The relation between art and politics is the German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s grand theme. The inspiration for his first film, the award-winning The Lives of Others (2006), emerged from an anecdote told by the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky about Vladimir Lenin. The founder of Bolshevism is reported to have remarked that despite his love of Beethoven’s Appasionata—which he could listen to every day—he knew it was best to lay aside such pursuits since they would incline him to treat people gently rather than beat them mercilessly. The revolution required the latter.
In that film, a member of the East German secret police overhears a man he is surveilling play a beautiful sonata on the piano. It is through this man, Georg Dreyman, that The Lives of Others reflects on the nature of art. Dreyman is a famous playwright in the German Democratic Republic who is free to have his plays performed. But when he finally confronts the ugly realities of his beloved home, his art suffers, even after the 1989 tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the GDR along with the rest of the communist bloc. It is only after he learns what the state security service, or Stasi, secretly did to him and his associates that he is able to resume his literary production. He pens a novel, “Sonata for a Good Man,” which he dedicates to the anonymous Stasi officer in gratitude for having shielded him from the full force of East German repression.
The beautiful thus appears as a restraint on the will, and as a force under whose influence human beings can confront the truth about their lives and life itself. In each case the beautiful discloses to us that which is sacred, and demands our humble respect.
Donnersmarck returns to this theme in Never Look Away, in which we follow the experiences of an artist over the course of some 25 years. We first meet Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) in Berlin in 1937, when he’s about six years old, at a Nazi-hosted exhibition on degenerate art. In the final scenes, we see Kurt at his own gallery exhibition in the early 1960s in West Germany. The long timeline of Never Look Away gives it an epic quality, and it is an extremely ambitious work of filmmaking.
The Barnerts are from Dresden, in eastern Germany, and thus the family endures rule first by the Nazis and, after the Nazi defeat, by the communists. Much like The Lives of Others, with Dreyman and the Stasi agent, the plot is driven by the intertwined fate of two characters. They are Kurt and a doctor, Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), who will eventually become Kurt’s father-in-law. Seeband, an obstetrician, is deeply involved in the Nazi program to sterilize the “unfit.” He is personally responsible for the sterilization and eventual murder of Kurt’s Aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), a psychologically troubled young women whom we first meet when she takes Kurt from the family’s home in Dresden, north to the art exhibit in Berlin.
Seeband appears ideologically committed to the Nazi program and his devotion is closely bound up with his self-conception as a man of science. His evil is all the more striking as we learn that this is the kind of man who is able to find a way to ascend to the top of any tyrannical regime. After the war, although the Soviets are determined to break Seeband and get him to reveal the whereabouts of other leaders of the Nazi eugenics program, he manages to stay quiet. When the wife (Juta Vanaga) of an officer of the NKVD (Evgeniy Sidikhim), or Soviet state security, goes into labor and has life-threatening complications, Seeband seizes his opportunity and saves both mother and child. Having won this officer’s protection, he quickly rises in prominence and receives an award from the East German government for his service to its ruling Socialist Unity Party. When his NKVD patron is recalled to Moscow, he warns Seeband that he can no longer protect him and thus would do well to escape to the West.
Young Kurt, for his part, is in art school in Dresden after the war. There he meets Ellie (Paula Beer), Seeband’s daughter, and they fall in love. The message his East German teachers impose is all about the selfish tendencies of the artists of the West. Kurt is a gifted student who naturally excels in making propagandistic art depicting triumphant proletarians devoted to the cause of socialism. He is soon given the honor of designing and painting a mural in a public building.
Though married to the woman he loves and at the peak of his profession, Kurt is unhappy. He knows he cannot be true to his art living in the GDR, and so he and Ellie flee to West Germany, to the city of Dusseldorf. He manages to get into a prestigious art academy there but, much like the earlier movie’s Dreyman, he has a hard time finding his artistic footing in freedom—in fact he takes much longer than Dreyman in adjusting. Western Germany’s art is a lot of empty, trendy, formless nonsense—far from the relentlessly useful, but also in their way lush Soviet propaganda posters that Kurt sketched in art school. Neither the avant-garde of the West nor the socialist realism of the East is interested in truth or beauty.
Some reviewers have found Schilling’s portrayal of Kurt to be wooden, but I disagree. The character’s disposition is always first and foremost to behold, and then reflect on what he is seeing. Schilling brings this out with admirable skill. Koch’s Seeband is just the opposite. He’s eager to insert himself into the world. He’s supremely confident and self-satisfied. After Seeband saves the mother and unborn child, the NKVD officer asks him why he did it. “Because I could,” comes the reply. It’s a clarifying and chilling moment.
Kurt understands that his self-realization as an artist will require him to apprehend the reality of things as they are. This means he must find a way to attend to and capture truths about his country and his own family’s past that he would rather forget. As a young boy, he had been told by his aunt, “Don’t look away Kurt, never look away,” and “Everything true is beautiful.”
If Lives asks how the apprehension of the beautiful in love and friendship can transform the soul, Never Look Away seems to ask whether the beautiful can be encountered in the darkest truths of the 20th century. It’s a testimony to Donnersmarck’s skill as a filmmaker that we witness both Kurt’s awakening to this challenge and his subsequent attempt to meet it. Both moments are distinct, dramatic peaks in the film.
During its final 30 minutes or so, viewers spend time with Kurt in his studio as he struggles with his task. These moments are bursting with intensity and excitement. You’re on the edge of your seat but you happen to be watching a man alone in his art studio! The story’s grand sense of time and place seem to build quite naturally to this moment.
Donnersmarck has given us a film worthy of its great predecessor. It’s not as disciplined as Lives, but has tried, as I say, to do more. It is visually arresting, its characters are compelling, and its plot retains its dramatic intensity for the full span of its three-hour length. Never Look Away is filmmaking and storytelling of a very high order. I can’t wait to see it again.