Late last year, I mused that Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Shoplifters was well-positioned to win the 2019 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. I’m sticking to my prediction, but there is of course competition— including Werk ohne Autor (Never Look Away), the latest feature from filmmaker Florian Maria Georg Christian Graf Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose outstanding drama The Lives of Others won an Oscar in 2007.
Opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Feb. 15, Never Look Away is a fictionalized take on the life of German artist Gerhard Richter, who is, apparently, none too pleased with the artistic liberties taken by von Donnersmarck. And while it contains 90 minutes of bravura cinema – basically the entirety of its first act — Never Look Away ultimately (and unfortunately) clocks in at a bloated three hours and nine minutes.
Beginning during a Nazi-era visit to an exhibit of ‘degenerate art’ (including works by Kandinsky, Klee, and Mondrian), the film introduces us to 8-year old Kurt Barnert and his beloved aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl). Elisabeth knows her nephew is already artistically inclined; she considers the exhibit an opportunity to expose him to works that, according to the stern tour guide, “rise to the level of a crime,” but which she secretly admires.
Unfortunately, Elisabeth suffers from mild schizophrenia, a condition that soon comes to the attention of the Reich Health Authority. Placed in the care of Germany’s leading gynecologist and enforcer of genetic ‘purity’, Professor Seeband (the excellent Sebastian Koch), she is hospitalized and subsequently sterilized.
The film’s first half details Elisabeth’s tragic illness and ultimate death at the hands of Seeband, while following Kurt (Tom Schilling) as he grows up during wartime, survives the firebombing of Dresden, and becomes one of East Germany’s most promising exponents of socialist realist art. A massive and unlikely coincidence draws Seeband into Kurt’s post-war life; whether or not you’re able to suspend your disbelief and accept this eyebrow-raising development will color your opinion of the rest of the film.
A standout art student at Dresden’s Stenciling and Signage School, Kurt is commissioned to paint a massive mural entitled ‘The Unity of the Working Class.’ As he toils away, memories of the ‘degenerate art’ Aunt Elisabeth exposed him to as a child gnaw at his conscience: socialist realism may pay the bills, but it doesn’t satisfy his need to create something new, different and distinctly personal.
Now at its halfway point, Never Look Away suddenly and drastically transforms into an unfortunate series of caricatures, stereotypes and predictable biopic tropes. Kurt defects to the West, where he is taken under the wing of art instructor and millinery enthusiast van Veerten (Oliver Masucci, playing a character clearly modeled on Joseph Beuys), who helps his new pupil discover his own style and achieve the success he deserves.
189 minutes makes for a very long movie indeed, and there’s simply too little drama in Never Look Away’s second half to justify its length. Even the film’s most intriguing subplot quietly withers away, as war criminal Seeband is neither punished nor seen again after a hurried final-reel departure from Kurt’s workshop. As magical as the film’s first 90 minutes are, they’re simply not enough to wash away the stale taste left by its second 90 — and surely not enough to warrant an Academy Award.