One could say that Never Look Away is a straight up biography of the visual artist Gerhard Richter, but it isn’t. It toes the line at times. The places where it chooses to color the gaps are the same places that are most Disneyfied, but in a slightly more European way: the film was distributed by Disney in Austria and Germany. It embellishes on the horribly sad parts of the main character’s life, and stretches out the drama of art school beyond its welcome. Also, the movie is three hours long. If you can make it through The Sound of Music you certainly can get through this movie.
Gerhard Richter is famous for describing his paintings as photography by other means, and for his contributions to the advancement of contemporary art in post-WWII Germany. His paintings are copies of photographs by “anonymous” photographers, and the paint is then blurred and abstracted.
Since Richter doesn’t divulge the source of the initial photos for his paintings, the filmmakers constructed a story to fill in those blanks. In Germany, the film is called Werk ohne Autor, or work without an author, a reference to a famous quote of Richter’s. Biographies are difficult to assess in some ways because there are so many tropes, and it exists in a context that, once deviated from, could derail the film for knowledgeable viewers. That derailment could come in for less knowledgeable people too, the form of boredom that is certainly a danger here. Everything shifts when the film becomes less of a historical drama, as well as a borderline war film, and into a romance and straight drama/almost biography. It’s also difficult when that person is still alive and kicking.
Yet according to the filmmakers it is not a “biography” – the fictionalized version of Richter is named Kurt – it’s loosely based on Richter’s life up to the creation of his famous photo-realistic paintings. The first hour of the film is a review of the context of the place and time in which the characters lived. There are moments that are completely devastating and kind of graphic, including the bombing of the city of Dresden and the Holocaust. It’s what most viewers already know about WWII, but the initial perspective changes are both visual distortions and that of adult characters that Kurt knows or will know later on. As Kurt grows up, his childhood interest in art is stifled by the Soviet occupation of East Germany and as a result, he doesn’t have freedom to pursue fine art outside of the national art.
The real artist does not like what the director did with his life. Richter and the director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck met before the film’s release and apparently the two of them got very different impressions of how the meetings went. Since those meetings Richter has gone to great lengths to publicly denounce the film. Either way, the movie is out and any elements that may be fictional are indistinguishable from a lot of Hollywood versions of real people’s lives.
The best part is how crystal clear every shot is, and how incredible the blues and greens are. It’s no surprise that the film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Also, there’s a lot of nudity, because art, so if you’re not into that you probably already aren’t watching.
The overall film is kind of good, but in such a basic way. It hits all of the expected beats: boy has terrible childhood, meets a girl, works, gets into a bad situation and gets out, and gains success in the end. It’s for people who liked A Beautiful Mind and the like. It’s a good primer on the effects of the post-war Russian occupation on artists, but it must be reiterated that it is fictional. Even though it’s really close to the life of a real life person, and uses his actual famous quotes, it’s fiction.