This is what you shouldn’t do: watch a stunning three hour masterpiece foreign film so exhilarating you’re surprised anyone can still make cinema so good, then go to a contrived, hackneyed American studio creation that makes you want to throw things at the screen.
Perhaps Dan Fogelman’s “Life Itself” wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t just come from Florian Henckel von Dommersmarck’s “Never Look Away.” The two films shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence. Fogelman’s movie is just as manipulative and hoary as his TV show, “This is Us” except it doesn’t have Sterling K. Brown. As much as we love Oscar Isaac, he can’t save “Life Itself” from itself. I wish I had that memory fix stick from “Men in Black” to wipe it all out.
But I digress. Saturday afternoon was spent in cinematic nirvana with “Never Look Away.” Florian ten years ago gave us “The Lives Of Others,” which so so superior it won Best Foreign Language film and was good enough that it should have won the Oscar for Best Film. If you watch it now, “Lives” remains a stunner.
I knew he’d back back despite making a studio catastrophe called “The Tourist” with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. Just pretend that didn’t happen.
Four years ago Florian heard about the life of German artist Gerhard Richter, still alive today at 86. He sensed inspiration for a large film that would talk about art, creativity, modern German history and still have plenty of sex and laughs. The result is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen in my life, “Never Look Away.” At the Saturday screening, the standing ovation was thunderous with applause and screams of “Bravo!” If you really like cinema, movies, film, this is the one we’ve been waiting for.
Three hours go by so quickly in “Never Look Away” — well, you never look away as Florian fictionalizes Gerhart as a Dresden born artist named Kurt who survives the 1945 bombing as a six or seven year old, and then watches as Russians decimate Germany post- Nazi. Eventually Kurt and his girlfriend then young bride, escape East Berlin in 1961 before the Wall goes up, and they embark on a post-war life with the long shadow of Nazi Germany hanging over them.
Sounds grim but it’s not. Florian in the zone to speak where the pace and rhythms are magnificently perfect. It’s almost like he made the movie in a trance where nothing can go wrong. There’s lot of humor, and I said, lots of sex, there’s plenty to distract from the very serious ramifications of history. It’s hey– life itself– it’s the way we live even now– enduring the terrible by skimming in and out of it.
It doesn’t hurt that famed American cinematographer Caleb Deschanel does things here that should earn him his own Oscar after 5 nominations. His work here is simply sublime. The creation of Kurt’s/ Richter’s art will be studied by film students.
The actors are sensational. Sebastian Koch is back as the Nazi father in law of Kurt, whom he doesn’t know is Jewish and with whom he has a tie that only the audience knows. (This is the difference between this subtly realized plot and the hideous mallet hammering over the head of Life Itself, which keeps screaming its secret at you like a mental patient on Broadway.)
Koch was a hero in “Lives,” here he’s the villain, but he just hits the right sympathetic notes. German child star Tom Schilling is Kurt. He looks like Aaron Paul and makes quite honestly the most important debut to the West from a foreign actor since Jean duJardin. The very fine Paula Beer is Kurt’s love. Saskia Rosendahl lights up the screen in what is the central and most compelling character, that of Kurt’s aunt. I don’t want to spoil her role, but this was they key casting and it worked.
There”s more on “Never Look Away,” which will open in December. But every Academy and Guild member must see this ASAP. This is it– this is why we do it. Something happens just before the end of the film that recalls a scene from early on. When it started to happen, you have a sense of how this will end– and it was so brilliant I wanted to stand up and start applauding then, not wait. We can talk about it in December. You’ll see, and you’ll need tissues.