I had an interesting new experience when I saw Germany’s Foreign Language submission, Never Look Away the other night. It was my first trip to the Aero theatre in Santa Monica, part of the Arena Cinematheque chain of classical theatres, which includes the world famous Egyptian theatre, founded by Sid Grauman, who also founded the Chinese theatre. I bought my ticket early in the day, and I’m glad I did, because when I arrived there was a sizable line of people on a “waiting list” for this one-time screening.
As it turns out, the Cinematheque people work closely with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and this screening was one of five over the course of the week so the HFPA could get an opportunity to see the Foreign Language nominees before voting for the Golden Globes, which take place this weekend. For many HFPA members, this is the only opportunity they get to view the films they themselves nominated for these awards.
Before the film began, a member of the HFPA gave a flowery introduction for the director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who offered quick thanks before the film and held a Q&A session afterwards. The German journalist offered his views on why the Globes’ version of the Foreign Language category was better than the Oscars. His case basically boiled down to the fact that the HFPA can nominate multiple films from the same country, whereas the Academy takes only one submission per. He even bragged that Never Look Away was one of five nominees from over 70 submitted films.
Of course, his argument is his own undoing. For one, there were over 80 submitted films for the Oscar, so the immediate implication is that the Academy is more inclusive. Even the whole line about multiple films from the same country is kind of bullshit, because in almost every case, the multiple entries come exclusively from European countries, mostly France and Italy.
The reason for the line outside was because the entire back three rows of the theatre were reserved for HFPA members, about 30-50 seats. The problem is that the HFPA has 90 members. There weren’t even enough seats to accommodate their own membership when this is the only chance they’ll have to see the movie before voting. The people in line got the seats for no-shows. This just further perpetuates the reputation that the decisions are made well in advance and have nothing to do with the film’s quality, but more which studio sends the biggest gift basket.
Finally, the HFPA’s eligibility rules that he touted also leave out important downsides. For one, the USA can submit for the Globes as long as the film is in a foreign language, which defeats the purpose of honoring foreign filmmaking (the US is also the most frequent winner of this category, with seven victories). Second, any film in a foreign language is only eligible for this category with the Globes, and is not allowed to be submitted for either Best Picture category. The Oscars not only allow foreign films on the general ballot, they often get proper recognition, as Amour was nominated for Best Picture a few years ago and Roma is campaigning big time for this year’s go-round. A case in point for why the HFPA’s system is inferior: von Donnersmarck has been nominated for this award before, for his masterful film, The Lives of Others. It lost the Globe to Letters From Iwo Jima, a Japanese language film produced in the US and directed by Clint Eastwood. At the Oscars, Iwo Jima was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, and won Best Sound Editing. The Lives of Others won the Foreign Language Oscar.
Anyway, on to the actual film we’re here to discuss, Never Look Away. Loosely based on the life of Gerhard Richter, who holds records for the highest auction prices for his work among living artists, the film offers a detailed, penetrating look into the life of an artist finding his voice as he endures the hardships of Nazi Germany and Communist East Germany. With a running time of three hours, ten minutes, the film is amazingly well-paced and never drags once. Filmed by five-time Oscar nominee Caleb Deschanel (father to Emily and Zooey), the movie not only shows the beauty in personal and historical truth, but in itself is a work of visual art incorporating myriad artistic styles.
The story focuses on a young artist named Kurt (Tom Schilling of Woman in Gold as an adult), who loves to paint and draw as a child and adolescent, but is constantly chastised by everyone around him for creating abstract works and nudes, considered “degenerate” art during the Third Reich. The only emotional support he has is a free-spirited aunt named Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), who is eventually taken away and committed to an asylum by the regime, diagnosed as schizophrenic. It is there that her fate is determined by an elitist member of the Nazi party named Carl Seeband, a gynecologist who insists on being called “Professor” (Sebastian Koch from Bridge of Spies and Homeland). From that moment on, Kurt and Carl’s lives are inextricably linked, though neither is aware to what full extent.
After WWII, Kurt’s family struggles. His father, a teacher who was forced to join the Nazi party, is denied employment for having joined the party. Kurt works at a sign shop stenciling communist propaganda now that Dresden is under Soviet control. Carl, having been captured by the Russians, secures his freedom and protection for helping to deliver the baby of an influential general.
When Kurt is finally able to attend art school, he must keep his proverbial nose clean and only engage in Socialist Realism art, which is just more propaganda. However, he finds his creative muse in a fashion student, also named Elisabeth (nicknamed “Ellie,” played by Paula Beer), who just so happens to be Carl’s daughter. Family drama ensues, with the surface conflict being between Carl as an overly protective conservative father and Kurt being an upstart youth, but more devious intentions simmer just beneath. Eventually both couples have to defect to the West, and Kurt is allowed to enroll in a much more freeform art institute in Düsseldorf.
There’s a lot to like in this film, particularly the acting and the screenplay (again, for a three-plus hour film, it only ever felt like standard feature length). And then of course, there’s Deschanel’s cinematography. As Kurt develops his artistic style, so too do we as viewers get to see the evolution of art history through the camera lens. Abstract, blue period, impressionism, expressionism, baroque, you can see each of these elements on display through the slightly blurred frame of reference that is Kurt’s life experience. Everything from wartime atrocities to mundane tasks to beautiful, tasteful nudity and eroticism is displayed in all its artistic – and true-to-life – beauty. You’ll laugh when you see Kurt jump naked from a window into a tree, and you’ll cry as a woman with what appears to be Down Syndrome tells a Nazi nurse how much she likes her before being led to the gas chamber.
Moments like that alone are compelling for a film of such ambition. Nazi symbolism is highly regulated in Germany, and for good reason. Sometimes it’s near the point of total censorship. But here, not only are the symbols on full display, we see the actions and consequences of the Third Reich completely unfiltered. I think part of the novelty is that for the purposes of this film, we never see the standard Holocaust stuff as it relates to concentration camps and the near-extermination of the Jewish people. Six million Jews died because of the Nazis, but six million others died too, including political dissidents and the mentally and physically infirmed. In that respect, this is a fairly unique take on Hitler’s reign. It speaks to the care with which the subject matter is taken that the German government not only endorsed the use of the symbolism, but submitted this film to the Academy as the best their country can offer.
This is an absolutely wonderful film from beginning to end, and I’m glad I got to shake von Donnersmarck’s hand and tell him so on my way out of the theatre. You’ll be in for a long story, but it’s well worth it. Just make sure you pee before you see it.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should review next? Are you an artist? What’s the longest film you’ve ever seen that didn’t involve a Hobbit? Let me know!