Never Look Away - Review

A return to form with more than a few narrative shortcomings, Never Look Away shines in its Cinematography.

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It’s difficult to look at something horrid, especially when you realize that you must in order to grasp its significance. People commit atrocities, governments kill their own, and cities build walls to divide themselves: through this there is something to be admired, or so Never Look Away argues, “everything that’s true is beautiful”. This is one of several psychological quandaries posed in the German film, from director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; if it weren’t three hours long, and if it had cut a sizable chunk of the middle section, it would be a remarkable film, but a questionable one. A question without an answer is nearly always worth hearing, but one without context is simply flat.

The ambition of Never Look Away can be blinding. There are massive sets, decade-spanning character arcs, and a subject that has always demanded the utmost patience. The film begins with a strong, debilitating look at the weeks before the end of World War II, specifically during the bombing of Berlin. We see tinfoil raining from the sky, children being crushed by fiery debris in their beds, and mentally-unwell people dropping in gas chambers. They way it is cut can be disturbing to watch, but just as young Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) is told to never look away from difficult things, so must we as the audience. His first exposure to the horrors of life comes with an aunt named Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl). She is cheerful, homely, and encouraging of Kurt’s natural artistic talent. She asks a favor of the local bus drivers to blow their horns all at once on a walk home, and as she dances in seeming bliss, Kurt looks on, questioning. She takes him to their home in East Berlin and begins to show signs of insanity, resolving in a harrowing and frightening scene of self-mutilation. The entire sequence is a prologue to Kurt’s young adulthood, where he will come to understand the connectedness of the world, fall in love, and struggle to find his voice in painting. There is a lot to set up and the film does it beautifully; for a moment it is a sublime marriage of war, sickness, and love, set in a period when East Berlin was heavily influenced by Russian communism. A brilliant performance from Saskia Rosendahl completes this first section, preparing a story filled with romance, deception, and euphoria. But as with all lengthy films, it must justify its runtime.

In this middle section, which takes up the majority of the film, there is far too much divulgence into melodrama. Scenes written to exude tension are flat, comical; ineffective. There is real tragedy in Never Look Away, the kind that should drive home the film’s message, but the script nearly always gets in the way. Former Nazi doctor Professor Seeband (Sebastian Koch) plays father to Ellie, the object of Kurt’s affection, in a twist made memorable by expressive lighting and cinematography. There are moments when the backdrop, context, and actors come together for effective displays (like the marriage reception), but more often there is a surprising lack of emotive aesthetics.

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Seeband is written as a true villain, but the character comes off as an overprotective naïveté; smart but in all the wrong places. This arc makes sense at the tail end of the film, but doesn’t do anything for the heartless acts he performs to keep Kurt and Ellie apart in the middle section. Never Look Away gets lost as soon as it separates its parts, making each of them subsequently lesser; the conclusion of the three-hour journey was poignant, but only after beating me into submission.