Every time I go to see an “artsy” foreign film, I find myself bracing for one or more of the following: violence, debauchery and gratuitous angst. Whether founded or not, this is my personal impression from surviving film school. And so with Never Look Away, a film mostly set in post-war East Germany, I kept on waiting for that dark sinking feeling that all life is depraved to sink in…and it never did. I just want to clarify that is an A++ in my books.
Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor) describes the life of up-and-coming painter Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) who is brought up in a world where art expression is treated with suspicion. It covers a large span of time, starting with pre-World War II East Germany, where Kurt comes face to face with the Nazi sterilization laws. With this grim backdrop, Kurt struggles to make sense of who he is as an artist when all he knows is Socialist Realism.
It’s hard to put the film into a nutshell. When I tried to describe it to someone (before seeing the movie), I almost said something about it maybe being like Pearl Harbour. Let’s just say, you can banish that thought right away. Trailers will pretty much tell you nothing. Written synopsis’ will probably say something about an artist falling into a forbidden love. While this does happen, the film is much much more. It borders dangerously close to being bitsy, with many vignettes of Kurt’s life being represented. Don’t let this put you off though. It’s one of those films that knows where it’s going and masterfully works to give you a bigger story. The result is an “oh” moment where the penny drops and everything makes sense. In the meantime, you can sit back and alternatively cry or laugh at the many stories on screen.
Yes, that’s right. There are comedic moments, even with this grim subject matter. They don’t last for long, but they’re just enough to relieve the tension.
German actor Sebastian Koch plays an excellent antagonist as Professor Carl Seeband, a gynaecologist who enforces the sterilization laws. To be honest, when I heard that one single man was the “bad guy” in a film like this, part of me scoffed. I mean, it’s set in a period where depravity was at the forefront. How can there be only one bad guy? Once again though, I’m happy to be proven wrong. Seeband is all that’s needed as a counterpart to Kurt’s youthful tenacity. His presence on screen is powerful enough to make you feel like crawling away and while his motivations are hard to align with, they’re still believable.
Seebach and Kurt are undeniably talented in their own fields, both wielding the same phrase, “I do it because I can”. But while Kurt seeks redemption, Seeband’s seem to stem from a power-hungry soul. It’s a formula that we’ve perhaps seen before: two individuals who possess a lot of potential but end up on different paths due to different motivations. It’s definitely a refreshing take though and one that will give you much food for thought, especially if you yourself are an artist in any shape or form.
Also, if you are of this variety, you’ll want to hang out for one of the best monologues on art by Kurt’s professor which is worth every minute of screen time. In addition, worth noting is the soundtrack which subtly connects the narratives together even more than you initially realize.
Never Look Away is aptly named because that is exactly what you’ll do during all 189 minutes of this compelling story.