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Review: Never Look Away

by Murtada Elfadl

Tense apprehension is usually how I approach 3 hour long movies. But I shouldn’t have fretted about Germany's Oscar entry Never Look Away. It was never less than totally engrossing and I was completely riveted throughout. For his third picture, following Oscar foreign-language winner The Lives of Others (2006) and Hollywood turkey The Tourist (2010), director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck was inspired by the life and work of German painter Gerhard Richter. The film tells the story of a 20th century German artist, given the name Kurt Barnert here and played by Tom Schilling as an adult, from his childhood in the 1930s through WWII, growing up in Communist East Germany, then defecting to the West and finding his artistic voice there...

While the story spans decades, it only has a handful of characters in addition to Barnert. His older sister (Saskia Rosendahl) who is his greatest inspiration and who first took to museums as a child, her tragedy during the war will inspire his art. A fellow art student (Paula Beer) with whom he falls in love. And her father (Lives of Others’ Sebastian Koch) who has a deep secret from his service to the Third Reich as a doctor that will continue to haunt all three.

The storytelling is classical in themes and narrative. There’s no jumping back and forth in time despite the many decades that the story spans. Basically it starts at the beginning and ends at the end. That made it it easy to follow. The themes it deals with - art, war, identity - are easy to identify and to get enthralled by. One doesn’t have to work hard or at all to understand the narrative or the ideas the filmmaker is exploring.

Schilling is a cipher in the lead role and keeps his emotional cards very close to chest. The screenplay has a tendency to over explain its themes and make them clear, this created an engaging friction with Schilling’s withholding. Beer has been working with the best European directors in the past few years. Francois Ozon in Frantz (2017) Christian Petzold in Transit which made the festival rounds this year and will be in theaters next year. And here with von Donnersmarck. You can see why she’s getting cast, she is an alluring presence on screen and draws audiences in. I wish she was given more to play here other than the stock wife / lover role.

Never Look Away is epic and grand storytelling with a simplicity in narrative. That makes it appealing enough to audiences, it didn’t need the neat bow that's given to the proceedings. Basically a scene where the protagonist is asked questions and gets a chance to spell the film’s themes to the audience. This might work for those who like films explained to them. It alienated me at the end of an engrossing three hours.

Grade: B

Never Look Away, which is Germany's Oscar submission, opens on Friday, November 30 in LA for a one-week qualifying run followed by a general release in January 2019.

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Reader Comments (4)

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is quite a mouthful. Hope this is good.

November 28, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

Never Look Away is all right, nothing special, and disappointing after The Lives of Others. The big problem is Thomas Schilling. There is absolutely nothing of the driven artist about him. He comes off more like an insurance salesman. The film's chief asset is Sebastian Koch as his Nazi doctor father-in-law. He's magnificent and shows up the rest of the movie for the pleasant mediocrity it is.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterken s.

I agree, Murtada. This was a solid and enjoyable film that fills up its running time without losing the audience. It also won't win any awards for originality of plot or structure. I hope that the Academy will stick with bolder films when they choose their Foreign Language nominees, but I won't be surprised in the least to see this on the shortlist. I suspect it's too accessible and of sound quality for the general voters in that category to pass up.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Evan - that's exactly what I think. It will be nominated becasue it's grand and sweeping storytelling about "important themes." Yet it explaines everything so voters can feel smart voting for it without thinking too much.

November 29, 2018 | Registered CommenterMurtada Elfadl

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