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Never Look Away (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 4, 2020

Never Look Away


Starring Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl, Oliver Masucci, Cai Cohrs, Ina Weisse, Evgeny Sidikhin, Mark Zak, Ulrike C. Tscharre Bastian Trost, Hans-Uwe Bauer, Hanno Koffler, David Schütter, Franz Pätzold, Hinnerk Schönemann, Jeanette Hain, Jörg Schüttauf, Johanna Gastdorf, Florian BartholomäI and Jonas Dassler.

Screenplay by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. 189 minutes. Rated R.

Never Look Away is a sprawling, epic, historical fiction drama set in Germany before, during, and after World War II. Oscar Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, this German language film chronicles the life of painter Kurt Barnert (played as a child by Cai Cohrs and as an adult by Tom Schilling). It surveys the years from his traumatic youth to his successful adulthood, when he has found his artistic following but also the love of his life, Ellie Seeband (played by Paula Beer).

The story begins in 1937. Kurt is a young boy when the Nazis are on the rise. His artistic talent is recognized by his young, beautiful aunt, Elisabeth May (portrayed in a stunning, haunting, painful performance by Saskia Rosendahl). She encourages his talent by going to art exhibits in the city before they are shut down by the Nazis.

Elisabeth is clearly someone that Kurt loves and admires for her exuberance and ability to appreciate the moment. This is celebrated in a funny little experience where she convinces a crew of local truck drivers to all honk their horns at the same time. We later understand is a tonal note that triggers a psychological obsession in young Elisabeth, enough that her “insanity” leads her to being committed to an institution. This in turn leads to her connection with the dastardly Professor Carl Seeband.

Professor Seeband is a renowned German gynecologist recruited by the Nazis to perform sterilizations on women deemed not up to the genetic standard. (Oh yeah, clear spoiler… he has the same last name as Kurt’s future love, Ellie. He is her father) It’s sick and one of the first times that I have seen this topic portrayed in film. He is then given the secret directive that with a simple X on a chart, he can have the woman not only sterilized, but moved to a camp for death.

So, while Elisabeth’s family thinks they are getting her needed psychological treatment, they are actually putting her at the mercy of a corrupted physician who clearly forgot his Hippocratic Oath. It’s truly horrifying to watch. Equally horrifying is that the Professor escapes the war without repercussions – and frankly, with protections from the Russians, after saving the life of the wife of a high-level KGB operative during her breech presentation delivery.

Because of this, Never Look Away (the words told by Elisabeth to Kurt in his youth) becomes one of those stories where the audience knows the horrific connection between Kurt and Professor Seeband. We wait for the other shoe to drop; to see how it plays out with hope that the Professor gets his punishment.

But that doesn’t really happen. Well, maybe a little. There is a subtle, worthy moment, but the vengeful soul in me hoping for just and fair repercussions for all Nazis doesn’t get the satisfaction that I waited three hours and nine minutes for (yeah, it’s a long movie). What does happen is that you see the bastard Professor actually continue to do HORRIFIC things, including to his family, without obvious punishment. I still want closure.

Instead, Professor Seeband’s story is woven throughout the life story and cultural depiction of the German art scene post World War II, from both sides of the wall. It almost feels like two different stories, but the interweaving is done well. While at art school, Kurt and Ellie fall in love. She is privileged, beautiful, and studying fashion; he was recommended by his employer at a sign factory after recognizing his abilities. He creatively captures her attention and is given the opportunity to woo her.

While initially shocked by the three-plus hour runtime, I am so glad that I watched it until the end. Never Look Away is a sprawling, epic story filled with love and intrigue and drama and philosophy and beauty. Does the villain get what he deserves? I think too little, too late, but beautifully, hauntingly played out without actual intent, which is fascinating.

Bonnie Paul

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: February 14, 2019.

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