Never Look Away, the sweeping new Oscar bait from Germany’s Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is never better than when it watches paint dry. Or, rather, when it watches its central character, modern artist Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), watch paint dry.
I’m referring specifically to a segment near the home stretch of this 188-minute sprawl when, after years of replicating and mastering the styles of others, Kurt’s spark of originality finally arrives. Over the course of a lengthy montage of wordless visual poetry, we see Kurt’s idea germinate into the first of many masterpieces, and we witness a mimic and a tinkerer become an artist. His revelation is exhilarating to watch — a rapturous, pure-cinema marriage of cinematography, editing and music — and we want to remain immersed in the process, nuzzled in the rush of creativity.
This marvelous sequence works so well because writer-director Von Donnersmarck, the eccentrically coiffed auteur who won an Academy Award for The Lives of Others, stays out of it, letting his talented craftspeople make movie magic unencumbered by the elephantine judgments and smug characterizations that color so much of Never Look Away. Mostly facile and sanctimonious, this is a film about a radical modernist that is content to paint between the lines of prestige-cinema formula.
Apparently, the story’s inspiration, the now 86-year-old contemporary visionary Gerhard Richter, thought so, too. Despite sharing his life story with the director in multiple in-person interviews, he later dismissed Von Donnersmarck’s project as “too thriller-like,” and disavowed the film, refusing to allow the filmmaker to use his name or any of his artworks onscreen. Richter is a little sanctimonious himself here: Like Jean-Luc Godard’s insta-rejection of last year’s Godard Mon Amour, he has refused to even look at the film beyond its trailer. But there’s little doubt he would have found yawning chasms of authenticity — liberties taken not so much with the details of his biography as in the cheeky style of the storytelling.
Out of fairness to Von Donnersmarck and Richter alike, I’ll put this feud aside and approach the story as pure fiction, wherein its faults are no less egregious. Beginning in 1937 with the prepubescent Kurt’s visit to a state-sponsored exhibition of so-called “degenerate art” in his native Dresden, this ambitious Bildungsroman follows Kurt’s 30-year quest to find his muse, a period that overlaps with personal and political triumphs and tragedies in pre- and post-World War II Germany.
In the ghastliest signpost of Kurt’s early evolution, his free-spirited Aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), who is his conduit to confrontational art, develops signs of schizophrenia — her brain cannot process the creeping fascism around her — and is promptly carted into the Third Reich’s eugenics program. Her treatment, at the hands of a sadistic Nazi gynecologist (Sebastian Koch), is effectively excruciating to watch.
The downward spiral of Never Look Away begins shortly after, with Von Donnersmarck’s crassly pictorial imagery of the bombing of Dresden, viewed by the teenage Kurt as streams of radar-disrupting tinfoil descending from Allied fighter planes like snowflakes. This is intercut with scenes from gas-chamber marches and machine-gun executions of fleeing Germans scored to soaring music, creating a symphony of death, the very example of the self-consciously bravura technique that justifiably turned many away from Schindler’s List.
The lion’s share of Never Look Away is spent later, in Kurt’s formative years in art school in Communist East Berlin, whose professors, touting the pieties of socialism, are just as close-minded to radical modes of expression as the Nazis. But it’s here that he meets his future wife, Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer). Eventually, he grows weary of painting stolid portraits of workers’ propaganda, and Kurt and Ellie sneak across the border to West Germany, a cultural utopia of rock ‘n’ roll and progressive thought, where Kurt will be accepted into Düsseldorf’s premier avant-garde art academy.
Kurt’s tour of the school checks off all the boxes of modern-art cliché — the beret-wearing freethinker, the pretentious poseur, the body-painted performance artist — inviting us to mock the weirdos, reducing the work of outside-the-box experimentalism to so much adolescent jollies. This is unfortunately of a piece with most of Never Look Away: stage-managed and shopworn, like the tacky camera pan over discarded undergarments on the bedroom floor of Kurt and Ellie’s first tryst. Indeed, there’s a lot of sex in Never Look Away, exaggerated soft-porn dalliances that sometimes border on the precious.
There’s drama, too, in the form of Ellie’s father, who happens to be a stealthy villain with a connection to Kurt’s past. This, presumably, is where Richter presumed a thriller-like atmosphere from his viewing of the trailer. But even the suspense surrounding his secret identity has a whiff of exploitation, not handled with the nuanced, sobering authenticity of a film like The German Doctor.
By the time Never Look Away has rounded its final stretch, it becomes paramount for Kurt to self-actualize, and Von Donnersmarck’s lead-footed script spells out his every step toward career fulfillment, as everyone he meets — his radical professor, his artist studio mate — dispenses just the right advice for Kurt to find his voice. As for Ellie, she recedes further into the story’s periphery. She is presented as a mere receptacle for child bearing, a two-dimensional prop supporting her husband’s canvases.
This all sounds harsh, but millions of people will love Never Look Away, just as millions have loved Green Book. It has all the romantic hallmarks of the quintessential Well Made Film, the sort of lacquered product the French New Wave renegades dubbed the “cinema de papa.”
Never Look Away is, ultimately, an easy crowd-pleaser about a difficult life. Kurt spends the movie searching for truth in his artistic vision. For a movie that urges us to glom on to every iota of irony it parades across the screen, the central irony is that so little of what we see feels truthful.
NEVER LOOK AWAY. Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; Cast: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl, Oliver Masucci; Distributor: Walt Disney Studios; Rating: R; In German with English subtitles; Opens Friday at Tower Theater in Miami and the Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale; opens Feb. 22 at Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton