An aunt tells her nephew. “Never look away. Everything that is true is beautiful.” Her advice is somehow complicated due to the fact that she is stark-naked playing the piano, and her nephew that is encouraged to continue watching her is only 5 years old. Although she is beautiful, as this episode attests, not always in her right mind.
The nephew is painter Gerhard Richter in real life. Richter was born in Dresden in 1932, survived the second World War while other members of his family perished. Then, he became a painter in the German Democratic Republic and defected in 1961 with his wife to West Germany just before the Berlin Wall went up.
In Never Look Away, Tom Schilling, resembling the youthful Richter at some camera angles, plays the role of fledgling postwar artist Kurt Barnert, a quiet, observant six-year-old growing up near Dresden in 1937. He adores his aunt, a dazzling but mentally unstable pianist, Elisabeth (stared by Saskia Rosendahl). When being rounded up by the Nazis to be euthanized under the new eugenics laws of Hitler, she once again urges Kurt to “never look away,” to face reality. However, he only half follows her entreaty, peering through his fingers to obscure the image of his aunt disappearing into an ambulance. Later, in the film, Elisabeth is gassed; and in real life, aunt Marianne of Richter starved to death in a psychiatric facility in 1945.
After aunt Elisabeth’s death and the war’s end with Dresden burning in the distance, he arrives at the Academy of Art in East Germany. Then he is drilled on the importance of socialist realism. He meets Ellie (stared by Paula Beer) and falls in love. Eventually, they two elope to the West, discovering Dusseldorf’s ridiculous avant-garde arts scene. That ensues the semi-comic send-up that is delightful – two men, nude side by side, painting themselves black and white, respectively; a woman slashing canvases in spite of the fact that, another artist has beaten her to the idea by six years.
Although Von Donnersmarck’s film is gorgeous, it seems too long and may tax some viewers. The film’s ending is odd, and slightly unsatisfying. However, it more than earns its title: You will not want to look away.