Never Look Away


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Never Look Away (Dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2018) sets out its stall clearly and concisely in its opening scene, with a ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition in Germany 1937 containing works from Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, some of the most celebrated experimental artists of the time. These are not works to be admired, claims a Nazi Party member who’s providing visitors with a tour. ‘What National Socialism wants is a return to German art,’ he claims, ‘which must be built on timeless values.’ These artists are dangerous to society, their genius more akin to mental illness and the inflated price of their paintings an insult to the salary of the common working man. Like many of the events in the film, this exhibition really happened, although here it has been relocated from Munich to Dresden. The camera grows steadily more interested in a child who is part of the tour – his dispirited look and the obvious fear he has of the guide. The young boy wants to be an artist but he doesn’t want to be a degenerate. In this short sequence, director Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck establishes the key to his film’s narrative. This is A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a bildungsroman in which an artistic voice is stifled by the politics of his time.

The battleground between politics and art is a constant throughout the winding narrative of Never Look Away. Set from 1937 until 1966 in pre- and post-war Germany, the film follows the early life of Kurt Barnert (who is loosely based upon the real life artist Gerald Richter) as he and the rest of Germany live with the physical and psychological turmoil inflicted by Adolf Hitler. Throughout the four decades presented on screen, Donnersmarck portrays Nazism as a hated relative of Germany, someone far removed from the growing liberalism in the country but unmistakably still a part of its heritage. In the post-war period, the Nazi ideology had moved from a position of dominance to a creeping spectre using underhand means to retain the aspirations of the Aryan race, an animal lashing out in a violent death throe. This is encapsulated by the character of Professor Carl Seeband, a Nazi clinician who, despite murdering thousands of mentally ill or handicapped people, remains a prominent figure in post-war German society.


Seeband becomes Kurt’s father-in-law and, without providing any spoilers, has a more troubling connection with the young painter. A former member of the SS, he holds the composure of a man who’s literally got away with murder, and the ease with which he slides into the upper echelons of communist East Germany shows Nazism and Communism as almost identikit ideologies, both of which are maintained via the cult of the leader and the decimation of the individual.

 

Kurt’s creative aspirations form the strong case for the individualist ideology. Whether by accident or design, he isn’t shown to be a great artist in any real sense of the word, his undeniable talent stymied by an inability to separate himself from the crowd. But this is almost beside the point. His perceptiveness to the era he grew up in allows him to make a living from his work, and frees him from the strictures of society. Nonetheless, the pall of Nazism hangs over Kurt and his wife in the form of Seeband’s malignant ideology. The problem of post-war Germany wasn’t those who couldn’t live with their actions, the film argues, but those whose sense of moral purity and righteousness were fed by their defeat.

 

With regards to Donnersmarck’s previous work, Never Look Away can be viewed as a prologue to The Lives of Others (Dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006), which similarly followed an individualist artist as he’s monitored by the Stasi in East Germany, only years before the Berlin Wall falls. If the misstep of The Tourist (Dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2010), which was critically mauled upon its release, is removed from his filmography, it would seem that Donnersmarck’s strength as a filmmaker lies not only in delineating art from politics, but also in showing how the work of the artist poses a unique and intangible threat to those who benefit from the political status quo.

 

The irony of Never Look Away lies in its construction. While it cries out for modernist art to tear through the straitjacketed thoughts of hateful politics and the mythmaking of tradition, this is a film which relies heavily on the traditional aesthetics of classical Hollywood filmmaking. Its sex scenes have the passionless sheen of a prestige picture, its structure is unrelentingly linear, and Max Richter’s lush score captures echoes of John Williams and Hans Zimmer. Clarity is key here. Like the antithesis of Blow-Up (Dir, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966), the more we see an image, the more the rise of Nazism is abated. It’s a sentiment that doesn’t quite ring true in an era where extreme right-wing politics and cries of ‘fake news’ drown out criticism from the arts community. But it’s a message that Donnersmarck delivers in earnest, and the multifaceted nature of the film’s title perhaps seeks to assuage any doubts about the power of art.

 

To never look away is to search for beauty even in the darkest of times, to acknowledge and confront violence, and to retain individual thought even when trapped in the yolk of authoritarianism. More than this, its play on the phrase ‘lest we forget’ asks the viewer to retain their historical perspective if they are to create a future free from the horrors which beset the early twentieth century. In this sense, Never Look Away becomes a call to arms for artists, claiming that the evils of the world can be destroyed by not only art, but by an acknowledgement of the past. In our troubled times, it’s a simple message that’s worth hearing.

 

Kevin Fullerton

Freelance Writer and PhD Researcher in Film at the University of Dundee

July 2019


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