Life is stranger than fiction, and “Never Look Away”, both beautiful and troubling, holds at its heart a terrible coincidence that would seem contrived were it not partly based on a true story.
This is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s third feature, after his compelling “The Lives of Others”, set in 1980s East Berlin, and “The Tourist”, the filmmaker’s Hollywood detour with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. It is also a return to the themes explored so powerfully in his first film – the shaping of an artist’ life, whether writer or painter, by forces he – and in this director’s work it is inevitably a ‘he’ – must seemingly bend to.
Unlike “The Lives of Others”, which shines a light on all of Germany’s twentieth century by focusing compellingly on a short slice of time in the 1980s and a small triangle of characters – writer, lover, spy, “Never Look Away” delivers an absorbing and epic historical sweep. It opens with a child and his young aunt visiting the Nazis’ Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937, and seems to culminate in a powerful yet brief montage that combines a gas chamber, men falling at the front, and the sight of Dresden aflame.
And yet this is only the beginning of the story: the early childhood of Dresden-born artist Gerhard Richter, the world-famous painter best known for his sfumato technique and photorealist paintings. There is much yet to come as the story moves on to Richter’s life as an adult. There is romance, as Richter meets the person who becomes his first wife, an escape to the West after years of adapting his art to the stipulations of the GDR regime, and the flourishing of his work after much experimentation. This flourishing culminates in an unwitting revelation, through the juxtaposition of the photographs he recreates in paint, of the dark secret that ties his wife’s family with his own.
“Never Look Away” crosses genres – there’s heavy lifting here: romance, biopic, war drama, docudrama, didactic art history documentary, and more than anything, melodrama. It gives itself the running time to do so. Exquisite cinematography by Caleb Deschanel, unassuming yet almost pitch-perfect performances by Sebastian Koch, Tom Schilling and Paula Beer, and dramatic, fluent storytelling make it a compelling film. Max Richter’s powerful score underlines the poignancy of the historical backdrop. The understanding that people’s lives are forever subject to others’ cruel aberrations amplify the film’s significance.
And yet, there is an interesting twist to this, a sense of dissonance that explodes the integrity of the story. There is a risk to making a thinly disguised biopic about a living artist, especially one as prominent as Richter, and especially because for all that giant historical scale, the story springs from intimate relationships and painful family history.
Henckel von Donnersmarck has been at pains to point out he had spent weeks talking and walking with Richter, and felt that he had his subject’s approval – yet Richter later rejected the film, finding it too lurid. And for all its beauty, the restrained colours of the images, and the critically important human rights themes, this is an apt description.
The narrative, ultimately, rests on the violation of two women, and the annihilation of one of them: Richter’s aunt Marianne was first sterilised, then killed, for having been deemed mentally ill. And Richter’s first wife, also called Marianne, is maliciously sterilised in a bizarre twist that may have been a fictional embellishment introduced by von Donnersmarck. Both women’s purpose in the story is to serve as luminously beautiful suffering muses, a man’s wellspring of creativity.
The Mariannes, one generation apart, find themselves narratively instrumentalised in a story where their wombs serve as narrative device but where they do not emerge fully as persons. This would be a hard watch for anyone who knew and loved them. And Richter is a famously private person, careful to control perceptions of his work, resisting easy explanations, covering his tracks and preferring to cultivate a certain opacity. This emerges in his approach to painting, which seems both so immediately graspable and yet oblique and beyond reach.
How to reconcile this with “Never Look Away”, the film that spells everything out and then some? Go see the film and find out.
Dir Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck | DoP Caleb Deschanel | Score Max Richter | With Tom Schilling, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl | Lars Eidinger | 3h9min.
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