Can I, in good conscience, recommend you watch the first 2 ½ hours of a movie that’s not very good so you can get to the last half-hour, which is splendid? That’s the situation with “Never Look Away,” a title that, as the film drags on, almost becomes a challenge.
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film is an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film, but that might have more to do with lingering affection for his gripping (and Oscar-winning) “The Lives of Others.” This, unfortunately, is a wan, ersatz biopic, planned as a movie about the twisty life of German painter Gerhard Richter but rejiggered when the artist declined to cooperate. It ended up in a fact/fiction gray area that needlessly embroiders the jaw-dropping details of Richter’s life and makes use of paintings that ape his style but are credited to a fictitious artist named Kurt Barnert.
The involved drama resists summary, but here’s a stab: As a child, Barnert’s beloved, schizophrenic aunt is sterilized and then killed by the Nazis. Later, as a young mural painter, he falls in love with a woman who, unbeknown to either of them, is the daughter of the man who ordered Barnert’s aunt killed. Barnert is bored of painting East-Germany-is-totally-awesome murals but can’t find his voice as an artist until he stumbles upon the idea of creating skewed, large-scale works based on photographs that he claims are randomly chosen but that actually divulge the secrets of his life. Eventually, the paintings lead to the capture of his Nazi father-in-law, who, it’s revealed, committed crimes against his own family as well as against humanity.
That’s a lot to pack into one movie, and it often has to skip past something major and interesting because it needs to cram in eight or nine more major and interesting things before it gets to a plot twist that will change everything we know about the characters. Somewhere in the decision to alter Richter’s life, von Donnersmarck has invented plot details that are simply too hard to swallow.
One laugh-out-loud example, among many: The Nazi doctor orders Kurt to help him fake a passport so he can avoid capture, then sits down to dinner in a restaurant, whereupon a convenient street urchin wanders into the swank restaurant to yell out the headline that the Nazi doctor’s last remaining uncaptured colleague has been just been arrested, meaning Nazi Doc better hit the road pronto. It’s efficient storytelling, I suppose, but it’s also fake storytelling.
“Never Look Away” has a honeyed visual beauty (Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography is also Oscar-nominated), and it has an unusual sort of suspense because we spend much of the movie wondering if the characters will learn facts that we are privy to but they are not. We also wonder when Kurt will find his style as an artist.
Those things come to a head in the final 30 minutes of the movie, which begins to develop the thrills the rest of the movie lacks. In those scenes, the movie captures the hard work of an artist and even manages a callback to the early scenes, in which Kurt’s aunt gave him the credo that defines his art: “Everything that’s true is beautiful.”
Which raises the question: Why is so much of this movie not true? Why, in other words, didn’t it listen to its own message?