Never Look Away: German History through the Lens of Art
In his second German-language film since the Oscar-winning Leben der Anderen, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck crafts a visually stunning and provocative film about the power of art and memory, especially in the wake of extreme trauma and tragedy. Never Look Away (German: Werk ohne Autor) follows thirty years in the life of Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), a famed artist loosely based on the life of celebrated German artist Gerhard Richter. Through Kurt’s eyes, we watch some of the most significant historical moments of the twentieth century in Germany, a scope that only the most gifted filmmakers could capture.
Beginning the film in a suburb outside of Dresden, child-Kurt visits a modern art museum with his aunt, Elizabeth. Regaled by an NS official about how these artists are an example of actions against the Third Reich, Kurt merely looks at all of the art with curiosity and a bit of trepidation. Right off the bat: there is an us and a them, only mildly foreshadowing the horror that is to come from World War II.
The hours concerning the events during WWII are almost too brutal to watch, but the directing in the scenes make the emotional impact profound and meaningful. It is also in these moments that we get the most discussion about not just the injustices in Kurt’s life, rather in Germany as a whole: the lesser known victims of the Holocaust, and the incredibly poorly conducted de-Nazification that allowed for high up German officials to reintegrate into society. This dramatic irony, the audience knowing what happened to Kurt’s aunt, gives the rest of the film a much-needed tension that drives the remaining two hours.
The romance in the film is not necessarily compelling (and I don’t have the degree necessary to unpack the relationship with his dead aunt), but it certainly heightens the stakes as the film shifts from a war drama to considering life as an artist in East Germany. Modern art is no longer the work of enemies of the state, but it is directly controlled by the state. The juxtaposition between Kurt’s growing love affair (unknowingly with the daughter of the man who ordered the murder of Kurt’s aunt) and his need for artistic freedom illustrate to the audience the dissatisfaction with the DDR that will lead to his inevitable escape into West Germany with his then wife, also named Elizabeth (Paula Beer).
This is the point in the film where it goes from being an interesting, albeit brutal, portrayal of German history, to an insightful discussion of art, life, and beauty in trauma. Kurt enrolls at the premier art school in Düsseldorf, meeting his eclectic art teacher, played expertly by the electric Oliver Masucci. The concept of an idea is compelling, and it suits the character development arc well, but it is the idea of art as the immortal truth is what creates a true purpose for this film.
Germany is a country rooted in complex, tragic, and hideous history. Its relationship with art, and who communicates ideas through art, is deeply rooted in its own trauma. Creating a film, which is in itself art, to elaborate on the concept of art itself is an inspired idea on its own. It is in the execution (from the Oscar-nominated cinematography, the lush and domineering score, and the direction in general) that the plot becomes something memorable and worth of celebration.