Never Look Away (aka Werk ohne Autor) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
The truth is beautiful and you should never look away from it.
These are the words that the young Kurt hears from his insane aunt amid the Nazi occupation, said while she is nude and cracking a plate over her head just before being hauled off to the hospital. She will later be sentenced to death for the Nazi eugenics program. There’s another interesting talk that Kurt observes from an art gallery tour guide, about how paintings are pointless if they do not enrich the soul, talking badly about all the art on display, arguing that it does nothing to better the soul. Kurt doesn’t care. He loves art and heeds the words of his aunt that will come in handy for growing older.
When the Nazi rule passes, Kurt finds himself older and experiencing a similar euphoria as his aunt about finding and losing the true meaning of everything. His family is worried that he has the same problem as his aunt, burdened with an eccentricity for understanding the world that only a few years ago would have bought him a death sentence. Deciding to dig deeper, Kurt pursues schooling for becoming an artist. But not just any artist, as he wants to embrace the new wave of experimental art forms to find something that will give his exploding mind a chance to be deciphered and expressed. It won’t be an easy journey but one worth pursuing how he feels a stronger connection to the truth when painting something he feels will be genuine.
While attending school, he falls for the beautiful Ellie and she becomes an inspiration for him as the two soon form a passionate romance. But there’s a problem as her father happens to be Professor Carl, the doctor responsible for putting Kurt’s aunt to death. Kurt doesn’t know this about Carl and Carl doesn’t make the connection either. What Carl does know is that he feels this boy Kurt isn’t right for his daughter and not just because he disapproves of the art. He just can’t shake the eugenics work by looking upon Kurt with those same judgemental eyes of the Nazi era, refusing to let that part of him go. But the past isn’t all rosy, especially when it comes to bite him back later.
Never Look Away takes place over the course of forty years and has a lot to say over its three hours. There’s plenty of time to understand how Kurt’s basis for thinking and his perceptions of art were formed to make him favor the wild and weird world of art most out-there. We also get to know the era and feel Kurt’s emotions about the shifting winds of politics, the divide of Germany, and the emptiness of art without meaning, where the betterment of the soul feels hallow among works that don’t carry a genuine nature. It’s also pleasing to see how Kurt’s struggle for himself comes with a developing charm for how he makes love to Ellie and has a blast with his artist comrades. Meanwhile, we see that while Carl may have at once had a compassion for his work, his bitterness breeds underneath without fully coming to terms with his past actions until that shocking and fulfilling moment when all is revealed.
The room to breathe with a film this large in scope allows for an almost light sense of humanity within tragedy, art, politics, and love. I felt as though I gained enough of an understanding that there’s more of a natural flow to Kurt’s hunt for meaning that comes with its own sensations of depression, desperation, inspiration, and passion. And I must admit it was deeply satisfying to see a Nazi doctor have revenge set upon him, not through a vicious slaughter but with art that makes a true statement that shocks the soul. That slow burn has a more satisfying sting amid the film’s grander and broader message about embracing that which we know is honest among those who keep silent.