The title of “Never Look Away” is deliciously ironic: This is one of the most mesmerizing, compulsively watchable films in theaters right now. Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck — best known for his masterful 2006 drama “The Lives of Others” — this meditation on art, memory and meaning is yet another deep-dive into the postwar psyche of the filmmaker’s native Germany. In “The Lives of Others,” the narrative foils were an East Berlin Stasi agent and the subjects of his political-but-also-personal prying. Here, Donnersmarck considers the life and early career of painter Gerhard Richter, whose autobiography and subject matter have intersected with the most seismic dislocations of 20th-century Germany to a confounding and occasionally breathtakingly coincidental degree.
“Never Look Away” is one degree removed from the literal Richter: The film’s protagonist, Kurt Barnert, will be recognizable from the details of his life, aesthetic sensibility and development into one of the most important artists of his time. That artistic license — the decision to make Richter clearly legible but slightly off-plumb — is altogether appropriate for someone whose stock in trade has been paintings of dazzling photorealism, often disrupted by a subtly blurring brushstroke.
In “Never Look Away” we meet the young Kurt (played in a quietly watchful performance by Cai Cohrs) as he is being led through 1937’s notorious “degenerate art” exhibition as it travels to Dresden. Captivated by the paintings of Otto Dix, Franz Marc and others, he’s told by a docent that such nihilistic, self-indulgent art has no place in Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, Kurt’s beloved Aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), who has brought her nephew to the museum, whispers conspiratorially that she prefers the verboten moderns to the sentimental romanticism sanctioned by the Reich.
Thus, Kurt embarks on a journey of dualities that will haunt him throughout a war — one in which he observes U.S. bombers with awe, even as they destroy his hometown; that will force his father to join the Nazi party, even though he can’t bring himself to say, “Heil, Hitler”; and in which his family members will be killed by both sides. When Kurt apprentices as a sign painter and attends art school — where his superb draftsmanship makes him the envy of his peers — the National Socialist strictures of realism and uplift are replaced by Communist ones. The drama of “Never Look Away” resides in how Kurt will process the traumas and unspoken betrayals of his past into a formal language that feels personal, new and urgent, and that can accommodate intuition and indictment in equal measure.
Portrayed as a young man by Tom Schilling, Kurt is something of a cipher throughout a movie that spans three decades and includes an amusing depiction of Dusseldorf’s famous Kunstakademie, where, by the late 1960s, representational painting has given way to conceptual “happenings” and where, in one memorable and gorgeously designed scene, the Joseph Beuys-like Antonius van Verten (Oliver Masucci) sets political posters on fire in front of a bemused class. But “Never Look Away” is also powered by a mystery in the form of a physician named Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), whose role in Kurt’s life emerges in steadily more surprising ways.
As with “The Lives of Others,” Donnersmarck exhibits smoothly authoritative control over material that, in other hands, might be unwieldy or unforgivably pat. “Never Look Away” is episodic, but the episodes are executed with the meticulous care of a gem-cutter working with the lambent facets of a precious stone. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel has been justifiably nominated for an Oscar for his magnificent photography, which echoes Richter’s alternately soft-edged and exactingly precise style. Working with a refined, muted color palette that gradually gives way to vibrant swaths of teal, the filmmakers create a lush evocation, not just of a period, but of an emerging and increasingly insistent inner life.
Once the catharsis comes in “Never Look Away” — once Kurt instinctively acts out on his youthful certitude that everything is connected — the effect is thrilling. Rarely has the act of someone simply putting paint to canvas elicited such visceral emotion. By then, what’s at stake isn’t a gifted artist’s career or creative prowes. It’s nothing short of a moral reckoning. “Never Look Away” begins as the evolution of a style. But in its sweep and finely tuned focus, it chronicles the emergence of a self — fully realized and finally capable of wresting meaning from a random, cruel and stubbornly unresolved history.
R. At area theaters. Contains graphic nudity, sexuality and brief violent images. In German with subtitles. 189 minutes.