Film review: Never Look Away

This is a terrific film. It combines a broad sweep of history from before World War II to the immediate postwar period in Germany. In addition to this, It is a wonderfully erudite discussion about ideas about the artistic creative process.

It is the story of the childhood and artistic career of Kurt Barnert (inspired by Gerhard Richter) and played by Tom Schilling.

It is also the story of his aunt Elizabeth played by Saskia Rosendahl and her influence on his art. 

Elizabeth is the victim of the Nazi euthanasia program and she dies while Kurt is still young boy. Kurt becomes a successful artist in postwar East Germany where he falls in love with Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer ).

Unbeknownst to Kurt, Ely’s father, Professor Carl Seeband, was the director of the Nazi euthanasia program and directly involved in the death of his aunt Elizabeth.

Kaur becomes a successful artist in East Germany painting in the Social Realism style.

But his heart was not in it and soon he and Ely escape to the west following Carl Seeband who has become fearful of having his role in Nazi Germany discovered.

Once in the West, Seeband becomes a famous and highly influential doctor. Because he has steadfastly and successfully denied that he had ever met Dr. Burghart Kroll, the architect of the euthanasia program, he has enjoyed success in both East and West Germany.

Kurt studies at the Düsseldorf Art Academy where his artistic talents are discovered and encouraged. His attendance at the Academy allows the film to explore the ideas behind social realism and the more liberated ideas of Western art.

After a series of false starts at the Academy and with the tutelage of his Professor, Kurt is able to find his medium of artistic expression. It involves montage paintings from old photographs.

One night, Kurt is is having dinner with his father-in-law when a newspaper announces that Seeband’s direct superior In the euthanasia program, Dr. Burghart Kroll, has been captured and will be tried for war crimes. This means he would quite probably implicate Seeband.

Even subconsciously or by accident, Kirk produces a montage that combines a passport photograph of his father-in-law, a newspaper picture of Burghart Kroll and a photograph of him and his aunt Elizabeth.

One of the very satisfying moments in the film is when Seeband sees this painting in Kurt’s studio and thinks that his son-in-law, whom he despises, knows of his Nazi past. He rushes out of the studio, leaving Kurt and his friend Günther rather perplexed.

It is one of the fascinating aspects of this complex film.

Was this work simply the functioning of Kurt’s artistic subconscious or had he made the connections between his aunt’s death and his father-in-law?

There are certainly psychological connections between his relationship with his father-in-law and those surrounding the death of his aunt.

The viewer is left with the impression that it will only be a matter of time before Kurt is able to make conscious connections between his father-in-law’s response to the painting and his Nazi past.

The film was based on the life of the German painter Gerhard Richter widely regarded as one of the most important contemporary German artists.

Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck explained extensively that Never Look Away, while a work of fiction, had been inspired by an article by famed German investigative reporter Jürgen Schreiber about  Gerhard Richter.

Details of the agreement between von Donnersmarck and Richter are subject to debate with Richter claiming that he told Donnersmarck clearly that he would not approve a movie made about him. (Wikipedia).

So why is Never Look Away such a great film?

The film combines the deeply personal histories of people who lived in Hitler’s Nazi Germany and how the totalitarianism of the Nazis was continued under the Russian occupation. These personal histories are intertwined with a discussion about the nature of Art and the creative process particularly in relation to social realism.

Social realism was art designed to extol the virtues of communism and the heroic values of the proletariat. There is a wonderful scene in the film where Kurt and his aunt go to an art gallery to see an exhibition of The 1937 exhibition of Degenerate Art featuring artists such as Kandinsky and Picasso.


Kandinski “Yellow-Red-Blue,” 1925,

The young Kurt is fascinated.

The Nazi tour guide is absolutely scathing of the works on display in the Art Gallery. This early scene sets up the tension between the idea of art serving the state against that of being a matter of individual expression.

It is also a deeply moving story of the triumph of the creative spirit over the oppressive restrictions of totalitarian regimes. It’s also a wonderful love story.

It’s also a profoundly moral film because it is about what Hannah Arendt termed “the banality of evil” but also about possibility of justice and retribution In the face of incredible suffering.

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