Admittedly, pro-life cinema occupies a narrow niche. Each year, an earnest, low-budget film makes the case against abortion, infanticide or euthanasia. “Gosnell” (2018), the chronicle of the Philadelphia abortionist convicted of multiple counts of murder, and “Unplanned”(2019), the account of the conversion of Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson to the anti-abortion cause, are sturdy examples of the genre. On occasion, however, a lavish, mainstream film develops an indictment of our culture of death that rises far above agitprop. Nominated this year for the Academy Award for best foreign film, “Never Look Away” is such an unexpected prosecutor.
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the sprawling film (more than three hours in length) follows the life of the artist Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) from his childhood in Nazi Dresden to his early adulthood in Communist Dresden and then to his mature adulthood in the arts community of West Germany’s Düsseldorf. As the artistic and romantic adventures of Kurt unfold, the director depicts the lethal cultures generated by National Socialism and Communism.
In ‘Never Look Away,’ the murderous eugenicist and the abortionist, the Nazi and the Communist, become one.
In the opening section, the film focuses on the loving relationship between the child Kurt and his eccentric, art-loving Aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), a schizophrenic. After an outburst of violence, the family confides her to the care of a medical doctor, Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch). An officer in the Third Reich’s health police, on a campaign to sterilize the disabled, Seeband orders her removal to an institution he controls.
In a heartbreaking scene, Elisabeth screams and resists in vain as the health-police attendants drag her into avan. After a cursory interview, Seeband orders her forcible sterilization. When he attends a pivotal meeting of the medical officers leading the sterilization campaign, all arrayed in their crisply pressed S.S. uniforms, Seeband beams as the head doctor announces that sterilization will now be replaced by execution of the disabled. With a flick of his pen, Seeband condemns Elisabeth to death. A lengthy scene depicts the killing of Elisabeth and other disabled women as smiling nurses invite the women to enter a shower room into which the nurses calmly send poisonous gas.
In the section set in postwar Communist Dresden, Kurt pursues art studies and due to his technical skill, makes his mark as an artist painting dreary frescoes in the regime’s social-realist style. He begins an affair with Ellie (Paula Beer), who happens to be the daughter of Professor Seeband. When Ellie becomes pregnant, Seeband forces her to undergo an abortion at his own hands on the false pretense that some mysterious health problem will prevent his daughter from bringing the child to term.
The director underscores the cold and coercive nature of the abortion as the camera dwells on the gleaming silver instruments the doctor will use in the operation. It is only after the abortion that Ellie tells Kurt the truth about her father’s past as she relates a childhood memory of her father preening before a mirror in his S.S. uniform.
The artist has overcome the culture of death by unmasking Germany’s genocidal past.
In the person of Professor Seeband, the murderous eugenicist and the abortionist, the Nazi and the Communist, become one. The doctor smoothly transitions from denying the rights of the individual in the name of the Volk to denying them in the name of class struggle.
In the film’s final section, the married Kurt and Ellie flee to the West to escape the ideological constraints of East Germany. Learning from his Russian protector that war-crimes investigators are zeroing in on the leaders of the Nazi euthanasia campaign, Seeband also flees to the West and smoothly morphs into a bourgeois liberal, intoxicated by his professional stature.
After flailing in the pop-art trends of Düsseldorf, Kurt finally finds his own artistic voice in a species of magical realism. He reworks old photographs into painted images that are progressively blurred into a ghostlike mist. His masterpiece juxtaposes an old photo of his Aunt Elisabeth hugging him with a headshot of his hated father-in-law. (Whether Kurt has realized Seeband’s actual link to his murdered aunt or whether this is due to mysterious inspiration remains unclear.) From the canvas, victim and executioner confront the public with a dream-like stare.
Now internationally acclaimed, the artist has overcome the culture of death by unmasking Germany’s genocidal past. He has also overcome it in the person of the infant son his wife Ellie brings to a triumphal press conference. Seebald the abortionist and the genocidal eugenicist, the strutting Nazi and the Communist, is exposed as killer and liar.
You do not need to hunt down “Never Look Away” in an obscure church basement on a Sunday afternoon. Thanks to Sony Pictures and Walt Disney Studios, this cinematic icon of the culture of death is playing at a theater near you.