Never look away is, first and foremost, the story of an artist who struggles to find his voice under the pressure of state and society’s imposed restrictions. As such, it is one of the most relevant films for this time—and for that matter, probably any time. This is the story of the people who challenge the dominant discourse—whether it is imposed by the state, the society, the media, or the professionals—and the price they pay for it. At the same time, through the life of a doctor, the film depicts how the lying powerful could stay in power, as they have no principles and easily change beliefs and actions for personal gains. In all political systems, ordinary people remain oppressed. The contrast between the artist and the doctor, who soon becomes the painter’s father-in-law, is the long-fought conflict between the dissident intellectuals and the systems of power.
The film takes place over the span of about 20 years, from the reign of Hitler to the post-WWII division of West and East Germany. In its novelistic structure, Never Look Away follows the painter, Kurt, from when he is a little child to when he is 30 years old. As a little kid, he observes how the state murders his aunt for what they considered “mental illness.” She used to take him to museums, but she questioned the state discourse of modern art as “degenerate” and told him to “never look away,” as “what is true is beautiful.”
In the opening sequence, we see her ask a group of bus drivers to honk at the same time in front of her as she opens her arms and closes her eyes as if she is practicing Zen. Kurt observes her doing this, and then Elisabeth tells him that “this is what art should do to you.” She gets murdered by Professor Seeband, a medical examiner and an SS party member, who, among many other doctors, runs a clinic that murders the “sick.” They decide who is “sick” based on what they consider “mental illness.”
Kurt grows to become a painter. Being in East Germany, he is forced to work in the style of Soviet Union’s socialist realism, where the art should serve the proletariat and the communists’ mission. In a departure from formalism, the artist should overcome self-expression and use art to depict the working class and their aspirations in a realistic manner. Studying at an art school, he meets Elisabeth who has an uncanny resemblance to his aunt Elisabeth and carries the same name. She turns out to be Professor Seeband’s daughter.
After saving the life of a Russian general’s wife and son, Seeband is protected and continues to run a clinic. He is now a communist and is oppressing his family as well to the point that he gives Elisabeth an abortion after he realizes she’s pregnant with a “weak and sick gene.” While Kurt and his family, who were the opponents of the Nazis and paid the price for it, continue to be oppressed under the new regime, it is the murderous Seeband who continues his reign.
Fleeing East Germany, Kurt and Elisabeth hope to find more freedom. However, the freedom there turns out to be a façade rather than a reality. While the state apparently does not restrict its citizens in the same way that East Germany does, the society and professionals have “manufactured consent” to depoliticize the art and all the society’s aspects and discourses. They celebrate works that have no meaning and praise “death of the author.” It doesn’t take long for Kurt to realize the situation in West is not that different from East. Only their ways of silencing the dissident voices are different. In the East, the state openly controls everything and imposes certain propaganda on people’s ways of life. In the West, in a more sophisticated manner, they have created an illusion of freedom while making everyone agree on certain values, never question them, and look away from the truth.
In the end, Kurt succeeds to find his voice away from the restrictions of both East and West. He finds his way to be innovative and avant-garde but also use his art as a weapon. He succeeds to find his voice, but only to be censored by the society and media. He himself actively partakes in depoliticizing his obviously political artwork when he talks about them. He also takes out his most powerful work from his gallery to only send it to his mentor.
This magnificent sequence close to the end of the film shows how the media avoids showing some of his art works, as those works “would put them in trouble.” They media also emphasize the apolitical quality of his works. They echo his words that his paintings are not expressions of what he has experienced as a suppressed citizen and artist but just a formalistic experience. After this sequence, in a seemingly triumphant ending, he asks a group of bus drivers to honk at the same time as he replicates what his aunt Elisabeth used to do. He has found that art should put one at unease and make them uncomfortable, should shock one and make them go wild. He has found that the artist should look at the truth and “never look away,” as “what is true is beautiful.” That is when the honks turn into music, and the artist finds coherence in a world of chaos.
The ending becomes both triumphant and tragic. Kurt has found how to confront truth and depict it as an artist, but he fails to overcome his own self-censorship and the society’s “manufactured consent” to put other people at unease and make them go wild the same way he goes wild. He does shock Seeband with his art, however. In an iconic scene, an artist uses his art to make a state-sponsored murderer who has humiliated and oppressed him for years, flee from him. This is one of the best celebrations of art. He claims victory, even though small and momentary, with his work that breaks with the traditions and general consent and goes wild. At the same time, the film avoids providing a utopia and depicts the limitations in which the artist functions—the limits caused by self-censorship, the society’s “manufactured consent,” and the media, all directly or indirectly imposed by the few powerful.
It’s not only the film’s protagonist who is a painter; the filmmaker and cinematographer are painters as well. They use color masterfully to depict the environments in which different phases of the story take place. The bombing scene, where a sea of blue is stained with red fires and then gradually the whole blue turns red, is one of the most poetic depictions of war. This is a world seen through a painter’s point-of-view, and yes, while his mom tries to cover his eyes, he does not look away and sees that “what is true is beautiful.” Beauty is beyond what gives pleasure; beauty is the truth uncovered and uncensored, and the colors play an important role in its depiction.
The post-war East Germany is shown with a limited color palette to portray the grimness of the situation. Production design comes to help here as well. The clothes, rooms, and the world all blend together to portray the communal world these people live in, where individuality is lost and the principle is to wipe out all distinctions. Once Kurt and Elisabeth move to West Germany, the first few sequences suddenly shock us with all the bright colors and the wider use of color palette in images. This is a colorful world, where distinction matters and people are happy. It does not take long for that façade to fall down, though. As Kurt realizes the true world behind that beautiful mask, the color palette gradually becomes limited again. His paintings in the end, which are all black and white, portray the world through his point of view. This is, really, not a colorful world, and while the society’s dominant discourse emphasizes individuality, only superficial individuality is celebrated and having an individual and critical voice is fought as hard in the West as in the East.
I wish the poetic depictions of the film’s world, like the bombing scene or the scene where Kurt claimed he found the code to the world, were more dominant. I wish some over-sentimental elements, like the cross-cutting sequence between him having sex with Elisabeth and his friends helping him clean the clinic, were cut out or toned down. I have multiple wishes, but:
This is a film for now and for the future. The story might happen in the past and in Germany, but it can’t be more true about now and the global situation we’re in: While there are superficial distinctions between the states that openly suppress freedom of thought and the ones that provide illusions of freedom, the true victims of both worlds are people, intellectuals and non-intellectuals, and the truth, which is quite often uncomfortable, is beautiful. So, Never Look Away!