Never Look Away
R0 - Australia - Umbrella Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (3rd January 2021).
The Film

"Never Look Away" ("Werk ohne Autor") (2018)

Kurt Barnert (played by Tom Schilling) has always had an interest in art, especially painting from a young age. This was particularly due to his aunt Elisabeth (played by Saskia Rosendahl) who took him to art museums as a child. Unfortunately as she was certified as schizophrenic, the Nazi German government executed her in a gas chamber. But her spirit long remained in Kurt and once he enrolls in a university, he decides to pursue his love for painting in postwar East Germany. It is there that he meets Ellie (played by Paula Beer), a fellow student studying fashion that he falls head over heels for. Her father Prof. Carl Seeband (played by Sebastian Koch) is a doctor specializing in gynecology. Protective of his daughter and initially not approving of the relationship between Kurt and Ellie, there is much more between the three than expected, as Prof. Seeband was the doctor responsible for sending Kurt's aunt to the gas chamber during the war.

Loosely based on the life of landmark German painter Gerhard Richter) whose work in abstract art and in photorealistic paintings were acclaimed at the time and even in the modern day. While names were changed, there were quite a lot of connections to the finished film. Richter's aunt was executed by the Nazis due to her schizophrenia diagnosis. His first wife shared the same name as his aunt. His first wife's father was a gynecologist and worked at the hospital where his aunt was admitted. The painting of Richter's wife on the stairs and the painting of Richter as a child held by his aunt were recreated for the film, with Richter's assistant also helping with the production. Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck spent a great deal of time researching about Richter's art and life for the production and also interviewed Richter for additional background. Richter didn't want his name to be attached to the character in the film as there were a lot of fictional elements interspersed with the facts for dramatic recreation and artistic liberty. "Never Look Away" is not a true account of Richter's life and art, but inspired heavily by it and is a truly emotional and stunning epic with rich and detailed characters and settings.

The structure of the film is completely in a linear form, starting with Kurt's childhood and his aunt being taken away and later executed. As there are few moments of cutting to flashbacks, there is a lengthy period without Kurt and instead the focus being on Prof. Seeband and his work at the hospital and his life in prison following the war. Interestingly the supposed main character of Kurt is not seen again until about 45 minutes into the film. From that point on, Prof. Seeband is not seen again until another 30 minutes later when the two characters with a dark connection in the past finally cross paths. As the film has a runtime of a little over three hours, there is enough time given for each of the characters in extended segments. In addition, seeing Kurt's character's art starting to shine comes quite late into the film. He is not a prodigy, but a learner from observation and the narrative gives time for the character to grow over a period of years, from entering university in East Germany to his emigrating to West Germany to study art with a whole new liberal perspective in Dusseldorf - a far cry from the social realism that he was brought up with and taught in the east. Seeing the character of Kurt's art progress is fascinating as well, as he tries to find his voice in a very crowded place in the world. In addition, the story of Prof. Seeband seems like a completely separate tale yet happening alongside Kurt's story. His Nazi affiliation and having to perform sterilization of subjects and order others to be executed, his affiliation to the Nazi party led him to being arrested for war crimes. But after he saves Major Murawjow's (played by Evgeniy Sidikhin) baby, the Russian officer is indebted to Seeband's hands and protects him from persecution. While in the postwar period Seeband is able to live comfortably again, he does have secrets to hide about his work during the war and things could be upheaved at any time.

For the audience there is no mystery between the connection of the two characters. It is not a melodrama to explode with vengeance and it is not a detective story. When the time comes, there is a point of realization, but this is a story of differing parallels and it's expressed with simplicity in design yet complexity in character. The actors do a magnificent job with the characters, giving each life and depth. Much can be discussed about cinematographer Caleb Deschanel's beautiful work behind the lens, with a wonderful use of bright colors as well as dark sequences at night or indoors for intimacy. The orchestral score by Max Richter is wonderful as well, bringing a soothing beauty to the piece in a non-obtrusive way. There is very little if any to fault with "Never Look Away", and it is no wonder the film received such high acclaim with each screening. The English, which is very different from the German "Werk ohne Autor" comes from a line said by the character of Elisabeth to Kurt and is brought in a flashback a well. The German title, which translates as "Anonymous Work" refers to a quote by a journalist near the end of the film, commenting on the works created by the character of Kurt and reflecting on the real-life Richter's works with recreations of photographs with distortion.

"Never Look Away" premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2018 where it received a 13 minute standing ovation. It later screened in Toronto and Zurich film festivals before opening in general release in Germany in October to rave reviews. Theatrically it grossed more than $1 million in the United States alone, making it one of the few German language films to cross that mark. It also received two Academy Award nominations, for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography, making it the second German language production to have more than one Oscar nomination after "Das Boot" and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's second Best Foreign Language Film nomination following his critically acclaimed debut film "The Lives of Others" from 2006.

This is a region 0 NTSC DVD

Video

Umbrella Entertainment presents the film in the 1.80:1 aspect ratio in the NTSC format. Rather than the theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio which should have thin black bars on the top and bottom of a widescreen display. Instead this transfer has a very thin black bar on the top only. Shot on an Arri Alexa XT Plus digitally and color corrected to have a filmic look in post-production, this is a very vibrant and bright looking film even when dealing with some dark subject matter at times. From the bright greens of the leaves and grass to the reds of the Nazi flag, the colors certainly pop, and detail is very good. The transfer of the film to a dual layer DVD does have its limitations in standard definition, with some detail not looking as vibrant and crisp as an HD presentation would be, but it certainly gets the job done here.

The film's runtime is 188:42.

Audio

German Dolby Digital 5.1
The original German language track (with some minor additional portions in Russian, Italian, and others) is presented in 5.1. The score by Max Richter comes in very nicely through the surrounds, and is well balanced with the dialogue, presented in the center channel throughout. The surrounds are also used for other effects well, and never overbearing. There are no issues of dropout or other problems with the track.

There are burned-in English HoH subtitles for the main feature. Yes, unfortunately these are not standard English translation subtitles but also include [sound effects] or [character name] in the track. They are also burned-in in a light yellow font with occasional passages in white. For foreign language films it is never a good option to only have a hard-of-hearing subtitle option only, and being burned-in they can cause blurriness on wider displays especially when upconverted from standard to high definition. As for the translation there seem to be no spelling or grammar errors to speak of.

Extras

Unfortunately no extras are provided on the disc. The film starts when the disc is inserted and the disc stops when the film ends.


The film was released on Blu-ray, including in Germany by Disney which had two short featurettes, in the US by Sony which had a Q&A with the director and in the UK by Modern Films which had a differing Q&A with the director. Umbrella Entertainment has ported none of them over for this release.

Packaging

The packaging states region 4 only, but is in fact a region 0 disc.

Overall

"Never Look Away" is a powerful and extremely satisfying drama of two forces - one looking at an artist finding his voice and another of a man with past demons haunting him. It emotionally hits a variety of notes through excellent performances and direction with beautiful cinematography and music. The Umbrella Entertainment DVD is sadly lacking any special features, and the burned-in English HoH subtitles are less than ideal.

The Film: A Video: B+ Audio: A- Extras: F- Overall: C

 


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