Never Look Away (directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck), 2018.

in German with subtitles.  With Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl , Sebastian Koch, Tom Schilling.


The Spanish poster, Obra Sin AutorWithout An Author

The opening scenes are mesmerizing, with a young boy named Karl, maybe five or seven years old, in the care of his aunt, attending an art show during the Nazi era, where all of the degenerate art is disparaged as not having anything to do with real people but only the egos of the artists, and the compulsion to invent.    The boy you can tell loves the art, and his aunt whispers that she likes it too.  The portrait of an artist as a boy  is lovingly begun, but the director’s treatment is overbearing.  The tour guide does not just preach about one or two artworks, but about many, and goes on at length about how this is bad for society.


Karl with Elisabeth at the Degenerate Art show during Nazi era

A mirroring effect occurs with the socialist government that followed Hitler also condemning art that does not support the workers’ aims.  By now the boy is in his teens,  with the story not as much about his personal journey, as the Nazi system having echoes of the socialist system, at least as far as art is concerned.  There is good art and bad art.  Good art supports the state.  Bad art does not, just glorifies the artist.  Again the audience is lectured at length.

There are other mirrors: the aunt, a beautiful young woman named Elisabeth, is schizophrenic, indulging in strange pastimes, such as asking the bus drivers all parked together in their lot, to blast their horns, so that she can feel the tone of the universe surround her.  One day when the boy’s parents arrive home,  they discover Elisabeth nude playing the piano, and witness her beginning to harm herself, and the furniture.  Later, after Elisabeth is committed to an insane asylum, and her nephew is in his teens,  he runs in from a beautiful day climbing trees, declaring to his father that he hears the universe, and now knows what to do, and it is all clear as can be.  Both the aunt and the nephew hear the universe speak to them, but Elisabeth’s fate is tragic, and haunts the rest of the movie.

The boy, named Karl, falls in love with a woman named Elisabeth (nicknamed Ellie) who bears an uncanny resemblance to his aunt.  Thus begins a love story with the two leading actors giving it their all, but the filmmaker again can’t resist repeating himself, showing scenes of lovemaking over and over again, which tender as they are, make you wonder what happened to the rest of the plot which seems more pressing.  It turns out that Ellie’s father had a crucial role in determining Karl’s aunt’s fate. He is an evil gynecologist, something out of a horror movie.  Sebastian Koch  is terribly good, so I was riveted and alienated at once by the melodramatic tone and his sinister aims.

After the war, Karl becomes a disciplined artist.  Even though he is bored by it, he excels at painting what the leadership wants, constant tributes to the working classes.  He is awarded work as a mural artist.  Resuming the story of an artist finding his way, the director spends again overly long scenes showing not just one or two but what seem like dozens of abstract, conceptual,  and modernist artists breaking free from the old schools of thinking about art, and declaring that painting is dead.

During the war Dresden, a jewel like city, is completely destroyed in firebombing.  Karl’s relatives are killed.  The film making is brilliant at this point, showing the boy take it in, with his parents, and move on.  The movie’s cast, especially Sebastian Koch and Cai Cohrs as the young boy Karl, are convincing.  All of the sets and production values look splendid.

After I had watched the movie, I learned that it was based primarily on the artist Gerard Richter’s life and work, and that Richter disapproves of a movie that elevates his backstory and perhaps invents an explanation for a key painting.  The director had at least four major threads to tie together — the Nazi regime’s treatment of the mentally ill, the various periods of German history with relation to art, the personal tale of the artist, including his love for his wife, and the post war treatment of war criminals– and does not quite manage to do so, but in the process he has laid before us a beautiful collection of scenes that demonstrate his ambition.   It makes me think of Gerard Richter as a heroic artist as well, and now I am eager to look at his work.

However, there are so many redundancies that I grew bored, and restless for answers to questions that remained unsatisfied.


Tom Schilling as Karl the adult




About Patricia Markert

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1 Response to Never Look Away (directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck), 2018.

  1. lizagyllenhaal says:

    Thanks, Patty, for this thoughtful review which I agree with, though I forgive Von Donnersmarck almost everything for the first 1/3rd of the movie which is some of the most beautiful and poignant film-making I’ve ever seen.

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