Never Look Away (5 stars)

Never Look Away

EIFF 2019: Stunning, Oscar-nominated return to form from the director of The Lives of Others

If the prospect of a three-hour film isn't immediately enticing, remember writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's debut feature was 2006's Oscar-winning The Lives of Others. And if you are in the camp that thought that among the best films of its decade – and are happy to forgive and forget misstep The Tourist – you will have no problem being completely drawn into this engrossing historical romantic drama with a wonderful cast and Oscar-nominated cinematography by American veteran Caleb Deschanel.

The story spans 30 years in 20th century Germany: from Nazism to the Communist GDR and flight to freedom in the west. As seen through the eyes of artist Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), it's a chronicle of love, loss, betrayal, politics and art. In 1937, young Kurt is taken by his beautiful, fragile aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) to a now infamous Nazi exhibition of Degenerate Art, in which modern works by Picasso, Klee and Kandinsky were reviled as illustrations of mental disease and crimes against cultural values. 'Don't tell anyone, but I like them,' Elisabeth whispers. Soon after, she has a breakdown and is incarcerated in a 'clinic' where a diabolical SS doctor (Sebastian Koch, the writer in The Lives of Others and here a chilling villain) decides whether patients are treated, sterilised or killed.

While we follow the fates of Elisabeth and Kurt's family and watch his love affair with Ellie (Paula Beer) bloom, these all feed into the encompassing theme of art and personal expression versus ideology, with individuality extinguished by those who would control what is seen and thought. Kurt becomes successful painting murals of heroic workers shouldering sickles and wheat sheaves but he restlessly searches for his real path and authentic voice. There are stunning sequences – awful, rapturous, illuminating – while pieces of the fractured past finally connect in a thrilling climax.

Screening on Sun 23 and Mon 24 Jun as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2019. Selected release from Fri 5 Jul.

Never Look Away

  • 5 stars
  • 2018
  • Germany / Italy
  • 3h 9min
  • Directed by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
  • Cast: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer

Kurt Barnert (Schilling) grows up in Nazi Germany and into the German Democratic Republic, where he becomes an artist. Long but engrossing historical romantic drama, with themes of love, loss, betrayal, politics and art, with stunning sequences that connect the pieces into a thrilling climax.