“It’s almost an idea,” one of Kurt Barnert’s fellow students at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf says of Kurt’s latest effort. It’s meant as both criticism and encouragement, and a reminder of the aesthetic rules at this WestGerman outpost of the early ’60s avant-garde. Artistic practice among the young Düsseldorfers is not about form, tradition or technique. It’s about the invention and execution of concepts that shed light on the arbitrary nature of art itself, and on the absurdities of the society that produces it.
Kurt — the fictional protagonist of “Never Look Away,” who bears a close biographical resemblance to the actual German painter Gerhard Richter — is a recent arrival from the East German city of Dresden, where they do things differently. (The complicated relationships between Kurt and Richter, and between Richter and the film’s director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, are explored by Dana Goodyear in a fascinating recent New Yorker article.)
Back home, thanks to his skill as a draftsman and his compulsive productivity, Kurt found success as a socialist realist, producing large-scale murals of heroic workers and peasants and portraits of bureaucrats. Like their Nazi precursors, the Communist rulers of East Germany scorn the subjectivism and decadence of modernist art. According to Kurt’s mentor in Dresden, in the west it’s all about “ich, ich, ich” rather than about the collective struggles and triumphs of the people.
In following Kurt (played as an adult by Tom Schilling) from his boyhood in the 1930s to his career breakthrough 30 years later — a journey that occupies more than three hours of the viewer’s time — von Donnersmarck comes tantalizingly close to having an idea. “Never Look Away” bristles with half-formed thoughts and almost-heady insights, and hums with an ambition that is exasperating and exhilarating in equal measure.
Richter’s mid-’60s paintings, and the similar canvases that Kurt executes at the climax of the film, are haunting, challenging attempts to plot the intersection of personal and historical experience, a zone composed almost entirely of gray areas. Exact reproductions of ordinary photographs with faces and other details blurred, they are troubling and suggestive studies in unspoken guilt and suppressed memory, heavy with meanings that they refuse to disclose.
That is not the way von Donnersmarck operates. He is not a man to choose nuance when a statement of the obvious, preferably accompanied by an orchestra and tasteful nudity, is available. “Never Look Away” traffics in all kinds of thorny, ambiguous material: It’s about family secrets, psychological misdirection, the sometimes uncanny harmonies between artifice and reality. But its methods are almost defiantly literal, engineered for accessibility and sentimental impact.
This is not entirely a bad thing. Von Donnersmarck’s first feature, “The Lives of Others,” unpacked some of the moral baggage of the former East Germany and laid out the contents in clear, conventional cinematic language. Part melodrama and part Cold War thriller, that film won an Oscar in 2007 and was embraced by many critics, including this one, for its blend of suspense and ethical precision.
“Never Look Away,” working on a grander scale in muddier genre territory — not quite a biopic, it hovers between psychological drama and period romance — tries to achieve a similar blend of clarity and excitement. Even when it stumbles, it remains watchable and engaging, partly because von Donnersmarck possesses an old-fashioned Hollywood showman’s sensibility. In addition to the lush music (composed by Max Richter), it has rich, velvety images (for which Caleb Deschanel has just received an Oscar nomination) and emphatic performances by highly attractive actors.
Schilling is not the most charismatic among them, but he has a sensitive, sympathetic demeanor. Slight and youthful, he seems less like a prodigy than like an excellent student. As a child (played by Cai Cohrs), he is initiated into the mysteries of art by his aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), who takes him to the Nazis’ exhibition of “Degenerate Art,” where the two find clandestine inspiration. When Elisabeth is diagnosed with a mental illness, the full cruelty of the regime reveals itself: She is sterilized and then murdered in the name of genetic hygiene.
The man responsible for this atrocity, and others like it, is Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a prominent gynecologist who will become Kurt’s father-in-law. There are no spoilers here. The link between Kurt and Seeband is revealed to the audience fairly early. What keeps us guessing is when, how or whether Kurt will learn the truth.
In the meantime, he falls in love with Seeband’s daughter, Ellie (Paula Beer), in Dresden after the war. Her father, protected by a Red Army officer who owes him a favor, enjoys more than mere impunity: Seeband is celebrated as a leader of the workers’ state, an authentic hero of socialism. He is no fan of Kurt and sets out to sabotage his relationship with Ellie in shockingly brutal and devious ways.
Koch — who played the principal victim of totalitarianism in “The Lives of Others” — plays this monster with true movie-star panache. When he’s on screen, “Never Look Away” crackles with sulfurous life. (Koch’s only rival in this department is Oliver Masucci, playing a Düsseldorf teacher of Kurt’s modeled on the artist Joseph Beuys). But Seeband’s magnetism and his transparent evil undermine a potentially central line of moral inquiry in the story, having to do with the ways Naziism embedded itself in ordinary German life. Instead, von Donnersmarck sensationalizes the horror, by which I don’t mean he amplifies it (that would hardly be possible) but that he turns it into fodder for simple and emphatic emotions.
Long as it is, the movie never risks depth or difficulty. The relationship between Ellie and Kurt, which should be its emotional axis, is a pallid romance punctuated by near-tragedy and solemn, beautifully shot movie sex — the kind that telegraphs profound feelings through the use of candles and graceful changes of position. (In movies like this, when something really important happens, people do it standing up).
Back in the decades in which the movie takes place, critics and philosophers made much of the distinction between art and kitsch — a way of defending seriousness and difficulty against the pleasures and comforts offered in different ways by totalitarian ideology and consumer capitalism. That vocabulary has long since fallen out of vogue, but it doesn’t feel out of place here, since von Donnersmarck is essentially trying to use the tools of kitsch to illuminate the mysteries of art. Which is an almost-interesting idea. Or an interesting almost-idea.