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.