Friday, May 31, 2019

Never Look Away - a film review

If I were going to give up my name and take another, I think I’d call myself Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. I know the name is already taken, but wow.

First off, you could do worse than call yourself a flower. Floral. Florid.

I’d leave him the rest of his names. Don’t need the “Christian” or the “Maria” and I’m not entitled to the “count” (Graf). Which he is. But I sure like the snap of this guy’s name.

If you don’t know who he is, he’s the maker of that marvelous film, The Lives of Others, about the otherwise dull life of an East German cog in the wheel who spies for the state on a writer and his wife as part of the giant oversight structure of the GDR in the days before the Berlin Wall fell.

FH von D’s film had the magic ingredient – heart. Whether it was his intention – I suspect it was – he managed to show the world that reconciliation between the two Germanys is possible and the way to accomplish it is to show the humanity beneath the surface of a killer dictatorship. If you haven’t seen The Lives of Others, do so as soon as you can. It will restore your faith in the human race.

Now Count Florian HvD has done it again. He’s made another film about the misery of life under a dictatorship and brought out evidence that people can survive untold physical hardship and psychological torture and come out with their souls intact. The English title, Never Look Away, captures the drama of the story better than the German title Werk ohne Autor (Work without an Author). It begins when a young boy, Kurt, watches his favorite aunt hauled off by the Nazis to be euthanized, supposedly because she’s schizophrenic. Her advice to Kurt, echoing John Keats, is to keep his eye on the truth of things, no matter how harsh, because truth is beauty. Kurt makes that the watchword of his life as an artist.

Because this is a brave new world of an unlimited supply of films to binge on, where once I would watch a film or read a book I had started to the end, just to find out what happens next, these days I'm quick to move on to what promises to be something better. Which is what I was tempted to do after about twenty minutes in Never Look Away. Something was off. Acting too stiff, maybe; plot line too trite. Maybe it was the swastikas. I don’t know what it was. It felt like the film was out of control. Like it wasn’t tied down somehow and was wobbling all over the place. And watching the good guy from Lives of Others, Sebastian Koch, who played the spied-upon writer, now play the bad guy Nazi – and not just a bad guy, but a seriously evil villain, the kind who ties maidens to railroad tracks – was disconcerting.

Next thing you know, this curious film jumps ahead in time. The war comes to an end, the Russians move in, the villain manages to survive by saving the life of a Russian general’s daughter, and injustice prevails. Villain – his name is Carl Seeband and he’s a medical doctor (gynecologist) – rises to the top in the East German communist structure, his secret Nazi past safe thanks to his Russian general benefactor. And gets to be evil in a whole new way.

Now here’s where the movie gets interesting. Florian Count Maria Christian, it turns out, is not making this movie so much about bad guy Nazis who become bad guy Communists when the winds change. He’s making it about the purpose of art. Does it have a purpose? Is it to reflect truth (whatever that means)? Should it be didactic? Channel original thought or creativity? The Nazis instrumentalized the work of artists, supported anyone glorifying German superiority and heroism, and demonized non-pictorial art as decadent. Their communist successors carried the same torch, insisting on “socialist realism,” i.e., depicting the ideal world to come as if it had already arrived. And what’s Kurt, our little boy, now fully grown, to do with his aunt’s advice never to look away? He has the talent to work in the GDR as an artist, but the stuff he is forced to produce leaves him disgusted with himself.

Just when you think von Donnersmarck (I’ll stop toying with his name now) is turning his three-hour binge into an art history lesson, he goes all Hollywood on you. He takes the life of Germany’s best-known modern artist, Gerhard Richter, not as an inspiration for a biopic, but as a jumping off place for a romantic drama, mixing the facts of Richter’s life with fiction in order to make big-time box office.

All this stuff should add up to shlock film-making. But, for reasons I’ll leave to more serious film critics to explain, that’s not what happens. Instead, what you get is a riveting edge-of-seat race between a young artist seeking meaning in life and a world of sinister forces threatening to trip him up. Three decades of German history, Nazism and communist dictatorship, leave you prepped for defeat. Instead you get inspiration. You move through the several twists in plot orientation, and you wonder at times whether this is supposed to be understood as political history told at a personal level. At some point it becomes an extended art lecture, and you worry the filmmaker has gone off on a wild tangent. And what’s all this romantic fluff with naked bodies (lots of shots of one naked body lying on top of another)?  Where are we going to end up? Is this a moral tale where the villain shouts “Curses!” and rides off into the sunset?

After sifting through all the pieces, it sinks in that you’ve been taken for a marvelous ride. The pieces you once saw as disparate and disconnected now hold together in a work of art in which the filmmaker doesn’t lecture you on how to get at meaning; he shows you. You don’t listen to his secrets of creating art, you observe it unfolding.

Florian has more going for him than his splendid name. He’s a giant of a man – 6 feet 8. As both Lives of Others and Never Look Away make clear, he knows how to tell a good story. And he knows how to pull together a first-class team. Never Look Away is not only well-told, it is visually glorious. And the music is hauntingly beautiful, as well.

Never Look Away is the reason people go to the movies.

photo credit:

P.S. There are so many rich details I might have included here, but I worry about clutter. This is a major film-making project with a wide-ranging background story. For details, check out:

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