Never Look Away is the rare film that manages to be both pompous and glib. Directed with heavy-handed earnestness by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, this drama goes through the checklist for a historical epic: romantic gestures, political upheaval, moments of tragedy/triumph. More importantly, you know it’s an epic because of its length. At just over three hours, Donnersmarck’s film somehow manages to insult his audience, misunderstand his subject, and reduce German history into the trappings of turgid melodrama. Only a talented filmmaker is capable of such a blunder.
Beginning in the late 1930s and continuing through the 1960s, Never Look Away is based on the life of the painter Gerhard Richter. The film takes many liberties with Richter’s life, so Donnersmarck’s stand-in is Kurt (Tom Schilling). Kurt shares some basic biographical details with Richter: After the War, he was forced to make Socialist Realist art in Soviet-controlled Berlin before escaping to the West. Of Donnersmarck’s film, Richter has said it, “grossly distorts [his] biography.”
Indeed, there are many embellishments, like the connection between Kurt’s family and his eventual father-in-law (Sebastian Koch), a former member of the SS. The weighty script uses the backdrop of war to give each contrivance the illusion of depth. When Donnersmarck worries his audience is not sufficiently moved, he will cut away to a sex scene, or superfluous footage of destruction and pain—most of it involving women.
After Kurt escapes to the West with his wife Ellie (Paula Beer), the biography attempts to make sense of Richter’s genius. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Richter’s work—he is famous for colorful abstracts and “blurred” photorealistic portraits—reducing his creativity to a series of biopic cliches is no way to celebrate him. It is true that Kurt is not literally Richter, and yet Schilling’s performance is unaffected, a blank canvas (pun intended) that invites the mind to wander elsewhere. In one of the film’s final sections, Kurt’s stroke of genius is a complete accident: He cannot finish a painting until a trick of light distorts his vision. No artist, especially one widely considered the world’s greatest painter, should have their process reduced in such a way.
Donnersmarck won an Oscar for his Cold War drama The Lives of Others, and here he shows none of that film’s restraint. Never Look Away is a broad film, one that’s more interested in grand gestures than granular details. That’s fine for a epic about war and romance, except Kurt and Ellie remain together for most of the film, and the film’s most important details involve Kurt’s interiority. The cumulative effect is like hurling buckets of paint at a small canvas. At least the film looks great: cinematographer Caleb Deschanel veers between rich colors and evocative night scenes, so parts of the film have a palette recalling lush technicolor from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
If Kurt represents postwar Germany’s capacity for greatness, then his father-in-law is a specter of its greatest horrors. Unlike his playwright character from The Lives of Others, Koch’s character here is controlling and severe. He always reenters Kurt’s life at moments that strive for maximum poignancy, and his ability to fail upward—despite his background in the SS—is a grim joke. It is no surprise that Koch also gives the film’s best performance. Like his Nazi character in the World War II thriller Black Book, Koch conveys complexity underneath his steely exterior. But by tying his ideology to personal failures, the film lets him off the hook. In the end, Koch’s character is little more than another “good German.”
Part of what makes Never Look Away so frustrating, aside from its running time, is that better films have handled identical material. In melodramas like Phoenix and Barbara, Christian Petzold explores postwar Germany with sensitivity and suspense (he also does this in a much shorter running time). The 2012 documentary Gerhard Richter Painting has the patience to watch the master’s method in exacting detail. Richter gives few interviews in that film, but he does say he knows a painting is complete when “there’s nothing wrong in it.” By that same standard, Never Look Away is woefully unfinished.
Never Look Away opens Friday at The Avalon Theatre.