Cologne-born filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s third effort is a genuinely epic and emotionally devastating drama heavily inspired (without credit) by the life of artist Gerhard Richter, who was none too happy when he found out.
Donnersmarck’s first film, international hit The Lives Of Others, took place in a divided Germany in the ’80s and ’90s, but this spans the years from 1937 to 1966, and is obviously more intended to make a powerful point about the here and now. And how we never, ever learn from the past.
In 1937 young Kurt Barnert (Cai Cohrs) visits a Dresden art gallery with his beautiful but evidently disturbed Aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosenthal), and there is much dread, as a guide coldly discusses Nazi ideology and we realise what will eventually happen to the city. Elisabeth then haunts the film, her face appearing in Kurt’s memories and eventual paintings, and her words that make the English title keep coming back: “Never look away”.
Years pass as Kurt’s brothers march off to fight, Dresden is destroyed, the war ends and the shattered country struggles to rebuild. His family are all branded Nazi sympathisers, despite their attempts at neutrality, while he (now played by Tom Schilling) is given a scholarship to art school, where he meets Elisabeth (Paula Beer), whom he calls ‘Ellie’ to try and offset her unnerving resemblance to his Aunt.
After they marry, more time passes and they make it from the East to the ‘decadent’ West, where Kurt mixes with outrageous post-modernist beatnik types and Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch) plays a greater part in the plot. Koch, grim star of The Lives Of Others, is extraordinarily controlled here as a character so real and so repulsive – a man full of secrets. And of himself.
At three hours Donnersmarck’s pic takes commitment, but it’s unquestionably worth persevering with, and there are few films as mighty in scope at the moment: yes, they don’t, and they really can’t, make them like this anymore.
And Donnersmarck is also making a point about right now, a time when Nazis are making a big comeback while the American President remains silent.
Never Look Away (M) is in cinemas now