I was about 15 minutes in when I thought,“This is probably a great film.” An hour and a half later I found myself checking my watch frequently, because though I knew the movie was going to run over three hours, I was dreading the ending. I spent the third hour thinking about what makes a masterpiece and why this one, gloriously, qualifies. It’s about the biggest themes (art, war, love, death), it’s emotionally overwhelming, its dialogue is lapidary, its musical score transporting. It’s one of the best films of the decade.
The German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck already has one of the best films of the century to his credit: 2007’s The Lives of Others. His new one is, I think, even better. It may be the best German film I’ve ever seen. Never Look Away is the title. It comes out January 25 in New York City, February 8 in Los Angeles. Through the eyes of a young Dresden boy who grows up to be a famous artist modeled on Gerhard Richter (described in a New Yorker profile of Donnersmarck as the greatest painter living), Never Look Away considers Germany from the 1930s into the sixties, when the Dusseldorf avant-garde art scene heralded a postwar rebirth of youthful dynamism in which artists began fully to reckon with the Nazi period of the previous generation.
The film opens in a public museum which turns out to be hosting the infamous “Degenerate Art” show. A guide explains the Nazis stance toward this in harsh terms. Yet later in the film we’ll hear almost exactly the same critique made by a Communist in East Germany. In one of many spellbinding sequences, an art teacher holds up posters advertising the main postwar parties of the Right and Left (the CDU and the SPD) and sets fire to both of them, telling his students that a true artist must be of no party. Kurt, the central figure of the film, who is a little boy when he visits the Degenerate Art exhibition, then after the war is an art student in both East and West Germany, absorbs this and creates an exciting new style of painting that combines astonishing craft with what one observer calls “genuine force in some mysterious way.”
Through Kurt (played as an adult by Tom Schilling), Donnersmarck considers the balances and opposites of the German twentieth century: Life and death are both present in the persona of an SS doctor (Sebastian Koch, the star of The Lives of Others) who for good measure is both an obstetrician and an abortionist, a Nazi and Communist, a German speaker who masters Russian, an Ossi and a Wessi. Kurt’s work is painting but it’s photography, it’s new yet backward-looking, it’s tabloid yet it’s profound. His bildung is a deeply moving tale in its own right as a sensitive little boy surmounts one handicap after another on his way to greatness but it’s a much more expansive cinematic metaphor for German history as well.
I’ll have more to say about this mammoth achievement later.