When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

—1 Corinthians 13: 11–12, King James Version

Can randomness be beautiful? Take six numbers, any six numbers, and list them. Nothing particularly beautiful about that, is there? But what if those six numbers also happened to be the six winning numbers of the lottery? Not only are those numbers no longer random, but, for one very lucky person, those six numbers might also be the most beautiful thing they ever see.

Numbers, moments, memories, actions—all are similar in Never Look Away, the period film from German writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

Opening in 1940 Berlin, under the rule of the Third Reich, and concluding roughly 500 kilometers west, in the socially democratic Düsseldorf 26 years later, Never Look Away revolves around painter Kurt Barnett (Tom Schilling), who was charged by his young aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) to “never look away.” Not from beauty, not from truth, and certainly not from all the horrors of the world. Granted, Barnett was but a boy when Elisabeth charged him—his curiosity lay more in the curve of her breast and the softness of her skin. It’ll be a few more decades before Barnett brings Elisabeth’s words to fruition.

Could Barnett have achieved this feat had he not crossed paths with professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), Berlin’s preeminent gynecologist and a master manipulator of the personal and the political? Probably not. Any hero worth their salt must defeat a villain, and Seeband—a man who has a way of making sure nothing escapes his control—is ready-made for villainy. Not exactly the father-in-law Barnett hoped for, but the world has a way of creating resolution even if retribution is not in the cards.

Running slightly over three hours, Never Look Away is an absorbing piece of work, one that is more novelistic in its structure than cinematic. As Barnett moves from propaganda painter in East Berlin to abstract expressionism in Düsseldorf, von Donnersmark presents these changes in geography and time as vignettes. Like a good book, these chapters manage to be self-contained while still echoing and reverberating the movie’s broader themes—all of it beautifully tied together through cinematographer Caleb Deschanel’s dreamy, angelic haze.

Outstanding as it is, Never Look Away is not without a few faults. Some of the subplots with Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer)—Barnett’s wife and the professor’s only daughter—don’t contribute as much to the plot as one might hope, but they do add a great deal of texture and eroticism to the film.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Never Look Away / Werk ohne Autor (2018)
Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Produced by Quirin Berg, Christiane Henckel von Donnersmarck, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Jan Mojto, Max Wiedemann
Starring: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl
Sony Pictures Classics, Rated R, Running time 189 minutes, Premiered Sept. 4, 2018 at the Venice Film Festival.

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 26, No. 27, “For now we see through a glass darkly.”