It’s possible to become an artist, good enough to be recognized in the artistic world. But to be the best, it’s necessary to have a personal story to share through art. The art that will cry and laugh, mourn the death of a loved one, and celebrate life. Because in the world of painting, art, images, or happiness is not the source of inspiration – it’s an enormous amount of pain that must be shared with the world. “Never Look Away” is a celebration of what we human beings are – mad like an animal, yet gentle, kind, and loving human beings, just another form of art formed with flesh and blood.
“Never Look Away”, written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck tells the story of German artist Kurt Barnert who leaves the tormented life of East Germany behind and moves to West Germany that is unable to cure the cry of his heart, the pain he lives with every day and its cause that turns him into an influential artist – his aunt Elizabeth May’s advice to him when he was a child that he carries with him throughout his adult life – to never look away.
The film opens in Dresden 1937, Elizabeth May (Saskia Rosendahl) takes her six-year-old nephew, Kurt (Cai Cohrs,) to an exhibition called “Degenerate Art”. She had already realized that he has talent and love for art and begins inspiring him. She is kind to him and extremely caring. However, the next scene is what will define him as a future artist, when the young boy hears the sound of a piano. He goes down the stairs to find his aunt absolutely naked, sitting in front of a piano and playing a beautiful piece.
As soon as she realized it was him, she turns back and tells him, “Never look away, Kurt. Everything that’s true is beautiful. This note. It contains the whole power of music. Of life itself. Of the entire universe. People look for the code of the world. But here it is!” While that scene itself was so beautifully paced, the next moment that beauty turns into horror, when Elizabeth begins explaining to Kurt the meaning of the notes and sound, she just talked to him earlier by taking an ashtray and hitting her head until it started bleeding.
This is when we learn about her mental illness and the law that been introduced by Nazi Germany to help the best breed spread by reducing the weakest percentile of the German population by freeing the streets free of mongoloids, the mentally ill and other, as the SS Officer calls, deformed individuals. Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch) is assigned to examine Elizabeth and see whether if she’s required to stay at an institution or be sent to another place, the hospital that is purely responsible for relieving them from the so-called meaningful existence. Professor Seeband uses his pen as a sword to take Elizabeth’s life. But what he does not know is that the decision he makes one day will haunt him, because the man that will marry his daughter Ellie (Paula Beer) will be Kurt (Tom Schilling), the nephew of Elizabeth May.
“Never Look Away” is a beautifully paced drama about Germany’s painful past, about the search of an identity, revealing itself through paintings, about the true meaning of life, its sense and how it functions. And it’s about the freedom to be free, an illusion that must disappear, helping people to become who they are by speaking up through what they create. Writer/director Henckel von Donnersmarck is clear here with his intention – he is not here to beautify the war nor idealize the past, it’s about not looking away from what we have faced in the past, try to learn from it, and get angry if required because only then can we be strong enough to challenge ourselves, our imagination, and open unlocked doors to the liberated world.
In conclusion, everything about “Never Look Away” is something you truly can’t avoid doing – looking away. You can’t disregard its charm, cinematography, powerful and emotionally charged performances. An enigmatic world of art. And that there’s nothing to be ashamed about when we want to create or when we begin understanding what life means. The movie is about feeling ourselves untouchable, because if we are able to see the true meaning of a blank screen, then we are truly artists ourselves. But can we or not has never been questioned in “Never Look Away”. It is just a matter of time when one of us reaches to that point to say, we actually can.