Inspired upon the history of artist Gerhard Richter and Joseph Buoys, Never Look Away is a fiction routed in reality, in which fiction is enhanced by reality. Never Look Away is a masterpiece of overwhelming beauty and lustrous storytelling. It tells a story that could’ve been, about Germany, about life, about art.
The film is backed by Max Richter’s warm and sensual score, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s latest German film has the best cinematography I have ever seen. There is an overwhelming quality to Caleb Deschanel’s photography, at points I almost burst out into tears in the sensuous vibrancy of the images. The guiding light of the colour and framing derives ultimately from paintings studied, seen in the use of light, shadow and colour. The cinematography is intimate and alluring, it’s almost as if every frame is a painting.
We open at the Nazi’s “degenerate art” exhibition, a young boy named Kurt (Cai Cohrs) and his luminous aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) are guided around, listening to nonsensical and manipulated tour guide, as he questions “How does this elevate the soul?” – in regards to a Wassily Kandinsky painting. Kurt (Tom Schilling) moves from Dresden, to eventually ending up in Berlin after a 30-year period. It details his life and romance with art and his partner Ellie (Paula Beer). Twists arrive with Ellie’s parents and Kurt’s complicated relation to her ex-Nazi father (Sebastian Koch). Society shifts with the rise of communism, what is commented upon is ideology and the not-so-different control of the Russian-lead East Germany in a post-Nazi Germany. With a clear focus on the destruction of individuality, which is reflected as Kurt’s desire to paint is belittled by communist and fascist norms, we follow his route to becoming an artist unlike no other.
There is an expression to Von Donnersmarck’s vision that is like a tuning fork, its sound is unlike no other. Never Look Away covers a large canvas, with the beginning focusing on a Nazi-lead society plagued by control which leads to the sterilisation movement, the horrors shown clearly parallel the gas-chambers of Auschwitz. Elisabeth, the aunt captures a sense of freedom early on and in the horrors that commence, the sense of heart-wrench felt is beyond terrifying and horror-like as our connection is established through the wondrous images prior. The sheer contrast of Elisabeth’s lush green dress to her inhumane raggedy final look evokes startling imagery, the passionate affection felt in her end is set up by the beautiful cinematography and her joyful nature.
The artwork Kurt does initially is in attempt to fit in, he is marvelous, but all that he made meant nothing. Never Look Away’s comment on artistic expression is one of an ideological approach, with the question of what can be said or not, the impact and intention behind piece after piece. Additionally, what is the cost of fame over artistic control and freedom? These questions and statements of rules are questioned, with Kurt’s paintings (influenced by Richter) not aligning to any movements, whether it be social realism or modern art, what is painted is true and beautiful.
The performances are staggeringly exceptional. Tom Schilling’s calm, charming and internalised nature is border-line masterful, easily one of the best performances of recent memory. However, what truly affected me was the aunt, played by beady-eyed Saskia Rosendahl, the performance is in the eyes – full of expression.
Never Look Away is a masterpiece of luminous beauty, capturing a fiction that is enhanced by reality. The cinematography is the best I’ve ever seen, it has an all-powerful quality that overwhelms beyond all images captured before. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s vision is one of wonder, beauty, sorrow and expression. It is an over-powering experience unlike any other, this is cinema at its height of her powers.
5/5 Stars ★★★★★