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Never Look Away

Movie review by
Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media
Never Look Away Movie Poster Image
German art epic mixes history, politics, and LOTS of sex.
  • R
  • 2018
  • 188 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The mantra is "everything true is beautiful." Art is a salve to resolve trauma. Without providing answers, film raises discussion-worthy questions about how to live with morals in an immoral society. Themes of courage, perseverance.

Positive Role Models & Representations

As an Aryan boy growing up during rise of Third Reich and WWII, Kurt witnesses many tragic outcomes for his own family, which reluctantly joined Nazi party in hopes of financial survival. As Kurt comes of age in Soviet-controlled East Germany, he navigates his own moral path in a precarious environment.

Violence

Wartime horrors include bombings, gas chamber. Disturbing imagery: German citizens, children, soldiers being killed or injured in variety of ways. A woman with mental illness self-harms. Not shown, but crucial plot points center on men controlling women's reproduction, including woman being tricked into an abortion, forced sterilization program by government.

Sex

Lots of nudity -- both sexual and nonsexual, horrific and artistic -- involving every body part, including male and female full frontal. A young couple in love has premarital sex, which leads to pregnancy and marriage -- and more sex. Antagonist has sex in an adulterous situation.

Language

Infrequent use of words including "a--hole," "crap," "hell," "s--t," and "stupid."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Lead characters smoke cigarettes during 1940s-'60s. An older man smokes for the first time; he claims that by starting at age 63, consequences won't catch up to him. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Never Look Away is a subtitled German political drama inspired by the life of modern artist Gerhard Richter. It spans three crucial decades of German history, centering on a character's evolution from childhood in Nazi Germany to recognition as a prominent artist. The hallmarks of a mature European indie are present: tons of nudity (including full-frontal male and female), sex (premarital, marital, and adulterous), and cigarettes. The story hinges on the Nazi eugenics program that involved sterilizing and euthanizing women they deemed unfit to procreate; (spoiler alert) a subplot involves an abortion. Viewers can also expect to see wartime horrors (bombings, the gas chamber), death, and self-harm. Language includes "a--hole," "s--t," and more. The film has themes of courage and perseverance and is a workshop in art education: Viewers are exposed to process, philosophy, and many renowned works, as well as the realization that the Nazis disdained modern artists, considering them "degenerates." Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck assumes that audiences know German history; teens may get lost in the frequent talk about political parties, socialism, and the working class.

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What's the story?

NEVER LOOK AWAY is a German drama that explores the impact of the Nazi regime and the Berlin Wall on the German people through the perspective of a young artist. Inspired by events in the life of modern artist Gerhard Richter, the film spans three decades of German political history as it tells two parallel stories. Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) tries to move past the tragedies that befell his family during World War II and its aftermath, seeking happiness, fulfillment, and his artistic voice in a communist world. He falls in love with another student, Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer), whose professor father, Carl (Sebastian Koch), plots to break them up. But the three are unaware that their lives are already intertwined through an unconscionable wartime crime.

Is it any good?

Never Look Away is a gorgeous, intriguing landmine of an epic. It depicts two conflicting approaches to life as a device to offer a deeper, if not shocking, understanding of humanity, art, politics, and Germany's heinous history of oppression. It's an "art film" in every sense of the word -- it has lush cinematography, an exploration of philosophical ideas, smoking and brooding, sex and nudity, and, of course, art. Using Richter's life story as a template, the movie exposes viewers to art history, evolution, and a museum's worth of works. It is, in itself, a true work of art.

But, if that sounds like it's a lot, it is. Viewers don't just walk a mile in Kurt's shoes -- it's more like 3,000, since the journey takes longer than three hours, with no intermission. The film's run time, combined with the subtitles, will likely be a turnoff for older teens, who might benefit from having the nuances of history laid out in front of them and pick up the warnings the film provides, such as why it's important to be vigilant about the direction of government and resolute in your own ethics. And, as positively impactful as the film can be, it also opens another can of worms: creating empathy for those who endorsed and thus perpetrated Nazism.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the characters in Never Look Away: Germans who were either Nazis or complicit. Did the film increase your empathy or understanding for the German citizens during Hitler's regime? Do you think it's OK to feel compassion for people who were, ultimately, backing Germany's atrocities? 

  • Kurt's family doesn't agree with Nazi principles, so why do you think they joined? How does taking the easy way out affect them after their country is defeated? In your life, has there been a time when you or someone you know did what "everyone was doing" rather than what was right, and it caught up with them? 

  • Above all else, the film is about finding your artistic perspective. Do you agree that art can help you work through trauma? If you follow Kurt's instructor's directive -- to answer "what am I?" -- does that help you find your artistic voice? 

  • How does Kurt demonstrate character strengths like perseverance and courage? He was a successful artist in East Germany, so why do you think he fled the country? If he hadn't, how do you think his life would have been different?

  • The movie depicts real events with a layer of fiction, meaning audiences don't know what's true and what isn't. Do you think it helps or hurts a movie to leave audiences guessing about the truth of it?

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