The three-plus hour Never Look Away, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, was the German entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category at Sunday night's Oscars. Though Roma took the statue, the category was as strong as it has ever been in recent memory. Donnersmarck's expansive story of an artist in Germany, like the other nominees, should serve as crystalline evidence in support of director Alfonso Cuaron's statement, during his acceptance speech, that "there are no [cinematic] waves, only the ocean."
Foreign language films may only arrive intermittently in the U.S., but audiences should embrace these rich and masterfully composed films, whether at the Cedar Lee or on streaming services. Never Look Away opens Friday at the Cedar Lee. Its lush period-piece production design and cinematography are enhanced on the big screen.
We begin in a museum in 1930s Dresden, where a young Kurt Barnert — modeled after the German artist Gerhardt Richter — escorted by his radiant Aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), visits an exhibition of "degenerate art." A disdainful Nazi condemns abstract art, or anything other than pure socialist realism, as an aberration, proof of artists' sickness and derangement. Kurt's artistic talent blossoms as a boy, but Elisabeth suffers from severe psychotic episodes, and she is carted off by Nazis after her family seeks medical treatment. Per the Nazi eugenics program, the feeble and disabled must be wiped from the gene pool. The film's prologue-y first act concludes with the fire-bombing of Dresden intercut with Elizabeth's processing through the eugenics program, a harrowing sequence.
Kurt goes to art school, becomes an East German celebrity for his popular murals. He falls in love with fashion student Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer) who, we soon learn, is the daughter of Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a top lieutenant and doctor from the Nazi eugenics program. Professor Seeband has avoided exposure and prosecution for his pre-war crimes, but his past haunts and stalks him still. He disapproves of his daughter's relationship with Kurt — the artist is "not a good match," he tells his wife — and is so committed to his own bloodline that he performs an abortion on his daughter to tear them part.
Undeterred, Kurt and Ellie flee to the West. At the famous avant-garde art academy in Dusseldorf, Kurt attempts to find his artistic style under the tutelage of one Antonius van Verten (Oliver Masucci). The film's length, during these late scenes, asserts itself. And while Kurt ultimately perfects a photorealistic style, our butts are likely to have grown weary in their seats. These scenes of artistic composition, however, when Kurt harvests photos from his youth and images from newspaper clippings and then copies them meticulously in gray and black paint, are as mesmerizing to watch as the best Bob Ross tutorials. He is mindful of what his Aunt Elisabeth told him as a boy: Never look away, because all that is true holds beauty in it.
Despite its length, the film is difficult to look away from as well. There is beauty in vast quantities here, and despair and grief and joy as well. The film's episodic quality — the prewar Aunt Elisabeth sequence, the East German love story, the postwar Dusseldorf maturation — lends itself well to miniseries treatment, but there's something almost radical about spending extended time with a single subject in this way. The film's restraint, its unhurriedness, is a daring directorial move in this era of 90-minute comedies and two-hour superhero movies. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who previously directed the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others and the 2010 action film The Tourist, and also wrote the script for Never Look Away, has crafted a thematically interlocked narrative such that by the conclusion, we are intimately aware of how Kurt's youth has influenced his art, how art has influenced life, and how little "realism" has influenced truth.