Review: Oscar nominee Never Look Away is a middlebrow slog until the final section

Ersatz biopic about German artist Gerhard Richter features lots of foreshadowing and exposition, but eventually pays off after the two-hour mark

NEVER LOOK AWAY (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck). 188 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (February 22). See listing. Rating: NNN

A fundamentally fraught fictionalization of the formative years of German artist Gerhard Richter, the latest from writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others) possesses all the trappings of the tasteful prestige biopic – and has been duly rewarded with two Oscar nominations. 

After suffering a devastating loss as a child during the Second World War, ersatz Richter Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) struggles to forge an artistic career in a Dresden that endured National Socialism only to fall into the ideological mire of Eastern Bloc communism. 

At art school, Kurt falls for a fledgling fashion designer (Paula Beer) whose dad (Sebastian Koch) will prove to have a pivotal connection to the Barnert family’s greatest tragedy. It’s a flourish of dramatic irony worthy of high melodrama, but Donnersmarck is too middlebrow a filmmaker to engage in bold stylistics. Instead, Never Look Away’s three-hour runtime runneth over with scenes of hoary foreshadowing and eye-rolling expository dialogue. 

Which brings us to the film’s saving grace: the third-act sequences in which Kurt, alone in his studio, finds his voice by painting haunting reproductions of photographs are (except for Max Richter’s overcooked score) essentially silent – and thrilling. Thrilling enough, I hope, to steer you toward Corinna Belz’s excellent 2011 documentary Gerhard Richter Painting. 

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