The point, I suppose, is that if you're making a movie about an artist, you probably need to turn the artist into a vehicle through which you explore another subject.
In the case of director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's Never Look Away, the subject becomes an artist's drive to discover the uniqueness of his vision while living under three very different social and political systems: Nazi Germany as a child, Soviet-dominated East Germany as a young student and West German liberal democracy as an artist on the road toward creative realization.
If you've read anything about Never Look Away, you already know that the movie is based on the life of German artist Gerard Richter, a highly regarded painter whose work has gone through radical shifts during a career spanning nearly five decades. The movie's artist is named Kurt and it's probably a mistake to look at Never Look Away as a precise representation of Richter's journey.
On the other hand, the general thrust of the story and the art that Kurt begins producing in the movie too closely resemble Richter’s life and work to brush all connections aside. The paintings in the movie were done by one of Richter's former studio assistants.
The movie begins when a young Kurt (Cai Cohrs) visits a 1937 exhibition the Nazis dedicated to "Degenerate Art," i.e., art that did not convey an Aryan grandiosity of a kind that matched the Nazi vision. Of course, the art that young Kurt sees with his aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) represents the best and most creative work of the day.
A guide denounces the art but it's clear that young Kurt and his aunt are impressed by work that's being held up as an example of degenerate impulses.
This section of the movie establishes von Donnersmarck's view of the primacy of individual vision, a trait embodied in Elisabeth, a woman who will be diagnosed as a schizophrenic. As part of their obsession with genetic purity, the Nazis eventually sterilize Elisabeth and, if that weren't enough to keep her from polluting the Aryan gene pool, they put her to death in a gas chamber.
The crushing of this unique, sensual and loving character becomes a signature event in young Kurt's life that reverberates throughout the movie. Elisabeth's spirit, more than Kurt's, informs nearly everything else that happens as von Donnersmarck mixes melodrama and artistic exploration.
Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch) appears as the doctor who seals Elisabeth's fate, an arrogant, efficient opportunist with a big enough ego to embrace whatever political winds happen to blow through his life. A preening, self-impressed gynecologist, Seeband values status as much as he values his skills, which evidently are substantial enough to make the gynecologist for the wives of Goebbels and other Nazi bigwigs.
After childhood, Kurt is played by Tom Schilling. Schooled in a Dresden art academy, Kurt learns and masters the requirements of Socialist Realism, helping to create bold propaganda that turned working folk into muscular heroes laboring to bring utopian Communism into a corrupted bourgeois world.
During this period, Kurt's father (Jorg Schulttauf), a reluctant member of the Nazi party is punished for his sins. Once an educator, he's relegated to scrubbing floors. Eventually, he commits suicide.
During his studies, Kurt meets Ellie (Paula Beer), a student of fashion. They begin an affair that's discovered by Ellie's mother (Ina Weisse). Know that Dr. Seeband will play a strange role in the life of Ellie and Kurt. To say more would amount to a spoiler. Although Kurt's life doesn't much benefit from contact with Seeband, the movie has the sense to keep Koch, a commanding figure, in its narrative.
Eventually, Ellie and Kurt decide to escape to the West. Initially, Kurt is advised to pursue a lucrative career in portraiture and, above all, to avoid the Dusseldorf Art Academy, where anti-classical, free-wheeling trends prevail. Of course, Kurt immediately opts for Dusseldorf, an art school run by Professor Van Vertin (Oliver Masucci), an artist who always wears a hat. Van Vertin insists that students attend his provocative lectures but that they never ask him to look at their work.
Don't look to Schilling for histrionics. His Kurt holds his emotions close, almost always seeming as if he knows more than he's willing to reveal.
Von Donnersmark, who won an Oscar for 2006's The Lives of Others, wisely employed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel to help him create Never Look Away's various looks. The decision paid off. Deschanel has been nominated for an Oscar. Never Look Away also netted an Oscar nomination in the best foreign-language film category.
Don't look to Schilling for histrionics: He creates a character who holds his emotions in check and who always seems to know more than he's revealing in this lengthy (three hours) and not entirely satisfying movie.
Von Donnersmark has assembled the right blocks for his story but can't quite convert them into a fluid, arresting whole. Kurt's life is so full of significant events that they tend to be placed in the story like library books being shelved.
It's possible to look at Never Look Away as a semi-success, a look at a life buffeted by political forces but one that also seems to deserve more than Donnersmark has been able to achieve.