Never Look Away
by Toby Woollaston
The regally named Writer/Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (who hit a career-high with the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others), has helmed an ambitious project that examines the opaque world that lies between art and its creation. Such is an artist’s modus operandi, this film follows suit by placing meaning tantalisingly just beyond reach and invites you to plum the depths of an artist’s life to find it. Yes, watching this movie is as much a frustrating experience as it is a cathartic one.
The three-hour-plus running time gives Von Donnersmarck plenty of wriggle room for a deep dive into this lengthy tale. It begins with Kurt Barnert (wistfully played in his later years by Tom Schilling) as a wide-eyed impressionable boy staring in awe at an art exhibition in pre-war Nazi Germany. His deep connection with what the Nazis considered “degenerate” art frustrate his vocation as an artist, especially later on when his home falls under the equally stifling Stalinist Communist regime. Finally escaping to the liberal freedom of Germany’s West, Kurt’s artistic sensibilities are thrown into further disarray as he comes to terms with an immense cultural shift. As the film slowly unfolds, it suggests that only by reconciling his past with his present can Kurt discover his own artistic voice.
Never Look Away is an alluring film that blends exquisitely framed visuals with Max Richter’s (Shutter Island) haunting score. However, if you’re looking for the clipped precision of Von Donnersmarck’s Oscar-winning effort, you won’t find it here. The German Director has undone his top button and gone for a looser, more contemplative approach that encourages you to rummage around the tapestries of its oblique ideas and provocative ambiguities for meaning.
Those wanting clean lines of exposition might find this film a frustrating watch. It does occasionally riff heavily on the pained artist routine and is hampered by some moments of pretentiousness and trite sentimentality. But if you check your cynicism at the door and stick with it, you will be rewarded by a film that is ultimately a sublime experience.
See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.