Starring Tom Schilling. In German and Russian, with English subtitles. Rated 14A
Never Look Away is a two-hour-plus masterpiece. The only problem is that the movie is more than three hours long.
This is the latest from German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose name is similarly attenuated.
He made a prodigious number of shorts before hitting the Oscar jackpot with his 2006 feature debut, The Lives of Others, which examined the insidiousness of forced betrayal in Communist East Berlin.
The probing writer-director then blew his screen cred with an execrable Hollywood venture called The Tourist, and then high-tailed it back to Deutschland to further research his homeland’s convoluted political history.
The results are based closely, if sometimes cryptically, on the life and work of Gerhardt Richter, considered by many to be the greatest living artist.
The new film’s German title translates as Work Without Author, and its sharpest conceit unravels an approach long viewed by art critics as opaque or even anonymous when his visceral autobiography was actually hiding behind seemingly generic images—paintings based on found photographs, newspaper clippings, and the like.
The Richter character is now called Kurt Barnert and is mostly played by Tom Schilling, who was an East German spy in the Netflix series The Same Sky.
Kurt’s a stoically shape-shifting personality who excels as a “social-realist” painter in a 1950s GDR that has substituted one dehumanizing ideology for another.
He grew up in Nazi-infested Dresden, where he learned his love of art from a free-spirited aunt (Saskia Rosendahl) whose nonconformity and budding schizophrenia made her a target for doctors doing a warm-up for the Holocaust by “cleansing” the Reich of defectives.
Later, when the grown Kurt falls in love with a sassy fashion student (Transit’s Paula Beer), she turns out to be the daughter of a highly respected gynecologist whom Kurt seems to remember from his traumatic childhood.
Herr Doktor is played by Sebastian Koch, who was the sympathetic playwright in The Lives of Others, and easily steals this movie, too.
Viewers will be struck by the onslaught of coincidences occurring in this time-jumping tale.
Bizarrely, the most outrageous of these hew to historical fact, as borne out in Richter’s own heavily encoded art.
This attention to detail, which examines the creative process in far more depth than biopics usually attempt, is weirdly interrupted by Hollywood-style set pieces, comic montages, needless flashbacks, and absurdly repetitive sex scenes.
These last come courtesy of Paula Beer, whose character is gradually reduced to that of frustrated broodmare. The Third Reich was overly preoccupied with women’s reproductive systems, and so is this movie.
All that said, looking away from about 35 minutes of material von Donnersmarck should have cut will yield an extraordinary visual experience that really does make you think about how you see the world, and the lives of others.