Dresden, 1937. A beautiful young woman and her nephew are touring the Nazi-organised ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition, and pause in front of a work by Kandinsky. “I like it,” whispers the woman, “but don’t tell anyone”. On the way home, the boy asks if she noticed how people were looking at her. “Well,” she replies, “tomorrow they’ll have eyes only for Hitler.” The boy curls up in her lap, staring at her breasts. Back home, he starts drawing the nude female form.
It’s an unusual vision of the birth of the artist, but Never Look Away is an unusual film – obsessed with looking, but with nothing interesting to say about it. Watching is a central theme for Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the German director who hit it big with his stylish Stasi-voyeur melodrama The Lives of Others before disappointing with the brainless Hollywood romp The Tourist. This new offering sees him return to the ever-fertile ground of 20th Century German history. It follows its wide-eyed protagonist Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), a lightly-fictionalised version of the artist Gerhard Richter, through the Nazi and Communist East-German regimes into the fresh air of postwar West Germany – and into the heady world of 1960s contemporary art.
Not long after her walk through the fateful ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition, Aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) is chosen for a starring role in Hitler’s procession through the town. The strain of moral compromise triggers a mental breakdown: In front of her young nephew, she plays the piano nude then begins to strike herself in the head while shouting “Everything that’s true is beautiful!” After offending a senior Nazi gynecologist (Hermann Koch), she is taken away to be sterilised and killed. The young Kurt (Cai Cohrs), watching her bundled into a van, covers his eyes with his hand but then, after a moment, removes it. The camera switches to his perspective: the scene is blurry at first, but as his eyes find focus, it comes slowly into stark relief. “Never look away”, Elisabeth whispers, its surreal volume linking Kurt and the viewer. The artist, daring to look through the haze, allowing the truth to emerge: this is von Donnersmarck’s take on Richter’s iconic blurry photorealist works.
The film speeds forward from here, struggling to manage its pacing and tone across a three-hour runtime. The Second World War rages in, and Kurt witnesses the bombing of Dresden; he goes to Communist art school and meets a beautiful young woman who is also named Elisabeth and who – spoiler alert – is the daughter of that same Nazi doctor. Together they move to the West, where Kurt struggles to establish himself in an avant-garde milieu.
Far from being avant-garde itself, Never Look Away is not only visually extremely conventional – it is also dangerously naïve about the act of observation. The cinematography is warm and unchallenging, and Max Richter’s score provides an emotional guide to each scene: the Nazi stepdad gets something very close to John Williams’ Imperial March. But von Donnersmarck’s commitment to looking stretches too far, and too naively. His camera relishes the male gaze, rivaling even the dialogue for its fixation on breasts. Appallingly, Never Look Away also includes a sequence that watches, in full detail, as women are stripped down and killed in Nazi gas chambers – the camera lingers on Elisabeth’s naked body as she enters.
This is more than just indulgence: it is central to a project that sees gawping as good. The first Elisabeth’s dichotomy – perving versus Hitler – sets the tone for a film where the beauty of its women (appreciated by men) is made into a sign of moral health, a defense against dictatorship. The second Elisabeth (Paula Beer) is described as “talentless but big-hearted”, and she has lovely sex with Kurt whenever he feels like it, their lovemaking a gauge for his artistic success. Lecherous talk among the artists – one tells Kurt that a colleague’s work is derivative but they let her do what she wants because of her lovely breasts – is clearly intended to be charming. The Nazis’ (ahistorical) distaste for women’s bodies in the film lends voyeurism a dubious moral glow. These are no ordinary European-film-nipples: these are nipples of righteous antifascist resistance.
For decades now, thinking Germans have taken their past extremely seriously, making critical self-scrutiny into a national project. No doubt von Donnersmarck sees his film as a part of this process – it is, after all, about the power of art to face down history. But Never Look Away, with its easy catharsis and reassuring moral binaries, uses the past to reassure rather than to challenge. Nazism here is not part of daily life but personified in a devilish super-villain, an adulterous art-hating baby-killer. Foolish comments from fascist or communist ideologues are underscored with savvy, ironical cuts. In von Donnersmarck’s schema, art and beauty are completely anathema to despotic regimes – his Nazis and his Communists lack all artistic sense (and healthy sexual desire), and Kurt’s decision to emigrate to West Germany is justified by his inability to “tell the truth” artistically in the East. This is not just profoundly ahistorical – high culture was typically revered among high-ranking Nazis and Soviets – but also dangerous in its coupling of aesthetics with morality.
In the end, Kurt decides to tell his life story through his art: this is the “truth” that the film has been getting at. Kurt’s autobiographical paintings send him rocketing to success: the mere sight of them sends his Nazi stepdad fleeing from the room, and turns his pretentious classmate into a sensible ally. (The Power of Art!) The effect of all this is to flatter the audience: There is nothing more vital than what I’ve just shown you. The artist’s mind holds no secret compartments, wields no genius alchemy – just the sum of life experience translated onto canvas. Kurt’s big blue eyes have pooled with historical events, and now they’re sharing their vision of truth: just the truth, pure and simple.
Everything that’s true is beautiful. But is it true, or does it just feel true? This is precisely what the real Gerhard Richter addresses through his confronting photorealism. Richter’s blurry paintings promise, illumine, betray. “They do what they want,” he said of his works in the 2011 documentary Gerhard Richter Painting: “I don’t like the ones I understand.” Faced with this difficulty, and the difficult past, von Donnersmarck’s response is to try sharpening the image – to seek the simple biographical story, to turn unmasterable history into universal comfort. In doing so, he turns provocative art into middlebrow kitsch. His “truth” is redemptive and simple; most modern Germans, Gerhard Richter included, understand the past is not so easy.