For those of us who pay attention to this sort of thing, this year’s contenders for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film are collectively the strongest group of nominees in recent memory. From the masterpiece that is Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma to Nadine Labaki’s devastatingly impressive Capernaum, they are films of achievement in every sense of the word.
After his feature-length film debut The Lives of Others won the award in 2007, writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck returns to the category with Never Look Away, a sweeping if inconsistent drama about creating art, life and a better world in the face of oppression and evil. With a bar set very high indeed, Never Look Away logs in as the weakest of the nominees, even as it remains an ambitious, original statement on the experiences, interactions and influences that shape our lives and those around us.
Central to the story is Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling, A Coffee in Berlin), who we meet as a boy (Cai Cohrs) in pre-World War II Germany, where his aunt has taken him to a contemporary art show used by the burgeoning Third Reich as an example of the dangers of free expression. Both Kurt and his aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) are transfixed by the works, though they know better than to say so in their current political climate. All the turmoil around them proves too much for Elizabeth, who suffers a sort of mental break in front of young Kurt, her fate at the hands of a government in the nascent phases of a (despicable) eugenics program indelibly imprinted on his psyche.
So begins what is a series of traumas and offenses Kurt and his family suffer over the course of the next decade or so, as he becomes a young man in the midst of the great war. Von Donnersmarck ensures we witness every sort of horrific, egregious crime perpetrated by the Nazis, both from Kurt’s point of view and that of the evil men committing them. Specifically, we meet Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch, The Lives of Others), a gynecologist tasked with identifying the women the Reich believes shouldn’t be able to reproduce. The way Kurt and Seeband’s lives intertwine over the coming decades will be both crushingly bleak and frustratingly absurd, as von Donnersmarck attempts to intensify the tangled web that connects them.
Running more than three hours, the filmmaker allows ample time to get to know each man, living in the GDR in the years before the Berlin Wall is erected, Kurt as an artist training, talented if stifled by the party’s required “Socialist Realism” style; and Seeband as a prominent doctor who (for reasons that are maddening and disgusting) has escaped persecution for his role in the Holocaust. The film eventually spans more than thirty years, following them into the swinging ’60s where, at least in Germany, the scars of war are no where near being healed. Along the way, Kurt meets and falls in love with a fellow student who (and this isn’t a spoiler) happens to be Seeband’s daughter, Ellie (Paula Beer, Frantz).
An epic by any definition, Never Look Away finds powerful moments in every era it explores, from bracingly poignant scenes during the war (that are, frankly, difficult to watch), to the relief of lighter moments that explore a young artist finding his voice and a young couple basking in new love. Ironically, then, it’s that same vast range in tone and sensibility that ultimately costs the film its full potential. After vowing to keep his daughter away from Kurt and going to unforgivable lengths to do so, the couple’s subsequent interactions with this vile man are so illogical as to come off as nearly laughable, likely not the effect von Donnersmarck was going for. A character introduced during Kurt’s time at university is so disappointingly one-dimensional it’s impossible to take him seriously at all.
Ambition in filmmaking, in all of its forms and iterations, is to be commended. Without it, we wouldn’t have some of the most impressive films ever made (including one or two in this year’s Oscars race). Unfortunately, for every laudable moment in Never Look Away where the filmmaker finds truth in his characters and their reality, there’s another that removes us so far from caring for them that it’s hard to find our way back. For those of us ticking the Oscar nominees off our To See list, spending three hours with Kurt, Seeband and their decades of drama is a must. If anything, it will put the other four nominees in even better perspective before the awards are handed out later this month.