The best movie of the 21st Century is The Lives of Others, the staggering 2006 thriller about the moral awakening of a totalitarian cog-in-the-machine in East Germany. It is the greatest debut film since Citizen Kane—and, for a time, it appeared writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck might be going the way of Kane‘s director. Orson Welles could never even come close to his early achievement, although he kept making movies, and some of them were pretty good (but no better than pretty good, no matter what you hear). Donnersmarck, by contrast, directed an extremely disappointing picture called The Tourist with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie in 2010, and then went silent.
He is silent no more. Donnersmarck’s third film, Never Look Away, is an extraordinary and singular thing—an unabashedly melodramatic and romantic epic through 30 years of German history as seen through the life’s journey of one Kurt Barnert (played as an adult by Tom Schilling). It is three hours and eight minutes long and, as my friend Kyle Smith said of it, it’s the rare movie you actually wish were longer because it is so involving, heart-wrenching, and beautiful.
Kurt shows signs of genuine artistic talent as a five-year-old growing up in Nazi Germany under the loving care of his manic young aunt, Elisabeth. The movie begins with Elisabeth taking Kurt through the notorious “degenerate art” exhibit of 1937, staged by Josef Goebbels to highlight the decadence of modernism and the supposedly noxious role played by Jews in promulgating it.
In focusing both macrocosmically on the largest themes of the century and intimately on the development of a lone creative artist, Never Look Away is a little like Doctor Zhivago—although it is never quite as wooden or didactic as Pasternak’s novel or the David Lean film (which, it might astonish you to know, is the eighth highest-grossing movie ever made if you adjust for inflation). We watch as Kurt struggles to transcend the crucibles of the twin great evils of the 20th century, Nazism and Stalinism.
The temptations of surrendering to the overwhelming power of totalitarianism is brilliantly represented in the movie’s opening scenes in the depiction of Aunt Elisabeth. She tells Kurt she is proud that his father refused to join the Nazi party. But the next day, she is in a crowd in Berlin when Hitler is about to go by and is selected to hand him a bouquet of flowers.
In a heartbreaking piece of silent acting by Saskia Rosendahl, we see Elisabeth respond in many different ways to this honor—horrified, thrilled, embarrassed, delighted to be celebrated by her classmates, horrified again. She returns home and, in her bipolar shame, beats herself in the head with an ashtray. The act dooms her. She is diagnosed as a schizophrenic and thereby enters the world of Nazi eugenics. She is brought to the office of the head of a maternity hospital in Dresden, who has his young daughter’s painting framed on his desk. When Elizabeth realizes she is about to be forcibly sterilized, she begs him in the name of his daughter to spare her.
It is a moment parallel to the great scene in The Lives of Others when the East German intelligence officer has to decide in a split second whether he is going to condemn the father of a child with whom he is riding in an elevator to death—and, to his own astonishment, shows mercy. Only in Never Look Away, the doctor (played stunningly by Sebastian Koch) does not.
The doctor’s daughter comes to play a role in the adult Kurt’s life (with none of them knowing anything of their connection). The doctor has found a way to transfer his ideological allegiance from the Nazis to the Communists and serve in a high position in the East German society. But the doctor is the same worshipper of power and purity he has always been and is able to display a similar degree of cold-blooded ruthlessness toward his own child. In this way, Donnersmarck reveals, quite brilliantly, the parallel monstrousness of the two ideologies.
As a child, Elisabeth had told Kurt he should “never look away” from what is real. “Everything that is true is beautiful,” she says—an earworm of a phrase for someone growing up seamlessly in the grip of one totalitarian regime right into another. He is dissatisfied by the East German embrace of his talent because he knows socialist realism is the opposite of what is real and true. And later, when he gets to the West and becomes an art student in fashion-forward Dusseldorf, he struggles because his efforts to be a fashionable modernist aren’t true or real to him either. Only when he finds a way to confront his own past, and in an almost supernatural fashion, does he emerge from the shackles of dogma into greatness.
Never Look Away is based on the life of the artist Gerhard Richter, who has complained that the film vulgarizes his story. The movie does take the details of Richter’s life and structure them into a plot line that has more than its share of unbelievable coincidences. And there are about four sex scenes too many. But I’d say we should all be so vulgarized as to become the subjects of a great film that celebrates the power of our art to transcend the evils of our time on earth.