The German drama “Never Look Away,” one of the five Academy Award nominees in the Foreign-Language Film category, is and is not a biopic — which is what makes it endlessly fascinating as it bends fiction toward fact and biography toward narrative.
Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”) loosely bases his story on the life of German painter Gerhard Richter. It starts where Richter did, outside of Dresden before World War II, with its main character, Kurt Barnert, as a five-year-old boy. Little Kurt goes into the city with his favorite aunt, Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), to see an exhibit of “degenerate art” — the label the Nazis give to modern art, like Picasso and Kandinsky and Mondrian. Aunt Elisabeth confides in the young Kurt that she actually likes the modern stuff, and admonishes him to “never look away” from beauty.
The first of many traumas in Kurt’s life comes when Elisabeth, who suffers from schizophrenia, is taken away by men in white coats and put in an asylum in Dresden. The film shows us what Kurt never knows, that Elisabeth is condemned by a Nazi-affiliated gynecologist, Prof. Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), to the gas chambers.
As Kurt grows up, he sees the firebombing of Dresden, the end of the war, and his father’s humiliation that he can’t find work because of his reluctant membership in the Nazi party. Meanwhile, Prof. Seeband is imprisoned by the occupying Russians, but he is spared from a harsh punishment when he deals with the difficult birth of the son of the commanding Russian officer (Evgeniy Sidikhin), who then puts Seeband under his protection.
As a young adult, Kurt (now played by Tom Schilling) moves to Dresden to study painting, training in the “socialist realism” that was the only allowable style in Communist-controlled East Germany. While in art school, Kurt meets and falls in love with a fashion student (Paula Beer). Kurt winces when he hears her name, Elisabeth, and asks if she has a nickname. Her father, she says, called her Ellie, which is the name Kurt calls her from then on.
Again, something Kurt doesn’t know becomes crucial information: Ellie’s father is Prof. Seeband, who has been restored to prominence in Dresden’s medical community. However, his views about genetic purity — especially when it involves his daughter fooling around with a scruffy artist — are as nasty as before.
The story continues through Kurt and Ellie’s romance, their eventual defection to West Berlin just months before the Berlin Wall goes up, and Kurt’s struggle in the West to find his personal artistic style — aided by an eccentric art professor (Oliver Masucci). There’s a lot of story to unpack, and the movie’s three-hour running time seldom feels wasted.
Donnersmarck creates a vivid portrait of the artist’s life, from oppression in the Communist bloc to the challenging burden of freedom in West Germany. From the broad satirical comedy of Kurt’s first post-defection visit to a Dusseldorf art school to the frank and frequent sex scenes between Kurt and Ellie, the movie is varied and rich in its many looks — overseen by the legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.
The touchstones of Kurt’s life are similar to those the real Richter encountered that it raises the question of how blurry the line is between fact and fiction. Richter has condemned the movie, telling The New Yorker that Donnersmarckhad “managed to abuse and grossly distort my biography.” The same might be said about what Orson Welles did to a thinly fictionalized William Randolph Hearst in “Citizen Kane.”
The most fascinating part of “Never Look Away” is how Donnersmarck suggests the roots of Richter, er, Kurt’s art without making direct correlation the way most biopics do. (Take any song cue from “Bohemian Rhapsody” as an example.) The result for Donnersmarck is a full-bodied examination of the artist’s process, and how everything in life is eventually fodder for the artist’s work.
‘Never Look Away’
Opened November 30 in select cities; opens Friday, Feb. 22, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated R for graphic nudity, sexuality and brief violent images. Running time: 189 minutes; in German with subtitles.