Never Look Away’s most striking achievement is that it remains watchable for its over three hour runtime, a funny, bouncy life story of a German artist between 1937 and 1967. A rather standard biopic, it’s elevated by its likable characters and gentle but charming sense of humour.
The Lives of Others director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck again explores an era of German political crisis, following blooming artist Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) from his childhood in Nazi Germany through to a successful career in ‘60s West Germany. Though all the personal and romantic segments are well handled – Kurt and his partner Ellie (Paula Beer) make for a lovable couple – there are also plenty of severe tonal missteps.
First and foremost, this is a funny, romantic life story, and its mood reflects that. So when scenes of gas chamber executions, non-consensual abortions and unresolved blood feuds do pop up, they land with a confusing, anticlimactic thud – especially as they’re used more as artistic awakenings for Kurt than actual events with a human cost. ‘Serious’ moments are rare, especially once the film finds its feet in the second act, but that doesn’t excuse the problems they create.
Kurt’s time at various art schools fares a lot better, with interesting and amusing supporting casts and a lot of good-natured jokes at the expense of modern artists. We get a taste of Germany’s evolving art scene, even as von Donnersmarck struggles to nail down exactly what inspires Kurt’s own work.
Never Look Away is a pushy meta title for a three-hour drama, but it does achieve the feat of keeping you engaged for the majority of this, despite its myriad flaws and little mistakes. That’s not an inconsiderable feat, though the film isn’t quite impressive enough to be worth three hours of your day.
CAST: Tom Schilling, Paula Beer, Sebastian Koch, Saskia Rosendahl, Oliver Masucci, Cai Cohrs
DIRECTOR: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
WRITER: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
SYNOPSIS: German artist Kurt Barnert has escaped East Germany and now lives in West Germany, but is tormented by his childhood under the Nazis and the GDR-regime.