“Never Look Away,” which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday after having its world premiere in Venice, might just turn the man with one of the most formidable names in the movie business, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, into a comeback kid.
Donnersmarck’s first feature, 2006’s brilliant “The Lives of Others,” scored an upset victory over “Pan’s Labyrinth” in that year’s Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film, its win no doubt due to a rule that no longer exists in the category: In order to vote, you had to see all five nominees in a theater. Like the Oscar voters who picked it, nobody who saw it was likely to forget the quietly engrossing story of an East German Stasi agent drawn into the life of a couple he was surveilling.
Hollywood was impressed enough to come calling, but the director went from triumph to disaster. His English-language debut was the widely derided flop “The Tourist,” a laughable romantic thriller starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. That was in 2010, and Donnersmarck has been missing in action until now.
As comebacks go, “Never Look Away” is a bold one. More than three hours long, it spans decades of German life, from the 1930s into the 1960s. It starts with a free-spirited aunt taking her young nephew to see an exhibition of “Degenerate Art” in Dresden in 1937 (that exhibit was actually mounted in 1933, but who’s keeping track?), and goes through the war and into the division of Germany, the era of Soviet influence and the building of the Berlin Wall.
But this isn’t really a movie about politics. It’s a movie about art, mostly, and by extension about love and life (and yes, politics) in Germany in the middle part of the 20th century. It’s a huge subject, and Donnersmarck tells it in a way that is slow, languid and ravishing, with cinematographer Caleb Deschanel casting a glow over good times and bad.
“You’re so beautiful it’s unromantic,” the lead character says to his love at one point. “It’s almost too easy to love you.” And in a way, “Never Look Away” is so beautiful it can be hard to love as well; a movie about so much bad stuff, you might think, shouldn’t be such a pleasure to watch.
But the style of the film is completely in keeping with something the beloved Aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) tells her young nephew, Kurt Barnert (a fictionalized version of German artist Gerhard Richter, played by Tom Schilling): “Never look away. Everything that’s true is beautiful.”
She says this while playing the piano in the nude, the kind of behavior that gets her sent to an asylum and then, in an era in which the Nazis were determined to weed out the inferior, to a death camp. Kurt survives the war and becomes an art student in divided postwar Germany, where once again the only officially sanctioned art is propaganda, albeit propaganda supporting a different system.
He also falls in love with a young fashion student, Ellie (Paula Beer), unaware that her father is the doctor who sent his aunt off to be killed. Their love story runs through the rest of the film, but it’s less central than Kurt’s quest to find art that truly means something to him — to find a voice by looking back in a place and time where looking back is a perilous task.
It’s a subject close to the one that brought out the best in Donnersmarck in “The Lives of Others,” but this is a dramatically different film: bigger and slower, more ambitious but also more challenging. The film lingers on every moment — and when Kurt and Ellie flee East Germany and he gets into a prestigious modern art school in Dusseldorf, the film moves at a crawl as Kurt sits through lectures and tries to discover his voice.
The approach can be frustrating, but there’s an elegance and richness that sustains “Never Look Away” even when it becomes so enamored of ideas that its emotions start to feel like an afterthought. And in the end, Donnersmarck has it both ways: He’s sentimental and he’s provocative, a craftsman who has something to say and it going to take his time saying it.