Never Look Away
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Never Look Away

In 1933 an exhibition of so-called “Degenerate Art” — as in art that the newly empowered Nazi party considered antithetical Down a Dark Hall to its values — took place in Dresden. Transposed slightly to 1937, this show, complete with stiff-necked tour guide (Lars Eidinger) explaining the worthlessness of the paintings to a crowd caught between socially-mandated disapproval and private titillation, provides the perfect opening for Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s return to the welcoming embrace of Germany’s historical past. Coming after a brief, best-forgotten dalliance with Hollywood with “The Tourist,” after “The Lives of Others” won the foreign-language Oscar in 2007, “Never Look Away” has already been selected as this year’s German Oscar hopeful. And it is all about the three-way tussle between art, history and politics, though in form, Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film, as classical and dignified a three-hour-plus, generations-spanning drama as you will meet, could not be less “degenerate.”

Visiting the exhibition are beloved young aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) and her artistically inclined little nephew Kurt Black 47 (Cai Cohrs). Kurt will remember how, on their way home, Elisabeth prevailed upon an assembly of bus drivers to sound their horns in unison, so she could stand glorying in the blare. This odd ritual is evidence of her free spirit, but later takes on a darker edge as a potential symptom of the schizophrenia that will see her forcibly committed. It is her further misfortune to be assigned to SS doctor-on-the-make, Professor Carl Seeband (“Lives of Others” star Sebastian Koch). Disquieted by her insightful remarks regarding his own daughter, he orders Elisabeth sterilized, and places a small red “x” on her file, essentially condemning her to death as soon as her place in the hospital is required by a “more valuable” member of society.

Her state-sanctioned murder casts a shadow over Kurt’s family that extends long after the war ends and Dresden becomes Moonlight part of the newly-formed East Germany. Now a young man, Kurt (Tom Schilling, “A Coffee In Berlin”) works briefly as a sign painter before joining the Dresden art academy where he learns a communist ethos on art that differs little from that of the Nazis. One of the subtler strengths of “Never Look Away” is the canny evocation of a war-weary, defeated population who did not experience communism as a revolution but a substitution. The insignia and the catechisms changed, but the underlying attitudes remained grotesquely similar in their callous prioritization of dogma over decency.

Never Look Away