Search for truth in German epic by Richard Jones


A look at Never Look Away (M)

As a lover of films depicting actual historical events the latest Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck opus was always going to be on my ‘must-see’ list. After all his epic award-winning story of life for East Germans behind the Berlin wall in the mid-1980s, depicted in The Lives Of Others, was a masterpiece.

This one is inspired by the life of renowned German artist Gerhard Richter, re-named by von Donnersmarck as Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling). Apparently Richter collaborated with the film’s writers but when it premiered last year the 87–year-old painter disowned it. We don’t know whether he was upset by the depiction of the Third Reich or the regimes which followed post-1945 in East and West Germany.

But the film starts in 1938 when Barnert is about 10, accompanied by his 18-year-old cousin Elizabeth. They’re at an exhibition where their Nazi guide describes the paintings and sculptures before them as “degenerate art.” Elizabeth takes Kurt aside and warns him to “never look away” because beauty is incorporated in truth. Imagine Kurt’s horror when one day outside their house the Nazis drag Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) off in a hospital van. Although the little boy doesn’t know it she’s schizophrenic and the SS doctor in charge sends her for sterilisation. This doctor is, in fact, a Berlin gynaecologist named Professor Seeband (Sebastian Koch) and by mid-1945 he’s imprisoned by the Russian military for his part in the Nazi euthanasia program. Although Kurt doesn’t know it his beloved Elisabeth had been sent to a concentration camp after her hospitalisation and was ultimately gassed to death.

Seeband is freed by his district’s Russian military commander. He’d saved the commandant’s wife and child during her birth contractions and moves on to become one of East Germany’s most prominent gynaecologists. And that’s without a shred of documentation about his Nazi past thanks to his Russian pal’s behind-the-scenes machinations.

Actor Koch steals the show in this movie. He’s quite frightening as the ruthless doctor during the Hitler years and his demeanour doesn’t change all that much under the incoming Communist regime.

Kurt, meanwhile, has become a budding young artist. His academy professor assigns him to the completion of patriotic wall murals and in the college complex he meets an exciting young woman Ellie (Paula Beer). It’s only when he escorts Ellie home to her lavish pile that he learns the names of her parents. It’s probably not a huge surprise to discover that Dad is the formidable Professor Seeband.

After one short-term pregnancy Seeband operates on his daughter because, by then, he’s found out that his new boarder and daughter’s lover is none other than Kurt. He wants no grandchildren fathered by Kurt, a decision which sets in motion the young couple’s decision to flee to the West.

When Seeband’s old SS controller is arrested in the south of Germany the Professor knows only too well his time is up, as well. He’s told as much by his Russian military guardian, now a General, and advised to get out of East Berlin before the German secret police come knocking.

Kurt by now is a much-admired artist re-creating front-page newspaper photographs as graphic art.

It’s when Seeband sees some of this work in the West Berlin academy attended by Kurt, including the depiction of his former SS boss, that he reasons his time might be up – a second time.

Kurt’s fame grows and grows and right near the end of the movie we see him at a press conference outlining the bases for his current exhibition. And who should be standing beside one of his giant works? Why, Ellie of course holding their newly-born baby.

Seeband’s malevolence hadn’t triumphed after all. Maybe art and truth will come to the fore in the end and at a tad more than three hours (189 minutes) the director has given this epic a solid work-out.

Make sure you select an extremely comfortable cinema seat.

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