Never Look Away Review

Cast: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl

Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck


I’ll be the first to admit, regardless of the accolades this movie has received, I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of watching a 188 minute foreign-language film.  There aren’t too many movies that need to be longer than 150 minutes, so I had expectations that Never Look Away would be pretentious and full of itself trying to stretch out its story to unnecessary length.  Boy was I wrong.  Sure the 188 minute runtime drags a bit at times, but Never Look Away is easily one of the captivating and passionate projects of the year.  

The film follows the life of Kurt Barnert (Schilling), growing up in Nazi Germany in World War II and eventually ending up an aspiring painter in communist East Germany.  Through his struggles, Kurt starts to come into his own and find art that represents his past yet portrays an honest reality of the world around him.  Even though the runtime feels longer than necessary, every minute of this movie matters as scenes from the first 30 minutes remain relevant for the final 2 ½ hours.  Specifically, the second act is one of the most intriguing hours of cinema I’ve watched in a very long time.  There are multiple themes on display in this act and they all have enough breathing room where they can be fully developed and the full weight of the situation can be shown to the audience.  Whether this is the progression of Kurt’s art, his reflection of past events, or the dynamics of his relationship with his girlfriend Ellie Seeband (Beer) and her disapproving father Professor Carl Seeband (Koch), none of these themes feel rushed and Never Look Away accurately shows us just how these ideas overlap with one another.  Speaking of Carl Seeband, he may be one of the most despicable characters in years and this is almost exclusively due to how Koch portrays the brilliantly written character.  Very rarely do I wish that a character would suffer like I hoped that Carl would, but this is in large part due to the way he was written and the way Koch responded to the script.  Carl is a notorious scumbag and there’s not a single person out there that should be rooting for him and I applaud Koch for embracing the film and treating the role as it should be treated.  Outside of Koch and the story, it’s appropriate that a film about art looks as artistic as it feels.  There’s a reason why this movie was nominated for Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards and based on what’s on display here the nomination was certainly deserved.  There are a combination of beautiful shots and a soothing score and when these elements come together we get a movie that sounds and looks as good as it feels.  Movies like Never Look Away wouldn’t get made unless there was a level of passion exuding from every member of those involved, and fortunately for everyone who takes the dive and commits themselves to this film, the passion is very easy to spot.

Overall, Never Look Away won’t be breaking any American box office records anytime soon, but it should be able to inspire anyone to pick up a paintbrush or visit their local art museum.  I can barely draw a stick figure, so looking at the beauty this film portrays at almost every angle shows us once again why we have to be open-minded and willing to accept the teachings of other cultures.  Never Look Away is one of the rare foreign-language films where the emotions transcend the language and provide an interesting story and set of characters regardless of how much of a time commitment it is.

Overall Score: 8/10

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