At the core of Never Look Away is a troubled search for truth. A young boy living in Nazi Germany receives a key piece of advice from his aunt—that everything true is beautiful and that you shouldn’t turn away from any of it. This is the last bit of advice she gives while playing the piano naked before babbling about the true essence of the universe and being hauled off for being mentally unstable. Though she is silenced and secretly sentenced to death, the boy heeds these words, which will play a major role in this fascinating film about finding what’s right in the world when so much seems wrong.
That boy grows up to be Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), an aspiring artist in East Germany. Much like his aunt, he comes to have a sort of epiphany about the world and all its truths that he can’t quite describe. He’s not sure how to find it but knows he has to find some meaning. While studying art and trying to find his voice, he meets and falls in love with the charming Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer), inspiring him along the way.
Ellie’s father doesn’t approve, but both he and Kurt are in for a shocker. The father is Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a doctor who played a significant and personal role in the Nazi eugenics program. After the war, he wasn’t found guilty due to his act of kindness of delivering a baby amid his prison sentence and has gone on living with eugenics still lingering in his thoughts. He has strong feelings about Kurt, especially with the outsider art the young artist has decided to pursue—an art form that was undermined and spat upon during Nazi rule. But he has a lot to fear from both the future and the past.
While Never Look Away certainly has a lot to say during its three-hour run time, it always feels as though there is a more airy sensation that explores so much with plenty of grace. There’s enough time for Kurt to fully explore the realm of experimental art that we start to understand it a little more, absurdities and all. Kurt’s fascination with the differently minded can be felt warmly when he strolls through the hall of a gallery, getting to know the odder artists trying out unorthodox techniques of both creating and selling art. Though Kurt becomes inspired, he still struggles to find his true voice, one that will slowly come out as he enjoys his romance with Ellie and improves his thought process, one that he knows must come from deep honesty.
The slow building of the tension is exceptional in how the truth about Kurt’s connection to Carl is unraveled. Though I watched this aspect with great anticipation, I found myself far more engrossed in watching Kurt’s artistic drive take flight, every brushstroke bringing him closer to his masterpiece. His world also feels alive with politics, love, and charm. The friendly banter he makes with his fellow artists feel chummy and the unease of the news reporters who film amid paintings of nudity and Nazis has an amusing edge.
Early on in the film, Kurt meets a judgmental gallery guide who looks upon useful art as the only art that betters the soul. If the question must be asked, Never Look Away gives a thoughtful answer. It’s for this reason the film is only loosely based on the art of Gerhard Richter, embodying more of the love in the art and the beauty in life’s chaotic journey through the shifting of politics and culture. The central theme of not shying away from what is true applies most deeply here as a film of great infatuation, no matter how long or tough it may be.