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Never Look Away Movie Review

Never Look Away (2018) movie poster Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor)

US Theatrical Release: November 30, 2018 (German Release: October 3, 2018) / Running Time: 189 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Cast: Tom Schilling (Kurt Barnert), Sebastian Koch (Professor Carl Seeband), Paula Beer (Ellie Seeband), Saskia Rosendahl (Elisabeth May), Oliver Masucci (Professor Antonius van Verten), Cai Cohrs (Kurt Barnert - 6 Years), Ina Weisse (Martha Seeband), Evgeniy Sidikhin (NKWD Major Murawjow), Mark Zak (Dolmetscher Murawjow), Ulrike C. Tscharre (Frau Hellthaler), Bastian Trost (Hausarzt Dr. Franz Michaelis), Hans-Uwe Bauer (Professor Horst Grimma), Hanno Koffler (Günther Preusser), David Schütter (Adrian Schimmel / Finck), Franz Pätzold (Max Seifert)

Historically, the Academy Awards do not give much attention to foreign language films outside of their designated category, Best Foreign Language Film. This year is different, though. Alfonso Cuarón's Roma has a legitimate shot at becoming the first foreign language Best Picture winner.
Pawel Pawlikowski's Polish romantic drama Cold War earned nominations for Best Director and Cinematography. And should you think that AMPAS simply has a soft spot for black and white fare, Germany's Best Foreign Language Film nominee Never Look Away, drew a second nomination for Best Cinematography and unlike the other two it did it with full-colored photography.

Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Never Look Away opens in East Germany 1937. Our protagonist Kurt Barnert is a young boy of six who is visiting a museum's "Degenerate Artists" exhibit with his aunt Elisabeth May (Saskia Rosendahl). Elisabeth, a beautiful woman of around 20, is a big believer in art, who disregards the nation's official stance that modern art is problematic. When buses are parked in a row, she gets the drivers to honk their horns and takes in the experience like the conductor of a symphony orchestra.

After Kurt finds Elisabeth playing the piano nude and then hitting herself in the head with an ashtray over the beauty of a specific note, she goes to the doctor. Diagnosed with "youthful delusion and mild schizophrenia", Elisabeth is prescribed a brief institutional stay. In Nazi Germany, the consequences of being classified as mentally ill are severe and irreversible. To our horror, Elisabeth is scheduled to be sterilized by Professor Seeband (Sebastian Koch), an esteemed gynecologist. Gynecological esteem had different meaning in Nazi Germany, because Seeband can and does have this pure, artistic soul transferred to a different facility, where she is soon being ushered into mass showers and exiting the film.

That occurs thirty-five minutes into this epic 189-minute production and Never Look Away is never as good or as powerful without the luminous Rosendahl lighting up the screen.

In limited screentime, Kurt's aunt Elisabeth May (Saskia Rosendahl) makes a big impression both on him (played as a child by Cai Cohrs) and the viewer of "Never Look Away."

Several mini-films in one, the next one that Never Look Away evolves into follows Seeband after the fall of the Nazi party. He is imprisoned with scorn by a Russian general, but when he delivers the general's wife's baby under harrowing circumstances, he not only gets out of jail but also gets the promise of protection from the indebited and suddenly respectful General.

Our attention shifts to Kurt (Tom Schilling), now an adult with ambitions of being a painter. After standing out above all others in a stencil and sign-making shop, he enrolls in an art academy where he catches the eye of another striking Elisabeth (Paula Beer), this one whom he insists on calling "Ellie" as he courts her in secret and rents a spare room in her affluent parents' home.

For a time, it seems like Kurt and Ellie's romance will be the heart of the film, and it seems ill-fated based on the fact that her father is a monster we already know. An unplanned pregnancy and another unthinkable operation later, we then move to follow up on Kurt's calling. Having had some success with realistic portraits and state-sanctioned murals, Kurt and his wife move west of the Wall to Dusseldorf, where Kurt has to pretend he's younger than he is to gain admission and studio space at a free-spirited school run by the eccentric hat-wearing Professor Verten (Oliver Masucci).

The professor, who normally resists looking at and commenting upon his students' art, tries to set Kurt on a path towards personal expression, which means taking stock of some of the demons in his life, which only we know are connected.

The grown-up Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) must combat his demons to flourish as an artist in "Never Look Away."

Never Look Away is all over the place tonally. It's powerful, dramatic, and unflinching up front, then it slows down and softens for romance and drama, the elements of intrigue simmering under the surface. Then it becomes this art school comedy, which eventually evolves into something more befitting the opening.
Donnersmarck's script is full of big ideas, some based on horrific historical practices in his nation and some based on some large conceits and foreshadowed by a scene in which Kurt sees wind blowing in a field and has an epiphany that everything is connected (though real world hours pass before he catches on to how).

Never Look Away appears to function as some kind of cathartic course correction for its 45-year-old writer-director, whose feature debut, the 2006 drama The Lives of Others, won extreme praise not just from critics but movie lovers (it's currently ranked 57th of all time on IMDb). Donnersmarck followed that up with, of all things, 2010's The Tourist, an English language remake of a French espionage tale. The Angelina Jolie-Johnny Depp two-hander, a critical and commercial flop here, drew a trio of Golden Globes nominations that reflected poorly on the Hollywood Foreign Press.

Eight years later, Donnersmarck returns home and to respectability with this thought-provoking but remarkably uneven drama, which feels like the work of a younger, less seasoned filmmaker, although not in an unfavorable way. While the film's celebration of artistic ideals gives it some universal appeal, it's a film that is very specific to Germany's evolution in the 20th century. One wishes the fragmented parts of this long but not cumbersome effort came together in a more satisfying and sensible way. Instead, the film only works part of the time. When it works, it really works. When it doesn't, it's still a watchable and harmless affair. The cinematography, which earns American veteran Caleb Deschanel (Being There, The Passion of the Christ, The Patriot) his sixth Oscar nomination, is appealing without being overly showy. In fact, one wonders if the nomination isn't partly a reflection of the attractive cast assembled here.

In a different year, the cinematography nomination might have given Never Look Away a leg up on its Foreign Language Film competition. This year, though, it's clearly occupying a distant third place in the category behind the beloved Cold War (a would-be winner most years) and presumed frontrunner Roma, whose foreign tongues are its only meaningful obstacles to winning the industry's highest honor. While Roma is now accessible to Netflix subscribers around the globe and Cold War will be heading towards Amazon Prime in probably a few weeks, Never Look Away is getting a traditional, staggered limited theatrical rollout in America from foreign language icons Sony Pictures Classics timed to the Oscar night exposure, which may be slightly diminished by Best Cinematography's controversial presentation on condensed tape delay.

Related Reviews:
Best Foreign Language Film Oscar Nominees: RomaCapernaum | Best Cinematography Nominees: The FavouriteIf Beale Street Could Talk
Now in Theaters: Stan & OllieSerenityThe Kid Who Would Be KingIsn't It Romantic
Cinematography by Caleb Deschannel: The Black StallionThe Spiderwick ChroniclesRules Don't ApplyJack ReacherWinter's Tale
Tom Schilling: Woman in Gold | Sebastian Koch: Bridge of SpiesUnknownA Good Day to Die Hard
German Films: Toni ErdmannLabyrinth of LiesThe CounterfeitersThe Strange Little Cat

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Reviewed February 15, 2019.

Text copyright 2019 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2018 Sony Pictures Classics, Pergamon Film, and Wiedemann & Berg Film.
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