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Berlinale Bloggers 2019
Turning complex history into a neat picture

'Never Look Away'.
'Never look Away'. | © Sony Pictures

Filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck crafts a pseudo-biography about celebrated artist Gerhard Richter and is nominated for the 2019’s best foreign-language Oscar. But while applauded overseas, ‘Never Look Away’ is marked by controversy in Germany.

By Sarah Ward

Gerhard Richter is an artist of many styles, from abstract shapes to still-life compositions to photorealistic paintings. With the latter, he exactingly recreates real-life images, only to blur the pieces with a brush before they’re finished. In doing so, he cloaks a haze over looking at actuality, reflecting a sensation that everyone experiences. Photos may provide a precise representation of the past, but as we ruminate upon them, our memories don’t possess the same fidelity.

WHEN A BIOGRAPHY ISN’T A BIOGRAPHY

In crafting a pseudo-biography about Richter, filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck depicts this process, which marks a turning point in the artist’s career. Alas, while the writer/director has drawn from his subject’s story with both emotion and purpose, he’s less dedicated to the artist’s meaning. Applauded overseas and nominated for the 2019’s best foreign-language Oscar, Never Look Away endeavours to bring Richter’s tale into sharper, tidier focus. Marked by controversy at home and disowned by the figure who inspired it, it fails to embrace the complicated texture of Richter’s life.
The result mimics a key moment in the film: a crisp recreation may catch the eye, as Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) silently notes upon gazing upon on his work; however delving beyond the obvious imparts an extra spark. With Kurt as a stand-in for Richter, Never Look Away is an engaging, sweeping, handsomely shot feature that hews to the first part of that statement but not the second, somewhat unexpectedly given its fictionalised nature. Returning to Germany more than a decade after his Academy Award-winning debut The Lives of Others, Donnersmarck plays loose with selected facts to make a smoother, easier movie, not a thornier, more intricate one. Accordingly, his feature works best when viewed as a broad drama about World War II-era Germany, the aftermath, and the role of art in navigating tragedy, rebuilding after atrocities and searching for authenticity, rather than a cinematic memoir about one of the country’s most celebrated artists.

GRAND, GORGEOUS, BUT PAINTING BY NUMBERS

Viewed as the former, Never Look Away is as grand as Donnersmarck intends, cataloguing Barnert’s painful childhood as conflict hits, his West German years painting social-realist murals, and his defection east to attend art school and establish a career. Two women shape his path as much as the war: his beloved aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), who nurtured his artistic prowess, suffered from mental illness, and was cruelly incarcerated by the Nazis; and a fellow student, Ellie (Paula Beer), the daughter of a Third Reich doctor (Sebastian Koch) who oversaw the extermination of “unworthy” potential mothers from the breeding pool.
'Never Look Away'. 'Never Look Away'. | © Sony Pictures
With a knack for storytelling that makes the movie’s 188-minute running time fly by, Donnersmarck conveys how a traumatised boy becomes an art great, and how grappling with horror can feed a creative reckoning. The film’s uniformly excellent performances assist commandingly, and the stellar visual compositions shot by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (also Oscar-nominated, in a rare feat for a non-English language feature) often compete with the movie’s artworks with their splendour. Still, from the early uttering of the film’s English-language title by Elisabeth to a five-year-old Kurt, to the appearance of its Deutsch moniker, Werk ohne Autor (Work without Author), towards the feature’s conclusion, Never Look Away always feels as if it’s painting by numbers, something that its real and fictitious subjects would never do. There’s power in this poignant movie, and ambition, exceptional portrayals and imagery, as well; however there’s also too much neatness for such a complex slice of history.

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