Art for Film’s Sake

Never Look Away

a film written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Caleb Deschanel/Sony Pictures Classics
Sebastian Koch as Professor Carl Seeband in Never Look Away

Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor in the original, “work without an author”) is the third film by the German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, following the much-admired Stasi drama The Lives of Others (which won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film) and the much-reviled The Tourist of 2010, with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. It is at one and the same time a history film covering 1937 to 1968 in East and West Germany, a romance, and an artist film. Its subject is the self-finding or the development of the fictitious German painter Kurt Barnert, which, to those who know or care, matches at very many points the self-finding and development of the best-known German painter and top-selling living artist worldwide, Gerhard Richter.

As the film begins, the six-year-old Barnert (the adorable Cai Cohrs) is being taken around an exhibition of “Degenerate Art” (Expressionists, Surrealists, Abstracts, and Neue Sachlichkeit) in Dresden by his voluptuous young aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl). A Nazi curator pontificates on the evils of this modern art. They are the first words of the film: “Moderne Kunst,” with a big rasping roll on the “r.” The aunt—who both feels and feeds an erotic attraction in her nephew (he precociously draws her nude), and in denunciatory times is strangely indiscreet in her speech (in the museum, on the bus home, on the street)—suffers a mental breakdown, and quite soon is referred to a clinic run by the gynecologist and eugenicist Professor Seeband (the saturnine Sebastian Koch) to be institutionalized and sterilized and ultimately murdered. “Never look away,” she whispers to him as she is bundled into a van and driven off; it is unclear whether or not he can hear her or read her lips.

A quick self-contained sequence to music—three minutes, almost like a pop video—follows, illustrating some of the disasters of war in February 1945: Dresden is firebombed; Elisabeth is gassed along with her cohort of sterilized women; Kurt’s uncles, both in the Wehrmacht, are shot in the course of some vague action on the Eastern Front; a blameless bus driver is squashed flat by collapsing masonry. It’s not clear whether—as with Elisabeth’s whispered injunction—Kurt perceives or even learns of any of this, but the film propounds a sort of osmosis cum mysticism; its parcels always reach their intended recipient. It is later what he will paint out of, though the relation between loss and creation is not examined or in the least persuasive.

We next see Kurt, by now in his third attractive incarnation (this one is the bland Tom Schilling, a chunky sort of hunk), in 1948, sitting high up in a tree overlooking the kempt countryside. As with many things in the film, it is the type of scene we have seen before,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.