Never Look Away

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday February 15, 2019

'Never Look Away'
'Never Look Away'  

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck — the director of "The Lives of Others" and "The Tourist" — has created yet another film to remember. Titled, in its native German, "Werk ohne Autor" — Work Without an Author — his new opus has been given the English title "Never Look Away." The difference in the two titles is profound, with as wide a gulf in meaning and focus as the film, which clocks in at just over three hours, is long.

The directive "Never look away" is dispensed early on, and with some urgency, by Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), the aunt of six-year-old Kurt (Cai Cohrs). The other title derives from a glib throwaway line delivered, near the film's end and a quarter century later, by an art critic who entirely misses the point of the work he's discussing. (Of such ironies is the entire film created.)

In any case, the story is built around Art with a capital A: The kind we're supposedly meant to take seriously, but which might not take itself seriously at all; the kind that inflames the dull and mystifies the unfeeling; the kind that nations spiraling toward their own self-destruction cannot abide, because it speaks of freedom and ferment rather than cookie-cutter conformity.

Young Kurt is already talented at art, and already fascinated with that eternal muse of the artist: Feminine beauty. Aunt Elisabeth is a paragon for both. She's stunningly beautiful, fearlessly in her enthusiasms, entirely willing to take Kurt to the "Degenerate Art Exhibition" in nearby Dresden, and possessed of the sort of wild excesses of feeling that lead her to seek eternal meanings in the blare of bus horns or a perfect musical note (in this case, the A above Middle C). Unluckily for her, this is Germany in 1937; the Nazis are ascendant, together with their brutal philosophies of subjugation and eradication. When Elisabeth, who suffers from manic episodes, is hauled off to an institution where she's later murdered along with others whose lives are deemed "worthless," her final words to Kurt — mouthed silently from behind the window of an ambulance — are a repetition of her earlier advice: Never look away. What is real, she's told the boy, is beautiful. What Kurt sees will challenge that idea, but the ugly sights he learns not to shy from will also distill themselves into Art.

Not that it's easy. World War II and its aftermath play out as they must: Dresden is firebombed, Kurt and his family fall on hard times, and his father — who lost his reaching position for refusing to join the Nazi party before the war, is now denied job opportunities all over again for having eventually joined out of desperation. (It makes no difference that instead of saying "Heil Hitler," he tossed off "Three Liters" — close enough, when delivered in a breathless rush, to pass.) Kurt's father is reduced to scrubbing floors as the communist government of East Germany rises from the Third Reich's ashes, and Kurt himself — now played by Tom Schilling — becomes a source of some worry when he suddenly comes charging up and raving that he's seen how the world is put together. Has he had a revelation of the sort that only the gifted enjoy? Or has he been cursed with mental illness like his poor, murdered aunt? Or is there — the film suggests, so broadly as to be somberly winking at us — no real difference between the two? Is stability just another word for uniformity and staleness, with true innovation being labeled deviation for the convenience of mediocrity's enforcers?

This is potentially dour stuff, but Von Donnersmarck gives us a lively film. Ironic as it is, "Never Look Away" brims with passion and humor, though some of the humor is decidedly dark. When Kurt meets another beauty called Elisabeth (Paula Beer) — the coincidence of names is too painful, and he prefers to call her Ellie, as her parents do — he easily wins her over. He paints her likeness into a socialist poster he's working on at the art academy, where it so happens she's also a student, in the fashion department. She, in turn, announces that she's giving him her "semester thesis" — a man's suit she has tailored. "I'll never take it off again," he vows, only for the two of them to end up, later that day, naked in her bed. When her parents arrive home from a trip sooner than expected, Kurt — acting either from gallantry or fear — leaps from Ellie's window into a tree, climbing down only to find Ellie's mother Martha (Ina Weisse) calmly holding out his boots, which Ellie has thrown (along with the rest of his clothing) down to the lawn.

What happens next could be the basis for a sitcom: To satisfy the political correctness of the day, Ellie's parents need to rent out a room in their palatial home, and Ellie arranges for Kurt to be the one who lodges in her house. ("And your parents?" he asks, unwilling to admit he's already met her mother. No problem, she assures him; they will be utterly clueless.)

Of course, not all is sweetness and light. Ellie's father Carl (Sebastian Koch) doesn't care for Kurt, instantly zeroing on his slight physical flaws. When Ellie ends up pregnant the young couple earnestly discuss how to break the news to her parents, but Carl is way ahead of them: "Third month, I'd say," he assesses, while dispassionately informing Martha of their daughter's condition. "Maybe fourth." The kids' assignations don't bother him; what he minds is what he sees as Karl's deficient pedigree. "This is not the genetic material I want for our descendants." As bloodlessly as that, Carl hatches a plan to prevent the younger pair from becoming parents — and to end their relationship.

This is all in keeping with what we know about Carl by now, since — minor spoiler alert — it happens to be the case that Carl was the doctor who selected Aunt Elisabeth for liquidation. All the Nazi doctors, evidently, were charged with weeding out the "unfit," and a simple red mark in their files sufficed to consign them to extermination. What he's trying to do to Kurt, in other words, Carl has already done to Kurt's beloved aunt.

Is this all a matter of some sort of twisted karma? Is the film's undercurrent of wit curdling into farce? Not at all; if anything, there are creepier, and perhaps more philosophically wondrous, things going on. Entering Carl's office, easel in hand, called in to paint a portrait of Carl, Kurt has a mysterious intimation. He looks at the same childish drawing his Aunt Elisabeth remarked on years earlier; with a frisson, he regards the corner of the room to which Elisabeth fled in panic when she realized why she was there. Being an artist, Kurt is more sensitive to the world and its hidden connections. More such moments await later on, and Kurt — finally coming into his own after a long, hard night of his artistic soul — begins to forge his future by interrogating the past.

Telling more would be telling too much. Suffice to say, the writer/director has plenty to impart, and he's going to set all of it out for us. History passes, year by year, and circumstances change for Kurt and Ellie. The voice that leads them forward belongs not to the callous, reptilian Carl, but to a more generous future.

Von Donnersmarck has a tendency, from time to time, to wring the movie's scenes a little too hard, underscore a little too broadly, or mine a gag past its peak humor. These moments may not be oversights, however. The overall effect of "Never Look Away" is to leave the viewer wring out, shaken, and sore. Whether we side with the artist - whose job is to see clearly and then to communicate what he has seen, even if that vision appears twisted to other eyes - or whether we come to regard history, and the entire human enterprise, as a work guided not by a knowing hand but rather by blind instinct colliding with chance, either way, what's there to be seen should be seen, and seen for what it is.

That, after all, is the purpose of Art with a capital A.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.