In a promising opening scene before the agonizingly long decline that is the rest of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away, a child and his aunt in 1930s Nazi Germany attend an exhibit of modern art. But the tour guide, in full military dress, is not there to encourage the patrons to marvel at and appreciate the paintings. No, this is an exhibit of “degenerate art” and its whole purpose is to condemn the intellectual immorality of these abstract works. To the Nazis (and, as we’ll later see, the GDR), art is a utilitarian pursuit. It either serves and upholds the collective needs of the state or it is shamefully self-centered dithering. But the aunt whispers to the child, “Don’t tell anyone but I like it.”
That child is named Kurt Barnert and, when he grows up a few scenes later, he is played by Tom Schilling. Barnert is a fictional character but Never Look Away is based on the life of German artist Gerhard Richter. The reason for the change of name isn’t entirely clear. Most of the notable events in Barnert’s life actually happened to Richter. The schizophrenic aunt who was sterilized and later murdered by the Nazis; the marriage to the daughter of a former SS daughter who ordered such sterilizations; the couple’s escape from the GDR; fictionalizing these extraordinary events makes them seem fictional.
Of course, what also makes them feel fake is the general, hackneyed phoniness of the whole affair. When a character proclaims early on, “Dresden is unbeatable in its beauty,” it’s an almost winking foreshadowing of the city’s impending destruction by firebombing. In its capacity to induce eye-rolling, it’s on par with Billy Zane dismissing the possibility of Picasso’s future in Titanic, except it’s worse because Picasso’s paintings didn’t kill tens of thousands of people. Von Donnersmarck (who also wrote the screenplay) doubles down on the hamfistedness when it comes time to actually depict the bombing. He does so in a sequence of parallel editing that also gives us simultaneous looks at the fighting on the front and concentration camp prisoners being gassed. Intentional or not, it seems uncomfortably diminishing to equate genocide and a historic, shameful number of dead civilians with the rest of the horrors of war.
Honesty, in general, is not to be found in von Donnersmarck’s quiver, though. That’s not to be confused with factuality; I don’t particularly care if details of Richter’s life story are fudged or invented. I mean that Never Look Away, like so much middlebrow narrative cinema, is disingenuous about its own intentions and feelings. Barnert’s aunt (Saskia Rosendahl) is a perfect example of faux-sentimental prestige movie horseshit. She’s schizophrenic, which apparently means that she is a super-perceptive, uncorrupted soul of some kind whose fevered idealism burns too bright for this world as opposed to a young woman who suffered from a terrible disease and, for that, was made to suffer all the more by the Nazis. But, no, von Donnersmarck cynically and irresponsibly portrays her as a martyr to purity and Barnert’s lifelong muse. She tells him, “Everything that’s true is beautiful.” That could be the mission statement for a much better movie from this year about artistic purpose, Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born. In this case, though, it’s almost impressive how hypocritical von Donnersmarck is in his dishonesty amidst a movie ostensibly about the importance of truth.
These kinds of hoary self-indulgences are, ironically, far more decadent than the modern art that is decried as such by the GDR. Even more perturbing is the fact that, despite depicting the East Germans as oppressive scoundrels, Never Look Away appears to share their opinion, openly mocking the effete modern artists with whom Barnert takes up company in Düsseldorf. It’s all about as realistic as the propagandistic Social Realism murals Barnert is forced to paint under the communists. The film seems inevitably to embrace all that it condemns.
Maybe the reason the protagonist’s name was changed is because the movie is an insult to the real Richter, still alive and working at age 86. It reduces his life to a series of grand revelations and coincidences. “You’re good at handling the apparatchiks,” a fellow muralist tells him before his escape to the West. But we don’t see that; it would sully von Donnersmarck’s vision of his subject’s artistic immaculacy to see him compromise himself so. Never Look Away is traditionalism and empty craft that its own villains would appreciate. You can tell everyone I hated it.