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Film review: Never Look Away

Film & TV

The title of this film is literal as well as metaphoric – Never Look Away is three hours long and I didn’t want it to end. It is, quite simply, mesmerising.

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Never Look Away is a love story, a historical epic, a thriller, an exploration of art and the role of the artist in our civilisation.

It is sexy, philosophical and beautifully filmed. The main characters draw you into their lives and remain long after the film has ended.

Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who won an Oscar for The Lives of Others, it begins in 1937 when the Nazi Party organised a so-called “degenerate art” exhibition which opened in Munich.

A small boy named Kurt (later played as an adult by Tom Schilling) and his free-spirited aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) are in the gallery listening to a tour guide express his contempt for a Kandinsky painting. “How does this elevate the soul?” he challenges his group audience. It is a question that the director also wants us to ask about his film.

The Nazis waged a propaganda war against all “impurities in German culture”. Aunt Elisabeth urges six-year-old Kurt to “never look away because the truth is always beautiful”. Unfortunately, her artistic imagination is classed as unhinged and under the “care” of a Nazi gynaecologist (Sebastian Koch) she is forcibly sterilised and sent to her death.

Like a novel that spans 40 years of a family and the warring ideologies imposed on them, Nazism is followed by Communism and the same people who shouted “Heil Hitler” are to be found expounding the glories of a Communist Utopia. Both regimes are as unforgiving as each other in their attacks on artistic expression.

The move towards repression and totalitarianism always begins with a lack of respect for the truth and the artistic instinct to express it; none of us can ever afford to look away.

This is not a film that preaches or crams too much into a short viewing. The leisurely time the director takes allows it to expand and unfold visually and emotionally rather than merely pursue characters and themes.

There is so much to think about and so many emotions to experience that more details would only spoil its effect. Don’t miss it.

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