Confronting Germany's Past In Oscar-Nominated 'Never Look Away' Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's newest historical epic tells the story of an artist after World War II. It touches on the sensitive subject of national guilt — and not without controversy.
NPR logo

Confronting Germany's Past In Oscar-Nominated 'Never Look Away'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Confronting Germany's Past In Oscar-Nominated 'Never Look Away'

Confronting Germany's Past In Oscar-Nominated 'Never Look Away'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Another story now - the director of the Oscar-winning 2006 film "The Lives Of Others" is back with a new story called "Never Look Away." It is nominated for two Oscars this year. Like its predecessor, the film confronts Germany's past, this time on an even larger canvas. Here's NPR's Bilal Qureshi.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Modern Germany was born in the ashes of 1945. It's a society made out of total physical and psychological destruction.

MAX RICHTER: Germany is constantly wrestling with its history.

QURESHI: That's Max Richter, who wrote the music for "Never Look Away." There's even a compound word in German for what he's describing - vergangenheitsbewaltigung.

ANNA ALTMAN: It's a word that means sort of grappling with the past.

QURESHI: Journalist and translator Anna Altman wrote about the film for The New Republic.

ALTMAN: There were a lot of political crimes that took place there, and I think the drive is to document those rather than to pave over them.

QURESHI: Confronting the past is exactly what many post-war German artists have done. And that movement inspired filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

FLORIAN HENCKEL VON DONNERSMARCK: We cannot trust anything that has been done in the past because look what the past led to. It led to this Nazi catastrophe. Let us not trust anything that comes from the past. Let us look completely within and let us build a new free art.

QURESHI: Von Donnersmarck's new film is a biographical drama about a painter named Kurt.


QURESHI: The movie opens in the 1930s in a museum. The Nazis have brought their exhibition of degenerate art to Dresden.


CAI COHRS: (As young Kurt Barnert, speaking German).

QURESHI: The young Kurt's beloved aunt takes him to the exhibition, encouraging him to see what he's not supposed to see.


SASKIA ROSENDAHL: (As Elisabeth May, speaking German).

QURESHI: She wants Kurt to think for himself, to never look away.


ROSENDAHL: (As Elisabeth May, speaking German).

VON DONNERSMARCK: It's an important sentence. It's something that accompanies our protagonist, the artist, throughout his whole life. And I think it's a very important thing to remember. Don't look towards things that you only find pleasant, you know? Look towards things that are disturbing also.

QURESHI: The movie is loosely based on the life of Germany's leading post-war artist, Gerhard Richter. The artist is played by Tom Schilling, who says, just like his character, he is a product of his country's past, from the horrors of the Nazi era to his own childhood growing up behind the Berlin Wall.

TOM SCHILLING: I was born in the GDR, you know, and raised up by my parents. And my parents were raised by my grandfather, who was in the Wehrmacht. And so it lives still inside of me somehow. And the movie should help us to learn something about us and to help us to understand us.

QURESHI: This is Schilling's first film with von Donnersmarck.

SCHILLING: He's able to create those goosebumps moments, you know, those larger-than-life cinema moments.

QURESHI: The film does this through a sweeping, widescreen epic, clocking in at over three hours.

RICHTER: When I sat down and, you know, he said, oh, it's 3 1/4 hours, I did think, uh-oh, you know, that's a lot of time. Let's hope it works. And it - you know, it just went by.

QURESHI: Max Richter's ever-present score sets the tone.


QURESHI: The artist has a sensitive theme, and his father-in-law, Dr. Seeband, has a very different musical cue, as filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck explains.

VON DONNERSMARCK: He has this incredible motif for Professor Seeband, the monstrous Nazi doctor, where it keeps on scaling down, down lower and lower until it gets to sounds that are so deep and so low because he said, let us show that this is the deepest, darkest moment of the human soul.


QURESHI: Actor Sebastian Koch plays Dr. Seeband. He also starred in "The Lives Of Others."

SEBASTIAN KOCH: In Germany, we are not very emotional, so it's always like everything is explained, and the screen has the opportunity to hide things and to explain it in a different way. And Florian - he's just - he has no fear about emotions. He uses the screen to transport these deep emotions, and that's quite rare in Germany.

QURESHI: Big emotions and a big canvas are the defining features of the film. They're also precisely why it's been criticized by some in Germany.

PATRICK WELLINSKI: German audiences and German critics are more sensitive if it comes to these historic topics, and they should be. And it's good that this discussion is happening over here.

QURESHI: Berlin-based film critic Patrick Wellinski did not like the movie. He points out that the artist Gerhard Richter has also distanced himself from the film. But Wellinski says it's one scene in particular that stirred debate across Germany about von Donnersmarck's approach to history.

WELLINSKI: It's the moment where he enters a morally aesthetic taboo for German critics, you know? He goes into the gas chamber with his camera, and he shows in the parallel montage the bombing of Dresden. And, you know, there is the question of the victim status. You can't say that a falling Wehrmacht soldier has the same victim status than a woman who goes into the gas chamber. And it puts all of this with nicely Handel music, which is really disgusting.


QURESHI: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck says he wants his film to stir debate and emotions. He says he wants to show audiences why art matters and why it has the power to heal the wounds of history, both personal and national.

VON DONNERSMARCK: Art shows you - any form of creative expression shows you that every little last thing that you did in your life, whether it be because of your own weakness or frailty or because of things people did to you or because of ever feeling lost or lonely or whatever it is, you know, all those things are absolutely necessary for the creation and the expression that you have found. If we really accept the hurt that's happened to us, it will be our greatest treasure.

QURESHI: Von Donnersmarck says it's a lesson the world can learn from Germany's rebirth - how a nation can face the past to forge a new future in art and life itself. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.