Amidst the chaos of pre-war Germany, Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) based loosely on one of Germany’s most revered contemporary painters, Gerhard Richter, becomes fascinated by the art in the world around him. Kurt attends art school, where he meets and falls in love with fellow student, Ellie (Paula Beer). Kurt soon discovers that his family’s past is intertwined with Ellie’s in sinister and violent ways, just as art in Germany is entangled with the nation’s past. Ellie’s father, Professor Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a famous doctor, is dismayed at his daughter’s choice of boyfriend, and vows to destroy the relationship. What neither of them knows is that their lives are already connected through a terrible crime Seeband committed decades ago. Through the Dresden bombings, a job as a Soviet propaganda artist, and a move from 'East' to 'West Germany', Kurt strives to find his voice as an artist.
The focus is an artist named Kurt Barnert. While Kurt is growing up during 'The Second World War', his aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) sparks his interest in art. She's freedom, art, beauty, extreme sensitivity, and madness all in one. After the war he studies first in Dresden, and later in Düsseldorf at the legendary art school 'Kunstakademie', where at the time some of 'West Germany’s' most important artists completely revolutionized their field. His love of Ellie Seeband leads to a confrontation with her father, the famous gynecologist Professor Carl Seeband, a staunch rationalist and perfectionist who despises everything that Kurt stands for. Kurt Barnert’s life makes it clear that we as humans have an almost alchemistic ability to make something good out of the difficult things in life that happen to us all. No less important a role is Ellie Seeband, the professor’s daughter, whom Kurt Barnert falls in love with without knowing who her father is and without knowing that they're bound by tragic circumstances in the past.
The complete antithesis of Kurt is his 'father-in-law' Professor Carl Seeband. The character of Seeband is a dyed-in-the-wool 'Nazi' and witnessed the complete failure of this ideology and how it brings about his country’s collapse. He finds safe harbor in the next systems, however, and with his discipline, health, intelligence, and scientific expertise, remains unassailable. It's these qualities that also enabled him to conceal his guilt and save his neck. This gives him a feeling of superiority and a great feeling of security. This is why he finds it so inconceivable that his only child becomes involved with a powerless artist, whom he also deems frail and of mediocre intelligence. He opposes the relationship with every means available to him. Seeband is a monster. He's ice-cold and domineering. But what's truly monstrous about him is that he's convinced he's doing the right thing. There's no feeling of wrongdoing, no sense of guilt. He does what he does because for him there's absolutely no alternative. The clash of two men who at first glance have nothing in common, both brilliant minds but who could not be more different, and who also have completely opposing approaches to life and the world. The subject derives it's power from the clash of these two men, and the result is a story about the essence of inspiration and the power of art.
For a long time the cinematic treatment of German history fixated on 'The Second World War', and naturally on the 'GDR' past. One of the things that particularly excited about "Never Look Away" is that the film covers several periods of German history and connects the developments in each. The film sheds light on these periods from the perspective of three human destinies; of the artist Kurt Barnert, the love of his life Ellie, and her father Professor Seeband. All three are invisibly bound by a dark family secret of which Kurt and Ellie are at first completely unaware. The story takes us through three decades of German history: war, destruction, reconstruction, Socialism, the young 'Freedom Republic Of Germany'. But the film’s focus is above all on the art of this period, on the work of our main character Kurt, and his path to finding his own personal style as an artist.
What's the defining quality of the Germans? Where does art come from? "Never Look Away" is based on the work of German painter Gerhard Richter, whose life and work serve as one of the film’s many sources of inspiration. Inspired by real events, the film explores a subject matter that's both unusual and compellingly ambitious, spanning three decades of German post-war history in a suspense-packed drama. It also makes use of a sweeping historical backdrop to tell a highly personal and emotional story through the portrayal of three human destinies. A gripping drama and moving family story inspired by real events, by what it means to create art, and by the search for an artistic voice of one’s own. The images of Gerhard Richter are like memorable melodies that continue to dance around in our head. Like earworms. But in this case eyeworms. With the difference that they weren’t annoying, but a continual source of enrichment.
It's a film about German art in the period following 'The Second World War'. "Never Look Away" explores the question of how great, genuine art is created. Art is one of the mysteries of human creativity. There's no formula that can determine why a work of art moves, shocks, or captivates us. This film is for everyone who might be a bit bored with the triviality of so much of what's seen in movie theaters today. The film creates a sense of true grandeur and capturing the audience’s imagination. "Never Look Away" is the best argument, the best reason for going to the movies.