If I were Gerhard Richter I would disavow this movie too.
Biopics about visual artists are usually as interesting as watching paint dry. Seeing the greatest artists in the world paint is not inherently dramatic. Even when the lives of the artists are filled with drama, most movies turn the artists into quirky bohemians and the making of art into sentimental pap. Notable exceptions are Love is The Devil about Francis Bacon and Mr. Turner by Mike Leigh. At Eternity’s Gate, Julian Schnabel’s tone poem about Van Gogh is self-indulgent and has a terrible title, but at least it succeeds in portraying the experience of being an artist.
Never Look Away doesn’t. I suspected we were in trouble at the sight of the young painter sitting at the top of a tree and then running around having an epiphany, literally screaming «I understand!» to the winds. Artists! They are so sensitive to their surroundings!
Based on the life of Gerhard Richter, one of the world’s greatest living artists, it has an incredible story to tell. Unfortunately, it takes three interminable hours doing it. There is a great story in there of how a young boy who suffered collateral damage from the Nazis, and trained as a Socialist Realist as a young painter, went on to become the greatest German painter and one of the greatest artists in history, but director Florian Henckel Von Donnersmark doesn’t have the discipline nor the right sensibility to tell it. He turns everything into kitsch.
As a kid, Richter lost a beloved but mentally unstable young aunt to the nazis who euthanized the mentally ill and disabled. Then, by a twist of fate it turned out that in later years, his girlfriend was the daughter of the nazi doctor who sterilized his aunt. In the hands of filmmakers with more sangfroid like Christian Petzold (Transit) or Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall), this movie could have explored this psychological trauma more in depth. But, as in the case of Frida, the tone of the movie is utterly at odds with the painter it depicts. No one is less kitschy and less sentimental than Gerhard Richter, no painter is more rigorous; just as there was no one more sardonic and sharp-witted than Frida Kahlo, who was turned by her movie into a sap. Never Look Away shows the artist mainly painting and fucking, which, except for writing, are the two most boring activities anyone can commit to a screen. It doesn’t help that the actor who portrays the painter is a zero and we never get close to his experience or his emotions.
Donnersmark nails a couple of moments where he shows the pain the nazis inflicted on their own people, but he is not incisive enough. After three hours of torture, I perked up when finally the painter arrives at the blurred paintings that made him famous. There is more truth, life and movement in them than in the entire film.