Loosely based on the life of Gerhard Richter, Never Look Away, the third film by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is an engrossing film set in the middle of the 20th century, beginning in Dresden in 1937. We’re introduced to Kurt (Cai Cohrs) alongside his Aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) at a modern art exhibition featuring the likes of Kandinsky and Klee that the Nazi party famously confiscated from museums around Germany. We follow Kurt from war torn Nazi dominated Dresden, to life in communist East Berlin through to 1960s liberal Dusseldorf.
When Elisabeth is whisked off to a mental institute to be treated following a peculiar turn (although treatment is a dubious term for forced sterilisation) we are introduced to Professor Seeband (Sebastian Koch) a gynaecologist who is entrenched deeply within the Nazi regime. Following his introduction we witness a stream of short sharp scenes that are perhaps the films most controversial. Ranging from the aerial bombardment of Dresden by allied forces, to the gassing of women with mental health conditions, von Donnersmarck challenges us to keep watching and not divert our attention. It is in these scenes that the composer Max Richter’s score comes to life, beautifully sound tracking some of the films most difficult moments.
As Kurt grows up he meets fashion student Ellie whilst at art school and a romantic liaison ensues. We quickly discover that Ellie’s father is the Professor - the man who caused such pain and suffering to his family. For the remainder of the film we are kept on edge as to whether the two will ever realise this deep secret. By patiently waiting for his moment, von Donnersmarck keeps the viewer hooked and it’s in the following hour that the films underlying tension and suspense comes to the fore.
The film strikes at the heart of life in totalitarian regimes- we see Kurt’s father coerced by his family into wearing a Nazi badge during the War, in the hope that it will mean he is spared suffering after the war. When we see him scrubbing the steps of the art college and being rejected from jobs in East Berlin because of his prior ‘allegiance’ to the regime, whilst at the same time seeing the Professor, a man who had committed multiple heinous crimes, under the protection from the communist party, we can’t help be touched by the irony that life is often stacked against those who are least deserving.
Kurt’s natural talent ensures he becomes a highly successful and well renowned painter, commissioned to paint murals for the German Democratic republic in East Berlin. Dissatisfied with the lack of creative freedom and wanting to escape the memories of the past, Ellie and Kurt move to Dusseldorf at the height of artistic liberation in the 1950s & 60s. I can’t help but feel that a knowledge of Richter’s life and work is beneficial to the viewer. As we are taken on his artistic journey of expression, culminating in the creation of his iconic blurred photographic paintings, I was transported back to the Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2011, where I first witnessed his paintings. For those audience members who have an appreciation of modern art and Richter’s contribution to the movement, it’s a visceral experience to watch his struggles and eventual triumph to discover his own creative expression amongst the freedom that West Germany provides him.
Never Look Away is a return to form for von Donnersmarck, a film that poses serious questions about human existence, morality and artistic expression. Don’t be turned off by its three hour length -it’s an incredible journey that spans a tragic truth of modern history and one that we should never look away from. However , as society changes and history re-written by different ideological regimes, perhaps it is only artistic expression that cannot be written and offer us truth throughout the ages.
Holly McBride is a writer, performer and theatre maker. She has twice won Best Actress and Best Comic Performer at the Sydney Fringe Festival and has had her work toured regionally, nationally and internationally. Holly lives in Sydney and is the producer of A Likely Story and contributor to events such as Giant Dwarf’s Story Club. After being spotted on a film set talking to herself, she caught the eye of Brisbane rapper, Evil Eddie, who then went to cast her in his film clip “Queensland’, Triple J’s most requested song in December 2010.
Holly moonlights in the health industry as a copywriter and journalist.