“Never Look Away” (Germany)
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Let’s start off by confessing my love for von Donnersmarck’s Academy Award-winning “The Lives of Others”. It is well ensconced in my Top Ten favorite films of all time. It is a small film about a big topic, told well, with amazing performances, perfect production values and an ending that punches you in the gut like few movies do. And now we have “Never Look Away” a film, that while not quite reaching the heights of “Lives”, is still far and away better than almost any film this year and a perfect follow-up to the former.
(yes, I’m pretending that the insipid film, “The Tourist,” was not his fault. FOUR writing credits on the film equals not his film.)
There are some missteps, which I’ll dispense with quickly. The film is about fifteen minutes too long, there is a ridiculous montage sequence at the end of the film’s second act and Tom Schilling doesn’t have the same magnetism or intrigue as the late, great Ulrich Mühe brought to “Others” (then again, who does?). But none of these negatively impact the emotional punch of the film. No, this is epic film-making at it’s best. In fact, it’s not a stretch to suggest that, in its historical scope and storytelling, it’s quite reminiscent of Leone’s great epics, “Once Upon A Time In the West” and “Once Upon A Time In America” (another of my Top Ten films).
This film, which could almost be called a prequel to “The Lives of Others”, spans the time period between Nazi control of Germany up to, and through, the moments the Soviet government of East Germany closed off West Berlin. But this is not a film about German history, or, rather, it’s a film in which German history acts as the motivating force underneath the actions of our characters. No, on a broad scale, this is a film about freedom of thought, creativity, and expression. And to achieve this, von Donnersmarck places our protagonist in the terrible position of being a brilliant and innately talented artist in an environment that exclusively rewarded technical ability, and did all it could to suppress creative expression. And, of course, what it means to be free of that restriction just a hundred feet away in the West.
But that’s the mile-high view. No less important is the film’s illustration of the culpability, generational challenges and intra-psychic guilt attached to living and thriving in Nazi Germany. It is in that context that the story possesses its drive and connection. In fact, there is a scene in the film’s last act where Sebastian Koch has as good and honest a fifteen second reaction as I’ve seen this year (well, perhaps bested by Emily Rios’ thirty seconds of screen time in “Beale Street”). The ability to make a film so of a larger world and, somehow, distill it in to the smallest pieces of dialogue and interplay between the smallest of cogs of that world is von Donnersmarck’s brand. And, MAN, is he good at it.
As one would expect, the film is beautifully conceived, shot and dressed. Going for a more diverse color pallette than “Others” (which, let’s face it, is a dark film in all ways), the director, and his veteran DP, Caleb Deschanel (yes, the same guy who photographed “Being There” in 1979), have painted pictures that are both of their time and of the artistic environment. In its three hours, my visual experience of the film never waned. Part of that success is due to “Lives of Others” production designer, Silke Buhr. Never one to over-do it, we get just as much of a period as is necessary to put us in this world (with the exception of an over-reach in one war scene); just occasional flashes and pictures of detail. You might say that’s what German films do in general…and you’d be correct. Just look at the German films of this century to make an impact here; “The Captain”, “Good Bye, Lenin!”, “Barbara”, “Hannah Arendt”, “Labyrinth of Lies”, and the just released, “Transit”. And on and on. Flashes and pictures of a place on the periphery of great story-telling. It’s a winning formula that our studios could learn from. FOCUS the design, don’t throw as much as you can at the screen. Take “Bridge of Spies”. Exact same time and place…sometimes the same corner. One of them tries too hard to prove we’re all there. The other simply has a detailed background, and then let’s the story and characters fill that space with specifics.
And there are some pretty great actors filling the skins of those characters. As mentioned, Tom Schilling (who is brilliant in the German limited series, “Generation War”) is perhaps a bit milquetoast here. He has a hard time showing the aging process of the character…and he occasionally broods a little too externally. But he does much more than acquit himself well; he succeeds in carrying a very weighty story all the way to a payoff that’s as effective as we hope. Saskia Rosendahl, in her fifteen minutes of screen time is unforgettable. Not a shock if you’ve seen her turn in 2012’s incredible journey-through-war picture, “Lore”. And the aforementioned Sebastian Koch is everything – and the perfect embodiment of the antagonist needed for this story and this time period. Never forgetting to be human, he, nonetheless, is terrifyingly obstinate. It’s these two wonderful performances that gives this tale its Leone-esque qualities. And elevates it to instant classic status.
Finally, there’s Max Richter’s score. I went in concerned, as his “Mary Queen of Scots” score is decidedly meh, maybe even worse than that. But, in fact, Richter has done some of his best work in this film. Sure, some of the themes channel Johannsson’s “Theory of Everything” music, but if you’re going to emulate something, you couldn’t do better than that. More importantly, like those Leone-Morricone classics, he has assigned themes to characters and moments…allowing us to refer to these touchstones throughout the film. It is, without a doubt, one of the best scores of the year. And it might have had a chance for Oscar glory if the Academy would ever consider compositions from foreign language films (hint hint).
Listen, I get it. This is a long commitment at just over three hours. But don’t let that deter you. It is a gorgeous, well-executed, complex and, ultimately, incredibly satisfying piece of cinematic art. And, hell, if you managed to get through all three hours of the vastly over-rated German comedy, “Toni Erdmann”, this should be a piece of streusel…because this movie is great. Really great.
Beware: the trailer has flashes of spoilers, so watch for tone, but don’t examine it too closely.