Never Look Away celebrates art’s power against tyrants

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Never Look Away
RPL Film Theatre

May 31 – June 2

The Nazis committed countless atrocities during World War II. One that specifically targeted Germany’s non-Jewish population was a eugenics program that aimed to “improve” the Aryan race by eliminating people with disabilities, including mental disorders.

That’s the horrifying starting point for Never Look Away, a terrific German drama that examines totalitarianism from a seldom-explored perspective: an artist’s.

Loosely based on painter Gerhard Richter’s experiences (Richter has loudly distanced himself from the film), Never Look Away is anchored by Kurt Barnert, a sensitive boy influenced by his aunt Elizabeth, who introduces him to what the Nazis called “degenerate art”. She’s later sterilized and murdered because of her schizophrenia.

Directly responsible is Carl Seeband, an opportunistic doctor who sends his patients to death camps to further his career.

Kurt and Carl’s paths cross again in post-war East Germany when the budding artist falls in love with Seeband’s daughter, Ellie. The doctor is not fond of Kurt. Neither has he abandoned his eugenics beliefs, which leads him to betray Ellie.

Based on the film’s devastating first third, one might expect the plot to venture into melodrama. No such thing. The movie sticks with Kurt becoming an artist. Frustrated first by the Nazis’ conventional view of art and later by Soviet socialist realism, Kurt escapes to West Germany. There’s one final hurdle: skill only gets you so far. Art needs to matter.

Never Look Away is light on its feet despite its three hours. Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmark grounds abstract ideas about art in the extraordinary cinematography of Caleb Deschanel, who showcases colour’s power in the darkest of moments.

The film’s title refers to a lasting piece of advice Elizabeth gave Kurt: by never averting his gaze, he can collect knowledge that will later inspire his art.

Never Look Away also reminds us that authoritarians, regardless of their ideology, fear creative pushback. Donald Trump railing against Saturday Night Live isn’t just absurd — it’s a symptom.