Never Look Away (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): A sprawling epic period drama

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German film “Never Look Away”, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar early in this year, is a sprawling epic period drama about one young man struggling to find his own artistic voice during the most tumultuous part of the 20th century German history. While this is surely your average old-fashioned melodrama full of predictable clichés and plot turns, the movie mostly works because of its solid mood and storytelling as well as several good performances, and you may come to forgive its notable shortcomings as enjoying its strong parts.

The movie mainly revolves around an artist named Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), and the early part of the movie shows his childhood years in Dresden during the 1930-40s. When young Barnert and his aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) go to a special art exhibition showing various modern artworks, they and others are told about how these artworks do not fit well with the ideals of Hitler and his Nazi Party, but young Barnert cannot help but impressed by these artworks, and his aunt, who is as your typical free eccentric soul, later tells her nephew on why he should never look away for beholding the beauty inside everything that is true.

Life is never boring for young Barnert as he is with his aunt, but their good time does not last that long. As often being emotionally unstable, his aunt is sent away to an institution for mental illness, and she is promptly sterilized along with many other mentally ill people as ordered by the government. When she meets Professor Car Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a gynecologist who happens to handle her case, she tearfully pleads him not to sterilize her, but he coldly ignores her plea, and his following action eventually leads to her tragic death a few years later.

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Several years after the end of World War II, Barnert now becomes a lad aspiring to be an artist, but the situation is not exactly ideal for him. As an East German citizen, he has to conform to the ideology of the communist party just like many others around him, and he initially believes he will be all right with that as long as he can pursue his artistic career in a local art school, but he only finds himself not getting along that well with social realism style, which is not that far from the totalitarian style of the Nazi era.

Meanwhile, Barnert happens to encounter a young female student named Ellie (Paula Beer), and it does not take much time for them to fall in love with each other, but they have to hide their relationship from her parents for a while, until they cannot hide it from her parents any longer. Her stern father is understandably not so pleased about this, so he decides to do something quite heartless to his own daughter, but Barnert and Ellie’s relationship only becomes more strengthened than before, and her father has no choice but to give a blessing to his daughter’s eventual marriage.

Although he makes some advance in his nascent artistic career, Barnert feels more suffocated and frustrated than before, so he eventually decides to go over to West Berlin along with his wife shortly before the Berlin Wall is built, but he still finds himself searching for his own artistic voice. Now he gets a lot more freedom and choices than before, so he tries many different things, but he is only told by his new professor that he has not found his own individual style yet.

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Around that narrative point, the movie plods more than before, but it gives some nice visual moments to remember, and the period atmospheres and details in the film are impeccable thanks to cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who received a surprise Oscar nomination for the film. While I enjoyed a sequence where Barnert tries several styles including the one belonging to Jackson Pollock, I was amused by when Barnert’s new professor makes a big fiery point in front of his students, and I also appreciated how the movie delivers a big dramatic punch not long after Barnert eventually finds his simple but distinctive artistic method (Is that a spoiler?).

I must point out that the main characters in the film are mostly archetypes who are a little too broad in my trivial opinion, but that weak aspect is compensated to some degree by its good cast members. Although Barnert, who is loosely based on real-life German artist Gerhard Richter, is rather bland as the center of the story, Tom Schilling carries the film well with his earnest performance, and he is supported well by the other cast members including Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendah, Oliver Masucci, and Sebastian Koch, who delivers the most effective performance in the film as being quite different from his sensitive performance in director/writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut feature film “The Lives of Others” (2006)

Compared to “The Lives of Others”, which deservedly won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2007, “Never Look Away”, whose original German title “Werk ohne Autor” means “Work Without Author”, is relatively less powerful in many aspects, but it is at least two or three steps above von Donnersmarck’s previous film “The Tourist” (2010), a lackluster misfire starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. Although it feels overlong and self-indulgent at times, it constantly keeps us interested during its 188-minute running time, so I will not complain for now.

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