Never Look Away

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Never Look Away
Never Look Away (film).jpg
Theatrical release poster
GermanWerk ohne Autor
Directed byFlorian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Produced by
Written byFlorian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Music byMax Richter
CinematographyCaleb Deschanel
Edited byPatricia Rommel
Distributed by
Release date
  • 4 September 2018 (2018-09-04) (Venice)
  • 3 October 2018 (2018-10-03) (Germany)
Running time
188 minutes

Never Look Away (German: Werk ohne Autor, lit. 'Work Without Author') is a 2018 German coming-of-age romantic drama film written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. It was nominated for a Golden Lion at the 75th Venice International Film Festival[1][2] and for a Golden Globe by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. It was nominated for two Academy Awards at the 91st Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography categories.[3] This was only the second time that a German-language film by a German director was nominated for an Oscar in multiple categories, the other film being Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot 36 years prior.


As a small child during the Nazi era, protagonist Kurt Barnert (inspired by Gerhard Richter) visits the traveling exhibition "Entartete Kunst" ("Degenerate Art") in Dresden with his beautiful and eccentric young aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl). While there, Kurt is especially mesmerized by the Girl with Blue Hair, a modernist sculpture by Eugen Hoffmann. Later at home Kurt walks in on Elisabeth playing the piano in the nude. She suddenly appears mesmerized by playing the note A on the piano and begins to ramble in a euphoric way. Her mother then comes home and walks in as she is hitting herself on the head with a glass plate and begins bleeding, smiling, and saying she is "playing a concert for Hitler." It is unclear if she has suffered a breakdown of sorts or is mentally ill in general. She also tells Kurt to "never look away" because "everything that is true holds beauty in it". He will keep this advice close to his heart for the rest of his life.

Later his aunt is sterilized and eventually "euthanized" by the Nazis because she was certified by three experts to be schizophrenic. The doctor who orders her forced sterilization and sends her to her death is gynaecology Professor Carl Seeband, the Director of the Dresden Women's Clinic and a high-ranking honorary member of the SS medical corps.

After the war, Seeband is arrested by the Russians and briefly placed in a prison camp. While there, he volunteers to assist a Russian officer's wife during a complicated birth and saves the lives of both wife and child. The grateful Russian officer thereafter protects Seeband and releases him, but still suspecting him.

Meanwhile, Kurt begins to study painting at the Dresden Art School where he falls in love with a young fashion design student Elisabeth (Ellie), partly because she reminds him of the femininity of his aunt. To preserve her reputation after sleeping with her, he escapes through her bedroom window and is caught by her mother, who does not disclose their activity to Ellie's father. What Kurt does not know is that Ellie's father is Professor Seeband.

Kurt successfully continues his studies, but is forced to complete paintings that reflect socialist realism, an ideology and field of art with which he cannot come to terms. Although he is very good at it, he knows that he can never find his own voice through this kind of art.

Eventually, Kurt meets Elisabeth's father, who has left his Nazi past behind and now follows the socialist ideology of East Germany. Kurt still does not know that Carl Seeband is responsible for his aunt's death. Seeband does not approve of his daughter's relationship with Kurt, whom he sees as genetically inferior. He goes to great lengths in his attempts to destroy the relationship, even sabotaging his daughter's womb to keep her 'pure'. However, Kurt and Elizabeth's love grows even stronger and eventually the two get married.

Fearing prosecution after the Russian officer who protected him is transferred to Moscow, Seeband flees East Germany for West Germany. Shortly afterwards, Kurt and Elisabeth also flee to West Germany. Kurt does not know what kind of art he wants to make, but he knows that socialist realism is not it.

Since Kurt is already 30 years old, he has to lie about his age to be admitted to the famous Düsseldorf Art Academy. Here he can study and practice art more freely than in socialist Eastern Germany. His teacher (based on Joseph Beuys) recognizes Kurt's deep personal experience, but also sees that he is struggling to find his own voice, having been trained only in figurative painting, a medium considered outdated and "bourgeois" by the standards of the school. Kurt shares adjoining studio space with fellow student and confidant Günther Preusser (in a depiction of artist Günther Uecker), who was starting to experiment with hammering nails into boards to produce large artworks.

Only when Kurt finds a newspaper article about a captured Nazi doctor, Seeband's boss, does he have his artistic breakthrough. He starts using his figurative painting skills to copy black-and-white photographs onto the canvas, adding a mysterious sfumato blur. He also paints Seeband's passport photographs and photographs of his aunt from his own family album. When Seeband sees a collage painting of Kurt's aunt, the Nazi doctor, and himself, he flees, destroyed, believing his despised son-in-law of all people was able to uncover his greatest secret. However, Kurt may not have understood what he was doing, at least not on a conscious level. He realizes that when you are true to your artistic instinct, you can reach a truth your intellect could never hope to attain.

After years of infertility, Elisabeth becomes pregnant, and Kurt celebrates the moment she told him by painting her nude. Kurt gets his first art show where his art impresses the critics even though they completely misunderstand and misinterpret it. But he can look his past in the eye without fear and has finally found his voice. And that is all that matters to him.


Historical background[edit]

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck explained extensively that Never Look Away is a work of fiction but that the point of inspiration had been an article by famed German investigative reporter Jürgen Schreiber about the German painter Gerhard Richter. Richter's aunt Marianne Schönfelder had been murdered by the Nazis because she developed schizophrenia. Richter immortalized her in a painting titled Aunt Marianne in which the aunt is holding Gerhard Richter as a baby. This painting was originally released under the title Mother and Child because it was Richter's habit to obfuscate the connections his paintings had to his personal life. This led art historians to refer to his body of work as being "without author", as it purportedly had no connection to its author's life.[4]

What Jürgen Schreiber's investigative research uncovered in 2002 was that Gerhard Richter's father-in-law, Heinrich Eufinger (de), had been a high-ranking SS-doctor and fervent Nazi who himself performed over 900 forced sterilisations on women whom the Nazis considered unfit to reproduce. While he did not perform the operation on Marianne Schönfelder personally, he was the director of the hospital where it was performed.

Even though Gerhard Richter only found out about this connection between the families through the article at age 70, his body of work shows that – at least on a subconscious level – he must have known. One of his earliest paintings is of the arrest of Eufinger's SS boss, Werner Heyde, from a newspaper photograph. Another one from the same series, Family at the Seaside, is a snapshot from his wife's photo album showing her father, Professor Eufinger, horse-playing with his family, a photograph that is unremarkable except for the fact that it was taken around the exact time professor Eufinger sent Richter's aunt to her death.

Finally, the largest photo painting that Gerhard Richter produced before turning to abstract art was Ema, Nude on a Staircase (#134 in his official catalogue raisoné). Ema, short for "Marianne", was Gerhard Richter's wife and also shared her first name with Richter's aunt. Unusually for Gerhard Richter, this painting is dated very precisely to May 1966. Richter's first child was born on 30 December 1966, and Richter explained that this photograph was staged by him when he had found out that she was three months pregnant.[4] In a New Yorker profile of writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who spent many weeks with Gerhard Richter during his research for the film but never revealed anything about the content of these conversations, Gerhard Richter revealed surprisingly that "Ema's father had been her gynecologist, and that there were mysteries and rumors around the treatment that he provided her".[5]

Richter claimed that he told Donnersmarck that he did not want the movie character to bear his name. He also claims he suggested to Donnersmarck the film's protagonist might have another profession.[5] Donnersmarck read Richter the full screenplay when he was finished, so that Richter could see for himself how much was fiction and where facts from his life were used. But when the film was finished and Donnersmarck offered to arrange a screening, Richter said that he did not feel up to it and did not feel he had the strength to see the film. Donnersmarck stated that he understood this reaction, as few people would want to relive some version of the most traumatic chapters of their life on screen. He said that it would probably be hurtful if it was too close to the facts and perhaps even more hurtful if it was not close enough. "Maybe the film is for everybody except him".[5]

When asked for a comment by the German press, Richter said he had not seen the film but he found the trailer too "reißerisch", or thriller-like.[5] Commenting on the material he had supplied to Donnersmarck in interviews, Richter told The New Yorker: "I gave him something in writing stating that he was explicitly not allowed to use or publish either my name or any of my paintings. He reassured me to respect my wishes. But in reality, he has done everything to link my name to his movie, and the press was helping him to the best of its ability. Fortunately, the most important newspapers here reviewed his concoction very skeptically and critically. Nevertheless, he managed to abuse and grossly distort my biography!"[5]


Audience reaction[edit]

Final Professional Audience Poll for all films in Official Competition at the 75th Venice Film Festival.

At its very first screening, in Competition at the 75th Venice International Film Festival, Never Look Away received a 13-minute standing ovation[6] and came in first place.[7] Never Look Away also won audience awards at various festivals, mostly in competition with the same films it was up against in Venice.[8][9]

Professional reaction[edit]

The San Francisco Chronicle quotes The Exorcist director William Friedkin stating: "One of the finest films I have ever seen is Never Look Away – a masterpiece."[10] In an interview with Mingle Media, The Squid and the Whale producer and feminist critic site Cherrypicks founder Miranda Bailey called Never Look Away "the best movie I've ever seen, in my entire life – ever – in my whole life."[11]

Critical reaction[edit]

Never Look Away holds a 77% fresh rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 7.33/10 based on 132 reviews; the critics consensus states: "Never Look Away fills its protracted running time with the absorbing story of an incredible life - and its impact on the singular artist who lived it."[12] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 68 out of 100, based on 28 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[13]

Ann Hornaday writing in The Washington Post wrote: "The title of "Never Look Away" is deliciously ironic: This is one of the most mesmerizing, compulsively watchable films in theaters right now." Leonard Maltin who taught the film at his master class at USC Film School writes: "I urge you to see Never Look Away. It is a rich and rewarding experience, and the three hours fly by." In Commentary magazine, in an article called "The Greatness of Never Look Away – Triumphant", editor-in-chief John Podhoretz, compares Never Look Away favorably to David Lean's Doctor Zhivago and calls it "the rare movie you actually wish were longer because it is so involving, heart-wrenching, and beautiful." The novelist Kyle Smith, critic-at-large for the National Review, writes in an article titled "A New Cinematic Masterpiece": "The German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck already has one of the best films of the century to his credit: 2007’s The Lives of Others. His new one is, I think, even better. It may be the best German film I’ve ever seen. Never Look Away is the title." He goes on to state: "It's about the biggest themes (art, war, love, death), it's emotionally overwhelming, its dialogue is lapidary, its musical score transporting. It's one of the best films of the decade."[14]

Dissenting voices include contrarian critic Armand White for the National Review and David Edelstein, writing for New York magazine's website.[15] Boyd van Hoeij wrote in The Hollywood Reporter that "the work's considerations of the intimate connection among being, art and life finally feel quite superficial."[16]

Box office[edit]

Never Look Away reached a lifetime gross of US$1,303,747 and became the 15th German-language feature film to pass the million-dollar box-office mark.[17]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Year Award Category Result Ref.
2018 Venice Film Festival Leoncino d'Oro Won
2019 Young Cinema Award Best International Film Won
2019 Golden Globes Best Foreign Language Film Nominated
2019 Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film Nominated
2019 Academy Awards Best Cinematography Nominated

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Venice to Kick Off Awards Season With New Films From Coen Brothers, Luca Guadagnino and Alfonso Cuaron". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 25 July 2018.
  2. ^ "Venice Film Festival Lineup: Heavy on Award Hopefuls, Netflix and Star Power". Variety. Retrieved 25 July 2018.
  3. ^ "Oscars 2019: The nominees in full". BBC News. Retrieved 22 January 2019.
  4. ^ a b Elger, Dietmar (2008). Gerhard Richter, Maler. Köln: DuMont Buchverlag. ISBN 978-3-8321-9065-1.
  5. ^ a b c d e Goodyear, Dana (14 January 2019). "An Artist's Life, Refracted in Film". The New Yorker. Retrieved 20 September 2019.
  6. ^ "Filmpremiere "Werk ohne Autor": Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck ist der Löwe von Venedig". (in German). Retrieved 9 April 2019.
  7. ^ "File:Ciak Audience Poll 76th Venice Film Festival.jpg", Wikipedia, retrieved 9 April 2019
  8. ^ "Programma | Leiden International Film Festival". (in Dutch). Retrieved 9 April 2019.
  9. ^ "ACADEMY SCREENINGS 2018". Aspen Film. Retrieved 9 April 2019.
  10. ^ 12 February, G. Allen Johnson; February 14, 2019 Updated; 2019; Pm, 12:44. "'Never Look Away': a sweeping but flawed epic inspired by Gerhard Richter". Datebook | San Francisco Arts & Entertainment Guide. Retrieved 9 April 2019.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  11. ^ Red Carpet Report on Mingle Media TV (13 January 2019), Miranda Bailey interviewed at the 44th Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards #LAFCA2019, retrieved 10 April 2019
  12. ^ "Never Look Away (2019)", Rotten Tomatoes, retrieved 8 March 2020
  13. ^ "Never Look Away". Metacritic. 1 April 2019. Retrieved 20 September 2019.
  14. ^ "Never Look Away, A New Cinematic Masterpiece". National Review. 17 January 2019. Retrieved 10 April 2019.
  15. ^ "Look Away From Never Look Away". Retrieved 10 April 2019.
  16. ^ "'Never Look Away' ('Werk ohne Auteur'): Film Review, Venice 2018". The Hollywood Reporter. 4 September 2018. Retrieved 20 September 2019.
  17. ^ "Foreign Language Movies at the Box Office - Box Office Mojo". Retrieved 7 June 2019.

External links[edit]