I agree with Jonah Goldberg that the “The Lives of Others” is the best Cold War movie, at least of those I’ve seen. Now, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who wrote and directed that film, has written and directed “Never Look Away.”
I wouldn’t call “Never Look Away” a Cold War movie. It encompasses the Cold War, but also World War II. And the last hour or so of this three-hour film has nothing much to do with the Cold War.
“Never Look Away” is mostly about art and memory, I think. But it’s certainly a political movie, as well. The film opens in the late 1930s with a Nazi denouncing “degenerate art.” The same basic denunciation is later presented by an art instructor at an East German academy in the 1950s.
The movie’s “heavy,” played by Sebastian Koch (who starred in “The Lives of Others”), mocks art. Koch’s character is indomitable. He shifts seamlessly from criminal Nazi doctor, to East German medical star, to eminent Western consultant. He doesn’t crack even under interrogation by the Soviets. But he flinches near the end of the film when art confronts him.
Armond White, also of NRO, dissents. He thinks both Donnersmarck films are overrated, and seems particularly annoyed by “Never Look Away.”
I see merit in some of White’s criticisms — there are too many Hollywood touches for my taste — but I disagree with overall assessments. His review is marred, I think, by the assumption that “Never Look Away” adopts the “work without author” theory of art. Yes, the German title translates as “Work Without Author.” But the film invites us to conclude that this is irony.
The protagonist (based on the German painter Gerhard Richter) doesn’t break through until his West German instructor reprimands him because his paintings “aren’t you.” And nothing could have been more connected to the protagonist’s breakthrough art than the “author’s” personal history.
White finds fault with “Never Look Away” because it eschews the artistic complexity and uncomfortable approach to storytelling of filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Call me middlebrow, but I didn’t mind a bit.