“Never Look Away” begins in a blur. It opens with an out-of-focus shot of a gallery in 1930s Germany. Then a National Socialist tour guide enters the frame in focus, blocking the art, to lecture a tour group on how decadent the art is.
That blur is a little bit of an inside joke. Florian von Donnersmarck’s film is inspired by the life of the great German painter Gerhard Richter, best known for large-scale paintings that were blurry reproductions of candid photographs. But it also strikes at the heart of the film, which is about not letting others dictate the way we see the world, but seeing things as they are.
Richter has distanced himself from the film, perhaps because von Donnersmarck deviated freely from the facts of his life (in the film, the painter’s name is Kurt Barnert). Von Donnersmarck, who won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 2007 for “The Lives of Others,” uses the broad outlines of Richter’s biography to make a lush and riveting three-hour epic about a painter’s struggle to find his artistic voice.
“If it’s true, it’s beautiful,” young Kurt is told by his cherished Aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), who took him to the “degenerate” art exhibition. While those around them dutifully shake their heads in scorn, Elisabeth and Kurt secretly take inspiration from the art. Elisabeth is an eccentric for whom listening to a symphony of bus horns is an almost religious experience, and her mad love for art leaves a permanent imprint on Kurt’s life.
But in 1930s Germany, Elisabeth's mental health issues are considered a burden on society, and capable of “infecting” the population if she reproduced. Elisabeth is dragged away to a sanatorium, where she is sterilized against her will and later murdered. All by doctors, who have perverted the Hippocratic Oath to justify murder in the name of keeping Nazi Germany “healthy.”
The doctor who signs her death warrant is Professor Seeband (Sebastian Koch, who played the dashing playwright in “Others”). An arrogant and vain man, he wields his privilege in Nazi society like a scalpel. After the war, when Kurt is a college art student (played by Tom Schilling), he falls for a fellow student named Ellie (Paula Beer). He doesn’t know that Ellie’s father is Seeband, who has managed to keep his war crimes a secret. But we know, and that hidden knowledge gives “Never Look Away” the suspenseful aura of a thriller.
Meanwhile, the Communists have replaced the Nazis, and Kurt dutifully goes to work painting murals and signs for the glory of the Communist people. Eventually he and Ellie defect to the West, where he hooks up with the revolutionary artists of post-war Dusseldorf. Their rejection of traditional art is, in its own loopy way, as rigid as the Nazi and Communist ways of judging art that Kurt has seen before.
“Painting is dead,” Kurt is told. “Like folk dancing, or lace-making, or silent movies.” But, propelled by the memory of Elisabeth and the purity of his vision, Kurt sticks with his canvas, struggling to figure out who he is as an artist.
Von Donnersmarck packs a lot into the film’s three-hour running time — decades of German history, multitudes of characters and numerous sex scenes. Sometimes the pieces don’t all fit together. While the tension between Kurt and his father-in-law is gripping, the film struggles to connect it to Kurt’s pursuit of his art.
The film also gives its female characters short shrift. Ellie seems more like a prize for Kurt and Professor Seeband to struggle over rather than a real flesh-and-blood person.
The entire film seems to be preparing us for the moment when Kurt finally discovers his own artistic style, pulling all the inspirations and memories we've seen together into a unified vision. The scene is breathtaking. "Never Look Away” is an intriguing biopic, made more intriguing if you see it not as a film about the artist, but about the art.