At the Edinburgh Filmhouse from Fri 5 Jul 2019
It’s a whole decade since Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck transfixed the attention and frogged the throats of his audience with The Lives of Others. In the interim, he made 2010’s entirely forgettable The Tourist, an unfortunate dalliance with Hollywood whose critical failure apparently made him twice as shy to return to the silver screen. Eight years on, he’s back to his favourite stomping ground of how dogma dehumanises with Never Look Away, a semi-biographical (and wholly unendorsed) story of a tortured but talented artist. While his third effort never reaches the heart-thumping heights or hope-dashing poignancy of his first, it’s still a welcome return to form.
Loosely based on the life of acclaimed German painter Gerhard Richter, the film tells the story of Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) through three decades of his life. Early doors we see how Kurt’s childhood was ripped apart by the destruction of Dresden and the callous treatment of his beloved aunt by an unfeeling state. Years later, the adult Kurt gives into his creative temperament and enrols in art school, where he meets the beautiful Ellie (Paula Beer) and falls promptly in love. Further heartbreak is right around the corner, though, in the shape of a hopelessly depressed father, a chillingly manipulative father-in-law and a seemingly interminable struggle to find his own artistic identity.
For a film that is over three hours long, Never Look Away never makes you want to look away; the gargantuan runtime slips by, signifying a compelling and expertly-crafted piece of cinema. At the same time, it probably won’t make you hunger for more, either. Truth be told, very little happens for much of its duration as Kurt’s fledgling sense of self-belief and creative direction slowly begins to unfurl its wings, but with little fanfare or character development. That’s down to an uneven tone and pace from von Donnersmarck, who opens the movie with some of its most harrowing scenes, numbing the audience for the tepid fare which follows, and a strangely emotionless central performance from Schilling. Perhaps the character’s traumatic upbringing is to blame for that, but a little charisma wouldn’t go amiss for a person who shoulders most of the screen time in this very long film.
It’s an engaging watch, by all means, and it certainly offers some insight into how a creative mind might be able to process grief and turn it into something beautiful and original. But when the curtain finally falls, you might find yourself thinking “Is that it, then?”, which is perhaps a damning question levelled at much modern art itself. The fact that Richter distanced himself so vehemently from the project (after initially endorsing it wholeheartedly) makes for a more interesting story than the one which unfolds on screen. As such, it’s an entertaining and intriguing film from von Donnersmarck, but one which pales in comparison to the incredibly high benchmark he set himself with his first feature.