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New Release Review - NEVER LOOK AWAY

never look away review
In post-war Germany, an artist unknowingly marries the daughter of the former Nazi responsible for his Aunt's murder.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Starring: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl

never look away poster


What is Fascism? It's a difficult thing to define in this era where such labels are thrown around indiscriminately. Ironically, it's a label now all too often applied to those whose views we disagree with or whose point of view we find incomprehensible or unpalatable. But isn't this the defining trait of the Fascist, who wishes to rid the world of anything and anyone who can't fit into their limited worldview, and insists on erasing square pegs from a world of round holes?

Through the figure of a young artist loosely inspired by real life German painter Gerhard Richter (who has publicly condemned the film), Never Look Away suggests that the best way to fight fascism is through a refusal to conform to society's expectations. The trouble with the marvellously monikered Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's film is that it never follows this guideline itself, too often giving in to narrative conformity.

never look away review


Take the scene early on where in pre-WWII Dresden, a mentally troubled young woman, Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), interrupts the lunch break of a group of bus drivers at a terminus with a request that they all press down on their horns in unison. The sound, which most of us would simply find incredibly irritating, fills Elizabeth with ecstasy. But Von Donnersmarck doesn't allow us to accept and bask in Elizabeth's curious aural fetish. Rather he replaces the sound of the horns with composer Max Richter's 'November', a beautiful piece of music that has sadly become a clichΓ©d emotional short cut for far too many filmmakers in recent years.

There's something hypocritical then about how Von Donnersmarck uses Elizabeth's subsequent detention in a Nazi-run psychiatric facility to illustrate the intolerance of that regime for anyone who doesn't fit their ideal of Aryan perfection. Elizabeth is initially sterilised as part of the Nazi programme to eliminate "unpure stock", and ultimately executed in a gas chamber, in a truly disturbing sequence.

never look away review


We then follow Elizabeth's nephew, Kurt (Tom Schilling), whom she adored as a boy, as he enters art school in Dresden in the early '50s. With East Germany now under communist rule, Kurt is similarly expected to conform as an artist, and his talent is recognised by the authorities, who set him about painting murals celebrating the labour movement. Kurt isn't sure of how exactly he should use his artistic gift, but he's sure that being a tool of propaganda isn't for him.

At school, Kurt meets and falls for a pretty fashion student, Ellie (Paula Beer). Unbeknownst to Kurt, Ellie's father, Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), is the former Nazi surgeon who signed his Aunt's death warrant. I say unbeknownst, but the moment where Kurt and Carl first meet is confusingly constructed, the combination of Richter's obtrusive score and Schilling's one-note acting making it difficult to figure out if Kurt is making the same connection as the audience.

The dynamic of Kurt's falling in love with the daughter of a monster is a cracking setup for a suspense thriller, but Von Donnersmarck never mines its potential, and Schilling's constantly constipated expression doesn't help things. His Kurt seems clueless regarding Carl's true nature, even when the clues begin to build up. Schilling's Kurt doesn't seem to think he's the protagonist of a suspense thriller, which every other aspect of the film suggests Never Look Away is.

never look away review


If Never Look Away fails as a post-war thriller, it's more fascinating as a look at how Germany struggled to rebuild itself following the war. Like the society around him, Kurt is charged with finding his soul in the rubble, a journey that eventually takes him across the border into the decadent West Germany of the '60s, a society as far from Hitler's ideal as is imaginable. Yet amid the world of modern art and performance installations he finds a conformity as rigid as the government mandated social realist murals he painted on the other side of the border. Finally, through a connection with his late Aunt, Kurt discovers a purpose for his art.

Like its protagonist, Never Look Away is a movie that seems confused and in search of its own identity. At over three hours its rambling nature will at times test your patience, and the small screen may have proved a better fit for this story, but despite Schilling's limited take on his character, it's just about a rewarding experience in the end. As a story of finding yourself through non-conformity however, it's one that requires a far more non-conformist filmmaker than Von Donnersmarck.

Never Look Away is in UK/ROI cinemas July 5th.


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