You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Venice Film Review: ‘Never Look Away’

An epic, intergenerational tale of art, love, tragedy and politics spanning three turbulent decades of 20th-century German history.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl, Oliver Masucci, Cai Cohrs, Ina Weisse, Evgeny Sidikhin, Mark Zak, Ulrike C. Tscharre Bastian Trost, Hans-Uwe Bauer, Hanno Koffler, David Schütter, Franz Pätzold, Hinnerk Schönemann, Jeanette Hain, Jörg Schüttauf, Johanna Gastdorf, Florian Bartholomäi, Jonas Dassler.

3 hours 9 minutes

In 1933 an exhibition of so-called “Degenerate Art” — as in art that the newly empowered Nazi party considered antithetical to its values — took place in Dresden. Transposed slightly to 1937, this show, complete with stiff-necked tour guide (Lars Eidinger) explaining the worthlessness of the paintings to a crowd caught between socially-mandated disapproval and private titillation, provides the perfect opening for Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s return to the welcoming embrace of Germany’s historical past. Coming after a brief, best-forgotten dalliance with Hollywood with “The Tourist,” after “The Lives of Others” won the foreign-language Oscar in 2007, “Never Look Away” has already been selected as this year’s German Oscar hopeful. And it is all about the three-way tussle between art, history and politics, though in form, Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film, as classical and dignified a three-hour-plus, generations-spanning drama as you will meet, could not be less “degenerate.”

Visiting the exhibition are beloved young aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) and her artistically inclined little nephew Kurt (Cai Cohrs). Kurt will remember how, on their way home, Elisabeth prevailed upon an assembly of bus drivers to sound their horns in unison, so she could stand glorying in the blare. This odd ritual is evidence of her free spirit, but later takes on a darker edge as a potential symptom of the schizophrenia that will see her forcibly committed. It is her further misfortune to be assigned to SS doctor-on-the-make, Professor Carl Seeband (“Lives of Others” star Sebastian Koch). Disquieted by her insightful remarks regarding his own daughter, he orders Elisabeth sterilized, and places a small red “x” on her file, essentially condemning her to death as soon as her place in the hospital is required by a “more valuable” member of society.

Her state-sanctioned murder casts a shadow over Kurt’s family that extends long after the war ends and Dresden becomes part of the newly-formed East Germany. Now a young man, Kurt (Tom Schilling, “A Coffee In Berlin”) works briefly as a sign painter before joining the Dresden art academy where he learns a communist ethos on art that differs little from that of the Nazis. One of the subtler strengths of “Never Look Away” is the canny evocation of a war-weary, defeated population who did not experience communism as a revolution but a substitution. The insignia and the catechisms changed, but the underlying attitudes remained grotesquely similar in their callous prioritization of dogma over decency.

In this new world, good men struggle, like Kurt’s father (Jörg Schüttauf), who joined the Nazi party only under duress (and preferred to murmur “Drei liter” as an inane homophone alternative to “Heil Hitler”) but now cannot shake the stigma. And bad men flourish, like Dr Seeband: first imprisoned, but soon cosily under the protection of a Soviet commandant whose wife he guides through a difficult childbirth. He becomes a celebrated gynaecologist, living in a big house with his wife (Ina Weisse) and daughter Ellie (Paula Beer), who is studying fashion.

Ellie and Kurt meet and fall in love, unaware how closely their histories entwine. Seeband is determined to stymie his daughter’s relationship with the penniless artist, but fails: They marry and with Kurt finding the “Soviet realist” school of art — the only one in town — increasingly intolerable, they eventually head west. To Dusseldorf, at least, via a pre-Wall Berlin where defecting was simply a matter of getting on the right U-bahn and travelling lightly enough that no one guessed you weren’t coming back.

Kurt, whose journey is loosely modelled on that of artist Gerhard Richter, is accepted into the forward-thinking Dusseldorf Art Academy, under the tutelage of the Joseph Beuys-like Professor Van Verten (Oliver Masucci). His eventual disclosure of the reason he always wears a hat will be one of the film’s most poignant moments, finally providing Kurt with the motivation to pursue a truer artistic path. That path leads, with insistent, inexorable certainty, back into the past, as though his art were trying to tell him secrets from his history. That those secrets are never fully revealed, yet their expression is all around, is the most satisfying surprise in a film boasting relatively few of those.

Indeed, with Caleb Deschanel’s honeyed, warm-toned photography taking a romantic view of production designer Silke Buhr’s immaculately authentic, decades-spanning world-building, and the attractive cast who people it, the film — further smoothed and polished by Max Richter’s stirringly heartfelt score — is a mite too comfortable to really embody the chaos and mess of a turbulent era. In narrative terms too, having one man be personally responsible for so much of Kurt’s psychological scarring feels a little neat. Does it partially downplay the insidious, pollutant effect of Nazism if we can decide that this man would have been a monster no matter whose doctrine was on his lips? Seeband is simply a villain, though Koch works hard to give him dimension and excels during a moment of partial comeuppance, when those haughty, complacent features of his suddenly taken on the mien of a cornered rat.

It’s also a shame that the paternalistic policing of women’s bodies and reproductive systems (literally, in some cases, by their own fathers) is overtly examined as a mechanism by which politics could invade the personal sphere, and yet the women of the film remain so frustratingly sidelined. Ellie, linked in an eloquently understated way to Kurt’s other great love, Elisabeth, is herself a creative woman, but Henckel von Donnersmarck does not seem at all concerned with her fulfillment, or indeed her development as anything other than life partner and helpmeet to Kurt.

With so much focus on Kurt, then, it is fortunate that Schilling can command the film with such quick, quiet intelligence and grace, taking over from Rosendahl as the gust of life blowing through the stately diorama of Henckel von Donnersmarck’s imagining. It is his contribution that gives “Never Look Away” — ironically a work of representational art that queries the value of strictly representational art — its few faintly discernible brushstrokes of modernity.

Venice Film Review: 'Never Look Away'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 4th, 2018. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Special Presentations.) Running time: 189 MIN. (Original title: "Werk Ohne Autor")

Production: (Germany) A Pergamon Film, Wiedemann & Berg Film production in co-production with Beta Cinema, ARD Degeto, Bayerischer Rundfunk. (International Sales: Beta Cinema, Munich) Producers: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Jan Mojto, Quirin Berg, Max Wiedemann, Christiane Henckel von Donnersmarck. Co-producers: Christine Strobl, Dirk Schürhoff.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Camera (color, widescreen): Caleb Deschanel. Editors: Patricia Rommel, Patrick Sanchez-Smith. Music: Max Richter.

With: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl, Oliver Masucci, Cai Cohrs, Ina Weisse, Evgeny Sidikhin, Mark Zak, Ulrike C. Tscharre Bastian Trost, Hans-Uwe Bauer, Hanno Koffler, David Schütter, Franz Pätzold, Hinnerk Schönemann, Jeanette Hain, Jörg Schüttauf, Johanna Gastdorf, Florian Bartholomäi, Jonas Dassler.

More Film

  • Vice Christian Bale Sam Rockwell Playback

    'Vice' Reviews: What the Critics Are Saying

    Reviews are in for Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic, and it’s not all awards-season buzz. Despite garnering six nominations for this year’s Golden Globes, McKay’s kitschy approach to the politically charged film has polarized reviewers, prompting a mix of scathing critiques and celebratory praise for the director’s distinct film style. More Reviews Film Review: 'Malila: The [...]

  • Lena Waithe Brian Tyree Henry

    Lena Waithe, Brian Tyree Henry to Present $125k in Annual Film Independent Grants

    Writer-creator Lena Waithe and actor Brian Tyree Henry will present a quarter of a million dollars in filmmaker grants come January as hosts of the annual Independent Spirit Awards nominee brunch. Waithe, this year’s Spirit Awards honorary chair, and Henry will dole out the prizes in four categories, including a $50,000 unrestricted grant for a [...]

  • Piero Tosi Luchino Visconti

    How Costume Designer Piero Tosi Dressed Up Cinema

    One of international cinema’s undisputed greats in costume design, Piero Tosi’s work first faced the awards season spotlight 64 years ago with only his third film, Luchino Visconti’s masterwork “Senso,” which competed for the Golden Lion in Venice in 1954. Nominated for five Oscars for costume design and recipient of an honorary Oscar in 2013, [...]

  • RYAN GOSLING as Neil Armstrong in

    Big Breakthroughs Seen in Below-the-Line Categories

    Is 2018 an anomaly, or is it a harbinger of things to come? The awards derbies of recent years have seen a predominance of indie films at the expense of big studio features — resulting in a slate of Oscar contenders devoid not only of genuine blockbusters but also of more modest mid-budget crowd-pleasers. This [...]

  • Fox Germany Veteran Vincent De La

    Fox Germany Veteran Vincent De La Tour Heading to Paramount Pictures

    20th Century Fox veteran Vincent de la Tour is joining Paramount Pictures in a role covering Austria, Germany and Switzerland. He will be executive vice president for theatrical and home media for those territories, overseeing the local teams and reporting to Cameron Saunders, Paramount’s EVP of international theatrical distribution, and Bob Buchi, president of worldwide [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Oscar Noise Dominated by Academy Itself, Not the Movies

    For most of its 91 years, Oscar has been surrounded by hoopla. Now it’s surrounded by noise, which isn’t the same thing. For decades, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ attitude toward the media was: “Don’t talk about the organization; instead, talk about the creative members and their movies.” More Reviews Film Review: [...]

  • Crazy Rich Asians

    Diverse Lineup of Actors Jostle for Awards Attention

    It’s been less than four years since #OscarsSoWhite became a hot topic at the Academy Awards after 2015 films like “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton” failed to land major nominations for people of color. (It actually began the year before but picked up steam when, for the second year in a row, no people of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content