You won't find better, more mesmerizing cinema from 2018's motion pictures than you find in the first 30-45 minutes of German writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's Academy Award-nominated Never Look Away.
You won't. You simply won't.
It's not that the rest of the over three-hour Best Foreign Language nominee isn't as extraordinary as its opening sequences, but there's simply something transcendent about the opening minutes when we meet a young Kurt (Cai Cohrs) in 1937 while he's attending a traveling "degenerate art" exhibit organized by the Nazi Party at the instruction of the modern art hating Hitler. Young Kurt is accompanied by his vulnerable and fragile aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), an artist herself who not so secretly admires this degenerate art and the truth that it represents. As a tour guide (Lars Eidinger) practically snorts his contempt at the likes of Picasso, Klee, Grosz and, in particular, a Klandinsky, Kurt seemingly bathes within his aunt's adoration and free spirit.
Loosely based upon the life of German painter Gerhard Richter, Never Look Away spans 40 years in telling its story, a story that is told with tremendous patience and devotion to its themes that come to life not so much vividly as they do unfold in layers.
There is a line, I suppose it's a scene really, that lingers in my heart and mind and it remains one of 2018's most powerfully realized pieces of cinema. It's the line, though, that lingers and it's the line that comprises the title of this simply exceptional film - "Never look away," a line that in some ways is practically a throwaway yet a line that undergirds everything that unfolds in Never Look Away from an opening sequence in which the Nazi Party's terrifying eugenics and forced sterilization program comes achingly to life through the experiences of the transparent Elisabeth at the hands of an esteemed gynecologist, the frightening Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), through to the years when an adult Kurt (now played by Tom Schilling) is a burgeoning artist in a society where Nazi ideology has been replaced by the seemingly safer and more benign Communism that, of course we know, is no less than repressive and controlling of the artistic spirit.
Elisabeth disappears from Never Look Away, though her spirit is never far from it as those words inform everything that unfolds in the life of Kurt as he travels from Dresden to Dusseldorf to Berlin, struggling to free himself as an artist and falling in love with Ellie (Paula Beer), a fashion student whose father haunts every frame of Never Look Away in ways I dare not describe.
Henckel von Donnersmarck received the 2006 Best Foreign Language Academy Award for his mesmerizing The Lives of Others, another film that told an intimate story yet did so wrapped tightly around its universal and political themes. There's simply no question that Never Look Away is both an intimate and universal film, a film that unflinchingly delves inside totalitarian East Germany yet a film that feels not so far removed from the current world political scene.
While Never Look Away is itself decorated within the style and substance of Richter, referred to by some as the greatest living painter, it is not necessarily a requirement that you be familiar with his work to fully embrace Never Look Away. For those who are familiar with his work, however, a deeper appreciation of the film's second half seems inevitable as there's never any doubt in Richter's work that never looking away from truth and reality and past and present is the thematic core of everything he does.
Cuaron's Roma, a nominee for the 2019 Oscar for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film, has practically been handed its Academy Award even before the awards ceremony, a fact rendering any film other than Roma as the winner in Best Foreign Language as nothing short of a stunner. It's a pity, really, because Never Look Away is an absolute stunner of a film with riveting performances by both Rosendahl and Koch that will linger in your psyche for days and weeks and months. Caleb Deschanel's lensing for the film is also Oscar nominated alongside that for Roma and Cold War, again likely to undeservedly linger in the background.
While nothing that unfolds Never Look Away after its opening 30-45 minutes quite lives up to the absolute perfection of its opening moments, everything that follows still adds up to make this a film worthy of its 2019 Oscar glory and an unfortunate afterthought in the shadows of Roma's deserved yet overwrought praise.
Never Look Away opens in Indianapolis at Landmark Keystone Art Cinema on Oscar weekend and this is the perfect opportunity for you to catch one of 2018's most mesmerizing, important and absolutely unforgettable cinematic experiences.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic