Never Look Away…until the last hour

B- Epic historical drama
Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck


This three-hour sweeping tale of art, love, Communism, and Nazis starts out strong. You think you’re watching an excellent historical drama about how Nationalist Socialism replaced culture with cruelty. It manages to hold that level of quality for a full hour. The second hour of this German epic is still very good. But with a few exceptions, the last hour becomes a slog.

When you’re tempted to look at your watch during an enthusiastic, full nude sex scene, you know something has gone terribly wrong.

We meet the young child Kurt (Cai Cohrs) in Dresden, Germany, 1937. The Nazis are doing away with “decadent” art. They’re also doing away with people with mental problems, and that includes Kurt’s beloved and very sexy aunt (Saskia Rosendahl in a small but heart-wrenching performance).

The film will cover almost 30 years of Kurt’s life, and during that time his life will intertwine in strange ways with that of the brilliant gynecologist (Sebastian Koch). As an SS doctor during the war, he ordered Kurt’s aunt’s incarceration – effectively her execution. Long after the Nazis are gone, the bad doctor’s behavior will hurt Kurt and those he loves.

We meet the adult Kurt (Tom Schilling) after the war. He’s an artist, a painter studying in the bombed-out Dresden. The Soviet-controlled East German government wants artists, but they don’t want individuals. Socialist Realism is the only type of art allowed, and Kurt’s soul rebels.

Kurt also falls very mutually in love with Ellie (Paula Beer). It’s the sort of love where when they’re together, they can barely keep their clothes on. When they first meet, Ellie lives with her parents, so they must hide their very athletic activities. And even when they’ve been married together for years, they just can’t get their hands off each other.

Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck even manages a couple of times to bring short moments of humor into these scenes. Cinema has very few intentionally funny, nude, sex scenes. There should be more.

About two hours into the film, the now-married couple escape to West Germany. Good for the couple, but bad for the film. After surviving the Nazis and escaping the Communists, watching a young artist trying to discover his talent can only be anticlimactic.

The final hour contains a few good scenes, mostly involving the gynecologist, an eccentric art teacher, and Kurt finally discovering his medium. But most of that last hour isn’t worth watching, or – if you include the sex scenes – nothing worth watching again.

The title comes from something the beloved aunt tells the young Kurt: That he should never look away from anything frightening. That message will help him as an artist.

With some judicious cutting, Never Look Away would have made a very good historical epic. But at three hours and nine minutes, it has problems.

Never Look Away opens Friday at the Clay.