“Never Look Away” is an absorbing three-hour journey into the life of German painter Gerhard Richter that follows him from a boyhood trip to the 1937 Nazi exhibition of “Degenerate Art” to the first major exhibition of his neo-realistic paintings in 1966.
Richter’s story collides with the two pivotal events in 20th century Germany -- the rise of Nazism and World War II and the Soviet takeover of East Germany, where the Richters lived, just outside of Dresden -- making it personally, politically and culturally riveting.
Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who won the 2006 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for his intense post-war East German drama “The Lives of Others,” “Never Look Away” is masterfully told, combining elements of life under the Nazis and the communist regime with Richter’s life, from his wartime family tragedy in the horrors of extermination hospitals through his Socialist Realism artistic training under communism, his relationship with his wife and his escape to the West.
“Never Look Away," however, isn’t being promoted as a biopic. The painter at its center is named Kurt Barnert, some of the key details of Richter's story were altered and the paintings were created by a former studio assistant not the artist himself.
Nonetheless, the notoriously secretive Richter has tried to distance himself from the movie, telling artnet News that von Donnersmarck did not go far enough in concealing details of his life that he'd revealed in their conversations -- which, to me, makes it seem like “Never Look Away” is, in fact, a fairly accurate reflection of Richter’s life.
The young Kurt is played by Cai Cohrs, a watchful child who is drawing nudes of his beloved aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) at age 5 or so -- and who never forgot the admonition of her instruction that gives the film its title.
She is young Kurt’s guide through the show of modern art that failed painter Adolf Hitler despised. And the boy falls for the abstraction of Wassily Kandinsky and works by Paul Klee and Otto Dix.
Told to hush up about his love for that art, Kurt continues to draw as he endures World War II and witnesses the Allies devastating bombing of Dresden.
Then, as a young adult, he begins his “art” career as a sign painter whose talent is recognized, and he’s sent to art school, where he’s clearly the best painter of the lot -- even trapped in the realistic propaganda that he is forced to paint.
It is at art school that he meets Elisabeth, who he calls Ellie (Paula Beer), who would become his wife.
To avoid revealing far too much, the other key character that Kurt encounters throughout his life is Professor Carl Seaman (a very good, if hateable, Sebastian Koch), who is a Nazi, gynecologist and hospital administrator.
After Kurt makes his way to the West, the movie shows, with plenty of humor, Dusseldorf’s Kunstakademie, where performance art, “happenings” and conceptual art were all the rage, because as students say, painting is dead -- one of the first of the form’s multiple passings over the last 50 years.
It is also there that Kurt encounters Antonius van Verten (Oliver Masucci), a teacher at the school who is obviously modeled on Joseph Beuys,
Von Donnersmarck masterfully spins the story together, so much so that the picture never feels long, and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who was Oscar-nominated for his work, creates a visual masterpiece, both hard and soft-edged, reflecting in a sense the paintings that fill the final scenes -- blurry reproductions of old photographs.
As Kurt/Richter discovers that visual approach, “Never Look Away” becomes as vivid and emotional a portrayal of an artist finding his or her voice as has ever been seen on film, conveying a breakthrough with a rich realism.
And that is the final impression of an masterful film about the extraordinary life of one of the 20th century’s greatest painters, whether Richter wants to admit it or not.