The intersection of art and reality can get complicated. With Oscar nominee Never Look Away, that’s as much a subject as it is a statement on the movie itself.
The third feature from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (Academy Award-winner The Lives of Others), Never Look Away was “inspired by real events” in the life of renowned German painter Gerhard Richter. Yet rather than establish this as an adherent biography, the writer-director fiddles with facts, deviating heavily from reality to present a decades-spanning account of a man named Kurt Barnert instead of Richter.
Why? Because Richter, according to an impressive profile from the New Yorker’s Dana Goodyear, didn’t want his life story—even fictionalized—made into a movie. This raises plenty of questions about truth, intent, and artistic ethics, issues further complicated by Never Look Away’s story and by Richter himself, a man who rose to fame, in large part, by painting other people’s photographs.
“I want the truth,” Barnert (Tom Schilling) muses, seconds after lying about the people in his paintings. It’s difficult to tell if he believes what he’s saying, or if he’s aware of the irony. This is the joyful culmination of decades of hardship, so maybe Donnersmarck is asking if either of those things matter in the grander scheme. The only clarity with this movie lies in both artists’ sense that truth trumps accuracy.
To that effect, Never Look Away may as well have gone fully fictitious, though the semibiographical timeline lends itself to an affecting portrait. Donnersmarck begins his version of events in Dresden, 1937. The young Barnert feels the effects of Nazism quicker than most: Soon after his loving aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) takes him to an art museum, she’s sent to the hospital with a schizophrenia diagnosis.
As per Nazi policy, Elisabeth is marked for sterilization. She begs the head doctor there, Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), to spare her, noticing a little girl’s artwork in his office and appealing to his paternal instincts. Unfortunately, Seeband is a hard man and a true believer in eugenics, so Elisabeth is promptly operated on and shipped off to her eventual doom. Years later, Barnert, a budding painter, unwittingly crosses paths with Seeband when he falls in love with his daughter (Paula Beer).
Never Look Away is difficult to watch. It’s frequently heartless, which fits the backdrop, and it clocks in at just over three hours. If expansive, German-language period pieces aren’t your cup of tea, this is not the movie for you.
Those willing to spend the time will find this picture to be equal parts challenge and reward. Donnersmarck takes great care with his characters and the story’s lengthy execution; Koch’s performance is as buttoned-up as it is harrowing; and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel delivers a gorgeous picture. Whether that adds up to something meaningful is the individual moviegoer’s call. Though perhaps Barnert speaks for his creator when he says, “I don’t make statements. I make pictures.”
NEVER LOOK AWAY
directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Edina Cinema, now playing