Never Look Away”, new film from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

Nev­er Look Away.

The Lives of Oth­ersFlo­ri­an Henck­el von Don­ners­mar­ck’s fea­ture debut from 2006,was one of the stand­out films of the last decade. His fol­low-up, The Tourist from 2010, star­ring John­ny Depp and Angeli­na Jolie, and cost­ing over 100 mil­lion dol­lars, wasn’t mere­ly dis­ap­point­ing, it man­aged some­how to pass every­one by, going com­plete­ly un-noticed. 

The Lives of Others.

Which was quite a feat giv­en its cast and cost. So was that debut a chance acci­dent of con­verg­ing tal­ents, or did it gen­uine­ly her­ald the arrival of a seri­ous film maker? 

In his new film, Nev­er Look Away, Tom Schilling plays Kurt, an artist strug­gling under the restric­tions of life in post-war East Ger­many. Mar­ried to the daugh­ter of a for­mer SS offi­cer, who does every­thing he pos­si­bly can to sab­o­tage their union, they flee to free­dom in the West. 

There’s lit­tle enough to get excit­ed about in cin­e­ma these days, so when you do seem to have stum­bled upon an actu­al find, you cross your fin­gers that who­ev­er it is turns out to be the gen­uine arti­cle. So I des­per­ate­ly want­ed to be wowed by Nev­er Look Away. But it’s felled, alas, by two fatal flaws.

Sirk’s Imi­ta­tion of Life.

First, it’s a melo­dra­ma. Per­son­al­ly, I love melo­dra­ma, it’s prob­a­bly my favourite genre, being to cin­e­ma what coun­try is to music. And Ger­many has a proud tra­di­tion of bril­liant melodrama. 

On the one hand, there are those glo­ri­ous, Tech­ni­col­or weepies that Dou­glas Sirk made in Hol­ly­wood in the 1950s; All That Heav­en Allows (’55), Writ­ten on the Wind (’56) and Imi­ta­tion of Life (‘59). Glo­ri­ous­ly over the top, unashamed­ly man­nered and defi­ant­ly the­atri­cal. “You don’t believe in the hap­py end­ing,” Sirk said of that last named, “and you’re not sup­posed to(!)

Fass­binder’s the Bit­ter Tears of Petra von Kant.

And on the oth­er, there are those flur­ry of do-it-your­self, hand­made films that Rain­er Wern­er Fass­binder pro­duced in the 70s, before burn­ing so spec­tac­u­lar­ly out at the ten­der age of 37. Films like Fear Eats the Soul (’74), Despair (’78) and the peer­less the Bit­ter Tears of Petra von Kant (’72). Arche­typ­al­ly art house, brazen­ly intel­lec­tu­al and com­fort­ably, almost casu­al­ly avant garde. 

The prob­lem with Nev­er Look Away is that it is nei­ther fish nor fowl, falling mid­way between those two twin poles. Much of it is glo­ri­ous­ly sil­ly, but how inten­tion­al that is, is impos­si­ble to say. What, for instance, are we to make of the fact that the artists Kurt meets on his arrival in the West look like they’ve stepped out of one of those paint­ings pro­duced back in the Com­mu­nist East, that they are sup­posed to be cri­tiquing? And what about that end­ing – no spoil­ers -? Are we meant to smile know­ing­ly, à la Sirk, or are we sup­posed to take it seri­ous­ly? In short, it’s a film that des­per­ate­ly wants to be tak­en seri­ous­ly, but devotes its entire ener­gy into mere­ly look­ing won­drous­ly pretty.

David Lynch’s Dune, which is every bit as bad as that poster suggests.

It’s not hard to see where the project went wrong. Don­ners­mar­ck befriend­ed the great Ger­man artist Ger­hard Richter, inter­view­ing him at length, which you can read about in the New York­er pro­file here. But with what in mind? That inti­ma­cy meant that he was then inca­pable of pro­duc­ing a dis­tanced, warts and all biopic of the man. So instead, he made a fic­tion­alised film about some­one quite like, but not actu­al­ly, Richter. The result is polite, well man­nered and extreme­ly dull. It’s not even the sort of spec­tac­u­lar fail­ure that we got with Dune. Which some­how makes it even more of a disappointment. 

Hope­ful­ly, just as David Lynch did after Dune, Don­ners­mar­ck will go back to the sort of small, inti­mate film that he began with. But as of now, so far as his gifts as a film mak­er go, the jury is very much out. He seems, at least for the moment, to be more of a Dar­ren Aronof­sky than he does an Asghar Farhadi.

You can see the trail­er for Nev­er Look Away here.

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