Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Oscar nominated “Never Look Away” (German title: “Werk ohne Autor”), uses biographical details from the life of painter Gerhard Richter to explore memory and meaning in Post War Germany.
We first meet Kurt Barnert (played as a child by Cai Cohrs) in Dresden as he and his Aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) tour a 1937 exhibit of modern—or as the Nazi call it, “degenerate”—art featuring works by Max Beckmann, Paul Klee, and Oskar Kokoschka. The raw emotionalism of the paintings has a profound effect on the youngster, a feeling encouraged by his free-wheeling aunt who tells him, “everything that’s true is beautiful.”
The war brings with it trauma for Barnert (now played by Tom Schilling). From a father forced to join with the Nazis to suffering unimaginable losses the young man grows up to attend art school and pursue his dream. Funnelling his pain and experience into his work he becomes a socialist realist painter in East Germany before defected to the West with his wife Ellie (Paula Beer) in the early 1960s.
The story of Barnert’s life is told against the backdrop of some of the twentieth century’s most turbulent times. At three hours “Never Look Away” qualifies as an epic but it still feels intimate. Shocking scenes of gas chambers and the arcane eugenic practices that see Aunt Elisabeth unceremoniously taken to a facility run by the vain and villainous Dr. Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch) provide the historical perspective necessary to tell the story but the focus is personal. Donnersmarck harnesses all the story points—some of which are, admittedly, melodramatic—to focus on the devastating multi-generational impact of World War II and the actions of the Third Reich.
Near the end of the film Barnert says, “I don’t make statements, I make pictures.” With “Never Look Away” Donnersmarck has done both with a film that envisions a life and comments on finding meaning in a troubled past.