Movie Review: Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor)

If you thought that AVENGERS: ENDGAME pushed your bladder control to its limits, the German film, NEVER LOOK AWAY, has come to Hong Kong to put that thesis to the test. At 188 minutes, the film is sure to be a turn-off for most people but fans of writer/director, Oscar winner Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (THE LIVES OF OTHERS), may want to take up the challenge.

The story begins in 1937 Dresden where 6-year-old Kurt Barnert already knows he wants to be an artist when he grows up. Along with his eccentric aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl, WE ARE YOUNG. WE ARE STRONG; LORE), he visits an art museum where the docent decries modern art as being degenerate. As much as the Nazis would like to shape opinion to their own vision of what art is, Elisabeth teaches the boy to “never look away” because “everything that is true is beautiful”. Fast forward to after the war’s end when the city has been reduced to piles of rubble and is now under Soviet control. Kurt (now played by Tom Schilling, WHOAMI?) is an art student who hand-paints socialist propaganda posters as part of his apprenticeship. One day he meets Ellie (Paula Beer, FRANTZ), a young fashion design student, and the two quickly fall in love. He is unaware, though, that Ellie’s father, Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch, BEL CANTO; FOG IN AUGUST; THE DANISH GIRL; IN THE SHADOW; TV’s HOMELAND), was a Nazi doctor who murdered a member of his family.

Although Kurt excels at the academy in socialist realist painting, he comes to realise that this isn’t the type of art that he wants to do. Just before the Iron Curtain goes up, he and Ellie flee to the West, ending up in Düsseldorf where he gets accepted to that city’s art academy. Struggling to find his artistic voice in this free environment, his breakthrough finally comes when he sees a photo of a captured Nazi doctor in the local newspaper.

NEVER LOOK AWAY is loosely based on the life of German painter Gerhard Richter, though the artist was very quick to distance himself from the project as soon as the film was released in Germany. If you’re not familiar with Richter or his work, you would be well advised to do some basic research on him before you see the film otherwise you’re going to fidgeting in your seat wondering where the story is going. The film’s first hour is spent on the young Kurt before the story suddenly jumps ahead in time, first by eight years and then by another 10-odd years. You would be forgiven for thinking that you fell asleep for about 30 minutes because the jumps are so jarring. Eventually they do make sense though. Even more trying on the patience is that events that are covered in great detail have little to no resolution later on. To the director’s and the actors’ credit though, the story moves along just fast enough to keep the interest there.

NEVER LOOK AWAY was Germany’s Oscar nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film, losing out to ROMA. Many critics are hailing the film as a masterpiece while acknowledging its protracted running time. I wouldn’t go that far. Yes, it’s interesting and yes, it’s very well acted but it really needed to be an hour shorter before it could enter masterpiece territory.

If you’re a fan of von Donnersmarck’s previous work and you don’t mind spending three hours watching a movie, then check it out. Otherwise, wait for it to come to a streaming service. Fortunately, you won’t have to wait long as it’s coming to Amazon Prime on May 13.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, May 10th at 8:30 am HK time!

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