“Never Look Away” is Germany’s 2018 submission for the foreign language Oscar and one of the five films ultimately nominated. It’s written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who won the 2006 foreign language Academy Award for “The Lives of Others,” a very good and very popular drama about state surveillance and shifting loyalties in 1980s East Germany.
Lightning has not struck twice. At over three hours long, “Never Look Away” is a sumptuous epic of post-World War II Germany whose points are many and unsharpened. It’s a suspense drama of former Nazis hiding in plain sight, a romance that has difficulty keeping its clothes on, a mystery that drops one shoe and never quite the other. Above all, it’s a meditation on art and creativity that’s by turns earnest, troubled, sentimental, and middlebrow. It’s a big, glossy affair that somehow feels rather small.
The opening half hour may be the strongest, with Saskia Rosendahl eerily compelling as Elizabeth, a beautiful young German woman whose mental illness marks her for sterilization or worse by the doctors of the Third Reich, personified by one Professor Seeband, a coldly logical sociopath played by Sebastian Koch, the dashing hero of “Lives of Others.” Elizabeth’s disintegration is witnessed by her young cousin Kurt (Cai Cohrs), who grows up into an ardent and gifted young painter (Tom Schilling).
Aided immeasurably by the cinematography of Caleb Deschanel — also Oscar nominated — von Donnersmarck establishes a lush sense of time and place: Dresden in its precious prewar splendor and smoldering post-firebombing ruins. ”Never Look Away” is subtly honest, too, about how a population can easily exchange one totalitarian rule for another, even two as theoretically opposed as Nazi Fascism and Soviet Communism. It’s what happens in this setting that wobbles between engrossing melodrama and the purpler kind.
Having glimpsed a vision of the universe’s connectedness, the idealistic Kurt heads to art school, where he finds a greater ideal in the beauteous Ellie (Paula Beer), whom the movie finds excuses to disrobe early and often. Kurt also ends up in a tree without his trousers — don’t ask — but the movie quickly lowers the boom: Ellie’s father is none other than Professor Seeband, whose wartime sins have been covered up by a friendly Russian officer (Evgeniy Sidikhin) but whose theories on breeding and eugenics extend to his daughter.
“Never Look Away” appears to be building toward a dramatic confrontation that dissipates when all the principals end up defecting to West Germany for the final hour. Kurt gets bogged down in trying to recover his artistic vision, aided by a jolly pal (Hanno Koffler), a mercurial professor (Oliver Masucci, who gets off the film’s most memorable, if weirdest, monologue), and memories of his doomed cousin.
Oddly, the film echoes the current (and far superior) “Cold War” — its foreign language Oscar rival — in arguing that democracy’s freedoms are also somehow bad for art. There’s much merry fun poked at the youthful pretensions of the avant-garde and other fish in a barrel, but these scenes thematically clash with the film’s opening sequence set at a Nazi display of “Degenerate Art.”
What dramatic tension is left by the final scenes is diminished by Kurt’s creative breakthrough, which carries more emotion than aesthetic triumph. “Never Look Away” is dancing close to the flames of kitsch by this point, and it says much about von Donnersmarck’s approach that when Kurt relives one of Elizabeth’s peak moments — an ecstatic cacophony of bus horns — the noise is drowned out by a conventionally syrupy orchestral score. The movie’s mantra, repeated by more than one character, is that “What is true is beautiful.” The movie itself proves that what is beautiful isn’t always true.
NEVER LOOK AWAY
Written by directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Starring Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl. At Kendall Square. 188 minutes. R (graphic nudity, sexuality, brief violent images). In German, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.