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Cai Cohrs as the young Kurt Barnert in "Never Look Away." // Photo by Caleb Deschanel; Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Review: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away

Never Look Away
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; Princess Theatre; Opens Fri., Mar. 1; German with subtitles.
Our Score
Never Look Away

By Sara Clements

One of five films nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away follows the strokes of an artist on the canvas of his life.

The artist is Kurt Barnert, and the film illustrates his art and the influences on it—from pre-war, to post-war, to his success in the 1960s. The movie’s focus on the power of art is introduced to us within the first few seconds, as we see Kurt’s aunt take him to an art exhibition as a young boy. The art is modern and highlights national socialism’s disgust with modern art and the socialistdesire to return art to a time  when it depicted traditional values. Now as an adult, in post-war East Germany, things are relatively the same for Kurt. While he is growing as a painter in an art academy, he is not allowed the artistic freedom he desires, which also symbolizes the lack of freedom that people on that side of the wall are subjected to. When Kurt finally escapes to West Germany, the film’s focus provides a glimpse at the difference between art on both sides. The West returning to the art that socialist Germany hated, and which Kurt’s aunt loved. The remainder of the film sees Kurt exploring art forms and learning which styles suit him best. In the end, he stays true to himself as an artist in a society that views painting as passé.

While on the surface, Never Look Away is about an artist trying to find himself, there is a dark secret that hangs over the film, one that Kurt is unaware of, but that the audience is in on. This devastating truth makes the three-hour long runtime a little more bearable. It may seem like a light story, but Kurt’s art is rooted in childhood torment and the memory of his aunt’s life and death at the hands of Nazi eugenicists. In a story that touches on everything from mental illness, to abortion, to the brutalities of war and its effects on the middle class, a beautiful and tender love story blossoms, too. There’s a lot going on, but the film somehow still remains coherent in tone.

While there could have been many scenes cut out for the benefit of a shorter runtime, Never Look Away is wrapped up in touching performances, beautiful cinematography (which is a picturesque portrait in itself), and an incredibly faithful timepiece that reminds us to never look away because “everything that’s true is beautiful.”

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