One of the most sweeping and engaging historical epics made in recent years, “Never Look Away,” follows a young boy growing up in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s only to become a man during the tumultuous 1950s and finally find his true calling in life as an artist in the 1960s.
There are as many really worthy foreign films as there are regular films on a monthly basis. Some of them never see the light of day domestically. “Never Look Away” not only makes the cut, but has limited distribution through Sony Pictures Classics.
Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck previously wowed audiences with “The Lives of Others,” and he makes quite a similar impression here. Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel earned the film one of its two Oscar nominations.
When “Never Look Away” (“Werk ohne Autor”) starts, the audience focuses on Ellie (Paula Beer, whom audiences might remember from the film “Frantz”) a German teen who looks so blue-eyed and normal she’s chosen to give Hitler flowers as his motorcade goes by in a parade.
Ellie has a close relationship with her young nephew, who becomes the focus of the film after a wrenching first act. Ellie, who struggles with mental illness, eventually becomes part of a Nazi extermination mandate. One of the film’s strongest scenes includes her death early in the film as she’s gassed next to other victims of the purge, including those with physical and mental deformities.
The irony isn’t just how she dies, it’s confounded by the fact that as her nephew Kurt (Tom Shilling in a career making performance comes of age he interacts with the surgeon who signed her death warrant while never realizing this fact.
“Never Look Away” doesn’t pull punches with some of its more brutal scenes involving medical procedures. The film’s never graphic so much as the themes present startling and unsettling realities.
Another recent film, “Cold War,” depicted a border crossing from East to West Berlin. In “Never Look Away,” the crossing is made in the days leading up to the construction of the Berlin Wall in August of 1961.
Kurt and his wife make their way from East Germany to Düsseldorf. Soon, Kurt finds himself accepted into a prestigious art school. This is a sequence you don’t want to end due to the sense of discovery of what makes an artist, well, artistic.
With the help of a wise teacher who takes Kurt under his wing, as well as the support of his wife, the story takes a very inspirational tone. Like all good stories, this one has a villain who hides in plain site.
Von Donnersmarck’s expert use of narrative makes the audience aware of things the characters will never consider.
“Never Look Away” opens exclusively this weekend at the River Oaks Theatre.