Dir: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; Starring: Tom Schilling, Paula Beer, Sebastian Koch, Saskia Rosendahl. 15 cert, 189 mins
Inspired films about artists are rare enough. But films that manage to make sense of artistic inspiration itself? Count Altman’s Vincent & Theo, Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, Leigh’s Mr Turner, Watkins’s Edvard Munch, the Minnelli diptych Lust for Life and An American in Paris among the few – but even a longlist would be short indeed. Never Look Away deserves to join it.
Late in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s new film, a young painter whose name is Kurt (Tom Schilling) sits before a blank canvas. It is the early 1960s, and he is in his studio in the Düsseldorf Art Academy art college – a room that once bulged with half-baked projects, but has lately been scraped clean in a full creative reset.
Three decades of personal and European history have carried Kurt, and us, to this blank-canvas-facing point: years which encompassed rosy preschool days with his pretty aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), a Dresden childhood disfigured by war, a spell as a muralist for the East German state, love, marriage, a domineering father-in-law, defection to the west.
There are dark truths tethering all of these events together, to which the audience has been made privy but Kurt himself has yet to consciously grasp. Nevertheless, he reaches for his brush. So many films show an artist’s output as the product of a personal journey (yuck) – but Donnersmarck, the director of the Stasi surveillance drama The Lives of Others (and, in the interim, the trinkety Depp/Jolie star vehicle The Tourist), understands that’s all just run-up to the leap.
And so Kurt thinks, tests an idea, scrubs it out, comes up with another, sketches, steps back sceptically, goes home, makes love to his wife (Paula Beer), returns the following morning, and reaches for his brush again.
It is only after some time that you realise exactly what you are watching: a great idea fighting its way through its creator’s head and out into the world. As Kurt develops that idea, you start to apprehend just how great it is – often a wildly satisfying split second before he does. Satisfaction slowly ripens into awe, and Kurt keeps going. Watching paint dry has never been so riveting.
If nothing else in Donnersmarck’s film can match the sheer mastery of its final half-hour, that’s hardly something to be held against it. The rest is a sweeping cine-fresco that brilliantly captures both the dreadful grind of geopolitical wheels and the intimate thrill of watching one man try to love and thrive among them.
That man, Kurt, is a thinly veiled version of the German artist Gerhard Richter, though the film doesn’t hew quite closely enough to Richter’s life story to count as – or feel much like – a biopic. (Like its lead character, Donnersmarck’s screenplay doesn’t just reflect the past, it alchemises it.)
The plot turns on one horrible revelation about Richter’s past which emerged in a 2005 biography: an ironic connection between the new life he builds in postwar East Germany and the fate of his aunt, who was sterilised and murdered at the age of 27 by Nazi eugenicists after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. As a matter of historical record it hardly counts as a spoiler, though the awful moment at which it sinks in is so elegantly played, those who skipped the homework won’t regret it.
Schilling is good in the main role, with just the right bright and searching eyes for it, though his character is often a bit of a blank canvas himself. A far more vivid presence is Sebastian Koch, who played The Lives of Others’ snooped-on playwright, and features here as Kurt’s father-in-law Carl Seeband – a severe, darkly handsome, respect-commanding doctor, and the kind of man who will find ways to thrive regardless of the prevailing political headwind.
The director of photography is Caleb Deschanel, and he imbues his actors with the same inner glow Richter gave his most beloved subjects. Paula Beer, the talented young German actress who broke out in François Ozon’s 2016 postwar romantic drama Frantz, could light an entire cave system in this.
Never Look Away fills its three-hour running time to the brim, but its stateliness is balanced with an absorbing sensuality and grace: those of us who feared the great sex scene was becoming a lost art will find much cause for celebration. This is a film that throws a frame around history, and makes it as intimate and tender as a portrait.