at the close of World War II. What Nazi legacies remain enforce ... and among whom? How does a fascist cover his tracks and seem to suddenly be in league with Marx and Lenin, or more completely, Stalin? How are innocent young characters in the script maturing into adulthood, as well as what's to come of them in the choking grip of Soviet totalitarianism? How does that affect the artist? Is there any chance fleeing covertly into West Berlin is a way to greater freedom for creating art?

Donnersmarck's screenplay provides a full spectrum, even so much as to depict the deaths of innocent, apolitical Germans during the scourge of bombs dropped by The Allies on Dresden. That took me back to the powerhouse novel and film, Slaughterhouse-Five, first put to paper by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. then giving rise to the subsequent same-titled film of the early 70s … directed by George Roy Hill.

Barnert first appears as a young boy, accompanied by his attentive, young Aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl). The pair is looking at sculpture in a museum. She's about 20, and has a most sensitive artistic temperament. Later, Nazis imprison Elisabeth for her independent spirit. She's ultimately put to death with several other women in a gas chamber. The fascists believe her to be insane.

Kurt shows great talent for painting and drawing, even as a boy. He continues with his art and falls into a relationship with Ellie (Paula Beer). Ellie's full name is Elisabeth Seeband, but Kurt calls her “Ellie.” Childhood memories of his Aunt Elisabeth being hauled away to prison is too much for him to call his first romantic interest by her full given name. Yes, Never Look Away is an inter-generational love story, as well.

The plot tightens with knowledge that Elisabeth's death was directly effected by Ellie's father when he was a Nazi OBGYN physician while Hitler was in power. He's called Professor Carl Seeband, and played by Sebastian Koch, who was the lead in Donnersmarck's The Lives Of Others. In that film, Koch is a sort of hero … a German playwright who comes under the scrutiny of the East Berlin STASI. The bad guy he plays in NEVER LOOK AWAY shows how far and well Koch stretches from the good to the bad: an excellent actor. His villainous role might make your skin crawl: “Heil Hitler,” and all.

Myriad feature films have been made about the metastasis of fascist thought, but still, Never Look Away arrives at time in America as perilously relevant and fresh as they did back in the 40s.

This film is the third, recent foreign picture I've screened since first watching Roma(*), directed by Alfonso Cuarón (Mexican)and Cold War, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (Polish). I tell you, with no doubt whatsoever … trying to come up with what movie of the three is best comes close to the impossible. I do know, in my flick book, no American movie in contention down in La La Land for a golden statue is better than these. I urge you to see all three of these pieces of artful cinema, done in languages other than what most of us speak in America. Then you can judge for yourself. I wonder what will be the big foreign language winner down in Lohs Anguhleeezzz as February shuts down.

(*) Watched on Netflix. The other two seen via online linkage. Maybe the big, new, fancy multiplexes in my city of residence show only action-figure flicks. Ho-hum … zzzzzzzzzzz.

Copyright © 2019 by Gary Chew. All rights reserved.


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