Never Look Away (2018, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Germany, in German with English Subtitles, Color, 188 minutes) At over three hours long, “Never Look Away” is not a disappointing film to look at by any stretch of the imagination- it is a film about an artist and his art, after all. Well, sort of.
Caleb Deschanel photographs beautiful scenes from a German field with wafting wheat stalks that dance in the wind to a studio space filled with sun as if the rays will unveil the inspiration one needs to create art. What Deschanel was able to capture in the camera for his director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is the most appealing aspect of “Never Look Away,” a film inspired by the life of artist Gerhard Richter.
The sumptuous work of Deschanel and the art shown in the film are more clear and tightly focused than the story that takes up each frame of the camera's canvas. It’s a film that dramatizes Richter’s work—and not to his pleasure as it turns out—with a lot of story broken up into three chunks that don’t say much about the artist’s career or the creation of his art. The intersection of melodrama, Nazi backstory and young love are entangled in such a way that you’re not sure what the film is about. These pieces take precedence over the artist and his work when, really, the work is what most biographical films focus on (e.g, 2014's "Mr. Turner"). Instead, “Never Look Away” looks at the buildup to notoriety and not the madness for the craft that inevitably ensues for any artist.
The film is an epicly gorgeous production about a German painter named Kurt Barnert, fashioned after Richter, whose story (that of Barnert’s, not necessarily that of Richter’s for all intents and purposes of this review) unfolds from childhood to his early-’30s in Germany, that being the country as a whole before the rise of the Nazis and then that of East and West Germany. To put it simply, a young Kurt sees his aunt committed to a facility for having a mental breakdown and falls prey to the Nazi’s eugenics operation. The doctor who performs her sterilization procedure and oversees her death, Professor Seeband, turns out to be the father of a girl, Elizabeth, Barnert meets years later at university. The professor, played with a stern coolness by Sebastian Koch, has no inclination that he has helped kill Kurt’s aunt, but he will be forever damaging to the relationship between Kurt and Elizabeth.
Getting through the first two hours with all of these interweaving characters and stories finally makes its point in the final hour when Barnert starts to create art that matters. What’s troubling is that it is around the two-hour mark where you wonder if the film is about a potential confrontation to exact revenge on a murderer, the general hardship of living in a Nazi-occupied land and its aftermath, or an artist trying to find inspiration to work. Each of these potential storylines clashes in “Never Look Away” in a way that not one was interesting on their own, let alone as one piece. There is too much story for this film, and yet each chunk of it doesn’t feel fully fleshed out either. I’m not such how this could be, but there it is.
It’s remarkable how one can have such a vast canvas and yet still make too many brushstrokes on it, but von Donnersmarck did it. I’m sure even Jackson Pollock knew when a splash or dot was one too many no matter how much it could have added to the work. It wasn’t the most exhausting or boring three hours I spent watching a movie; it was a nice three hours to look at because of its high production values, especially the gorgeous lighting.