Artistic endurance: Never Look Away weaves slightly off course

Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography Oscar nominee Never Look Away, starring Tom Schilling, juggles fact and fiction to tell the story of German visual artist Gerhard Richter. Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography Oscar nominee Never Look Away, starring Tom Schilling, juggles fact and fiction to tell the story of German visual artist Gerhard Richter. Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Many times, a film based on true events will inspire you to seek out the source material once it’s over. Not necessarily to test the movie for accuracy—facts are sometimes changed for clarity or artistic license—but as a way of further engaging with a story. Even a film à clef based on actual events but presented as fiction (All That Jazz, The Devil Wears Prada), can inspire the same curiosity if it’s compelling enough.

Never Look Away will leave you interested in the true story of the gifted artist who lost family to the Nazis, whose creativity was stifled by ideologues in East Germany, and who then struggled to find his voice in the avant-garde world of the capitalist West. It’s a tale about pursuing honesty and beauty against the odds, and what happens when it’s finally within your grasp. Our hero begins his life being sold the fascist line on “degenerate” modern art, loses the one family member who encourages his imagination, is further discouraged by rigid “socialist realism,” then struggles with how to harness his freedom while setting himself apart from money-chasing charlatans.

Never Look Away

R, 189 minutes

Violet Crown Cinema

It’s a worthy saga, no doubt, but one that diminishes the more you learn about Gerhard Richter, the inspiration for Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling). Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others) has said the film was not intended to be a biopic, and we can certainly allow the same freedom from facts that’s given to the aforementioned film à clefs. The issue is that the rough sketch of Richter’s biography is used—schizophrenic aunt murdered by Nazis, becoming a successful muralist, fleeing west to forge his own signature style based in photography, the secret identity of his father-in-law—but instead of using this as a foundation, Donnersmarck remains true to the narrative points. Why rename everyone if you’re just going to tell their life story anyway? Isn’t there somewhere else this can go once you’ve freed the narrative?

In All That Jazz, we see aspects of Bob Fosse that a factual biopic couldn’t convey. Then our own research is made more exciting when we learn why he depicted certain things the way he did. You don’t need to know the first thing about Federico Fellini to appreciate 8 1/2, but it does enhance the experience. After researching Richter, all three hours of Never Look Away become redundant.

The film does find energy in sequences that depict the physical, mental, and emotional labor of creating art. Kurt actively creates, whether or not his heart is in it. Then when he does find inspiration, he is bound by the technical considerations of bringing his vision to life. Depicting form and function as equally crucial to the artistic process has been a stumbling block for many films. These moments are appropriately paced, but in a film of this length, they end up as footnotes for an overstretched narrative. Never Look Away is not without its merits, but it does not ultimately earn its conceits (or its duration).


See it again: Jesus Christ Superstar

G, 107 minutes

Alamo Cinema Drafthouse, April 19 & 20


Local theater listings:

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000