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German Audiences Look Away From ‘Never Look Away’

Despite its selection as Germany’s entry for the Oscars and a glitzy premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “Never Look Away” is struggling to get viewers to look at it on home ground.

Henckel von Donnersmarck won an Oscar in 2007 for his freshman feature outing, the critically acclaimed East German drama “The Lives of Others.” He went on to make 2010’s “The Tourist” with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. “Never Look Away,” his highly anticipated third film, follows a young painter through three turbulent eras of German history.

The film boasts a strong cast led by Tom Schilling (“Oh Boy”) and Sebastian Koch (“The Lives of Others”) and a reported budget of around $20 million – high for a German film and evident in its lavish production values. The three-hour movie has enjoyed positive and often glowing reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, including from Variety, which called it “classical and dignified.”

It seemed a shoo-in for a top spot at the box office when it opened in Germany on Oct. 3, especially after a major marketing push that saw director and cast go on tour with the film throughout Germany following its release. Henckel von Donnersmarck personally introduced “Never Look Away” (German title: “Werk Ohne Autor”) at about two dozen cinemas across the country.

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But the film suffered a disappointing box office debut, opening in seventh place with a weekend gross of €589,143 ($670,422) from 315 locations. After three weeks, the number of locations had dropped to 226, and the film had garnered only €1.36 million ($1.5 million).

By contrast, Michael Herbig’s “Ballon,” a fact-based Cold War thriller about two families who attempt to flee communist East Germany in a hot-air balloon, opened Sept. 27 in third place, earning more than €1 million ($1.1 million) in its first four days and more than €4.8 million ($5.5 million) after four weeks. While Herbig is a hugely popular actor, director, comedian and one of the country’s most successful filmmakers, “Ballon” marks his first foray into drama.

“The Lives of Others,” Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 debut feature, also performed far better than “Never Look Away.” Centering on a Stasi officer who spies on a famous playwright and his lover in 1980s Berlin, “The Lives of Others” made €815,542 ($927,302) in its opening weekend and went on to amass a box office total of more than €14 million ($15.9 million) over its long theatrical run.

So why has “Never Look Away” struggled to connect with moviegoers? The question has some local exhibitors scratching their heads, wondering if it might be a bit too daunting for average moviegoers.

“I also expected much more from this film,” said Arne Schmidt, spokesman for Hamburg-based premium cinema operator Astor-Gruppe, stressing that he nevertheless considers it “well worth seeing.”

While “Never Look Away” runs more than three hours, Schmidt doesn’t think length has been a factor in keeping people away. The movie is loosely based on the life of famed German artist Gerhard Richter.

“My impression is rather that the film’s subject matter may have been perceived by potential audiences as being too heavy,” he said, adding that it’s “a film that perhaps deals with too much baggage from the Nazi era.”

Disney distributed “Never Look Away” in Germany. Sony Pictures Classics is releasing the film in the U.S. but has yet to announce a date.

The film was produced by Pergamon Film (the company owned by Henckel von Donnersmarck and Beta Film CEO Jan Mojto) and Wiedemann & Berg Film, in co-production with Beta Cinema (Beta Film’s theatrical division), Bayerischer Rundfunk and ARD Degeto.

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