Taller than most professional basketball players, with a patrician look that fits his long name and crazy scientist hair, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has a hard-to-ignore physical presence. His 2007 film, The Lives of Others, a harrowing tale about an East German Stasi agent who becomes obsessed with the couple he’s spying on, began its march towards the Academy Award with a Golden Globe nomination that year. The German filmmaker has succeeded in making all his work highly anticipated. So was his latest film, Never Look Away, where he returns to his country’s traumatic past with a three-hour tale spanning several generations and taking us from the Nazi days to Communist East Germany and then to the progressive atmosphere of Düsseldorf’s art world in the 70s. Different eras and different regimes, but as the ideologies and values formally change, people’s attitudes barely do.
The story centers on an artist called Kurt (Tony Schilling) whom we first meet as a small child following an aunt who takes him to a “Degenerate Art” show organized by Nazi authorities to discredit modern “formalist” art. As the guide derides the Kandinskys and the Chagalls, small Kurt tells his aunt: “Maybe I don’t want to be an artist”. But after the war, we find him enrolled at the Art Academy in Dresden. He’s good at what he does, which in those days means he’s good adapting to Social Realism. Naturally talented, he moves up the ranks, until he falls in love with a girl unaware of how their histories entwine. Eventually, they escape together to the West but not before Kurt crosses paths with her father (Sebastian Koch, one of the main characters of The Lives of Others), a gynecologist who was carrying out monstrous experiments under the Nazi regime and now lives comfortably protected by a Soviet commandant.
Never Look Away is not-so-loosely based on the life of painter Gerhard Richter, but Henckel von Donnersmarck is not interested in producing yet another artist biopic. His focus is art itself, the meaning of art, the lines between art and life that are always so blurry and the nexus between art and politics. And also in our past that never really leaves us, that keeps coming back with secrets and revelations, we would like to ignore. We try hard, but we can never really look away.