‘Never Look Away’: Finding the Meaning of Art, Love, and Truth after Trauma

Warning: Spoilers.

At the most basic level, Never Look Away was a simple love story. Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) went to college, met a beautiful young woman, fell in love, experienced difficulties in work and home, but in the end overcomes them all. Most love stories, however, don’t involve the bombing of Dresden, gas chambers, eugenics, abortion, and weighing the merits of capitalism vs. socialism.

Even more, the film was rich with subtextual contemplations on the intersections between truth and art, and life and death. Kurt, Ellie, and all the other characters had to grow up and move on in a Germany that was engulfed in and scarred by extreme tension and conflict. By trying to broach these numerous difficult topics, Never Look Away made full use of its over three-hour runtime. And the end product made it all worth it.

Starting just before World War II, Never Look Away quickly presented the audience with assertions about truth that were emblematic of the postmodernist philosophy which sprouted up in Europe after the horrors of the War. How do we know what is true? How do our experiences paint what is true? Does it matter if we know the full truth? Are there some truths that we can feel but not logically know? These questions created a common thread repeatedly spoken in different ways, both orally and visually, by many of the side characters throughout the 30 years the film covers.

Kurt’s aunt Elisabeth, the catalyst to his love of art and his lifelong pain, frequently encouraged him to “never look away.” The Nazis in Dresden called modern art forms “degenerate” because they did not portray life realistically, while Elisabeth argued that those paintings were the truest and most beautiful of them all. The Nazis and Soviet occupiers later focused on their own ideas of Realism. They had no use for subtext, no need for civilians to look for truth below the reality that the leaders wanted to create. They knew that the more abstract artists were something to fear because, although they didn’t necessarily explicitly say something, they reached a deeper, more powerful truth that can’t be controlled by propaganda and bureaucracy.  

During the most traumatic moments of young Kurt’s life, his mom tried to cover his eyes, but he listened to Elisabeth and kept looking. As a teenager, with Elisabeth long gone, a contemplative Kurt excitedly had an epiphany regarding what truth and beauty really meant. His sketches appeared to be approaching the idea of speaking his personal truth, but this was quickly squashed when he joins the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts. Under control of the USSR, Soviet Realism was the only true art form. Even though Kurt excelled at it, eventually getting paid nicely for painting large murals, he remained unfulfilled. West Germany sounded like it offered much more artistic openness and freedom.    

From the beginning of the film, it was clear that Never Look Away was not going to make a simple assertion that socialists were evil and capitalists were perfect. The Allied Powers’ bombing of Dresden is juxtaposed with the Nazis’ mass killing of disabled women, both horrifying slaughters of innocent people. Books have been written about the strained relationship between truth and war; it was no mistake that the scenes were cut together. The more open, capitalist ideals in the West were actually just as constraining to Kurt at first, creating another parallel between the two ideological sides. By saying painting is a dead medium, the Dusseldorf School was constraining artistic expression in the same way that the forced realism was for Kurt in East Germany.

He first tried to take the abstract route he saw throughout Dusseldorf. The pieces looked unique, but Professor Antonius van Verten (Oliver Masucci) only needed a quick glance to tell that this was not genuine, “true”, and therefore not beautiful. Through a wonderful monologue, Professor van Verten revealed his own past scars (figuratively and literally) that Kurt was repressing within himself.

After staring at blank canvases, the combination of a happy accident and the sad past he hid away created the art form that finally allows Kurt to tell his truth and begin to heal. Paintings of pictures that were nearly perfect recreations, but blurred, the way the world appeared after he removed hands from covering his eyes many years before. When his father-in-law Professor Seeband spotted his face superimposed with Elisabeth and Dr. Kroll, he felt discovered and nearly fainted. Kurt managed to communicate a real, deep-seated anger he didn’t even know deserved to be directed at his father-in-law.

At Kurt’s gallery opening, a TV news reporter filmed a segment in front of one of Kurt’s work. He appeared somewhat interested but also gave one final critique of modern art forms; it was the first time there are “works without an author,” as Kurt said the gallery was all random photographs. Yet again, the “truth” ascertained from the art was influenced by outside forces, objectively wrong, yet subjectively giving a unique impression appreciated by those who viewed it. Nevertheless, the many viewers of the paintings were left emotionally moved. Perhaps director Henckel von Donnersmarck was arguing that truth and beauty are more easily ascertained through feeling than knowing.

The central criticism I have for Never Look Away was the seeming lack of interest the film gave to the women’s experiences. Poor Ellie’s life is completely dictated by Kurt and her father’s discretion. Kurt even forces her to let him use her nickname without giving an explanation. Kurt’s first thought after Ellie announces her pregnancy is “now you belong to me completely,” which he quickly recanted after he received a glare. Her forced abortion (most evil father ever) was devastating, but also means that Kurt could continue to focus on how to get out of his mural painting rut. Once they commit to each other, their lives become all about his journey through the art world, while he showed very little interest in hers.

Ellie’s miscarriage and realization that she may never be able to have a child paralleled Kurt’s loss of false confidence with abstract painting and realization that he may never find his true art expression. His art was so much in the forefront that Ellie told Kurt that his art needed to be their children, even though she is apparently just as talented in her own artistic field. She began her career as a simple factory seamstress, but progressed in the background to the point where she seemed to be making her own fashionable designs. Yet the happiest moments we saw of her were when she was with their child, and as an object of his art.

Kurt’s mother also got short shrift as the film progresses. She was a kind, loving mother who lost her two older sons in the War, her sister to the eugenics program, and then found her husband after he hanged himself. And what did Kurt do? Almost immediately moved out, and escaped to West Germany as soon as he can. There’s never another mention of her. This was probably best explained as the extreme lengths he went to so he could repress the past horrors he experienced, but still, it’s his mom!

Aside from these issues and a few nitpicks (how did no other foreign agent connect the name Seeband to the eugenics program?), the story was fluid and gripping throughout. The film did end without all of tensions resolved, unlike most romantic dramas. In keeping with the rest of the film, “truth” remained very subjective. Kurt still didn’t know his father-in-law murdered his aunt, while the artistic community was unaware that Kurt’s paintings were all deeply personal. In Kurt’s art, as in his life, the appearance of beauty arose from dark, tragic truths, a feeling that arose from within but could be seen by anyone who looks hard enough.

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