Never Look Away
Produced by Pergamon Film
Directed and written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics
Produced and distributed by HBO and Sky Television
Directed by Johan Renck ? Screenplay by Craig Mazin
Produced by Alcatraz Films
Directed and written by Claire Denis
Distributed by A24
German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s new film, Never Look Away, now available for online streaming, considers the Nazi and communist twin ideologies that strove to perfect the human species via sterilization, euthanasia, and mass killing. The Nazis were especially devoted to these methods. Their medical program was intent on eliminating anyone who did not fit their bill. The physically and mentally irregular were hunted, sterilized, and, if at all troublesome, killed.
One such unfortunate is Ellie (Paula Beer), a beautiful, schizophrenic adolescent who first appears in 1937 with her six-year old nephew Kurt Barnert. They visit an exhibition in Dresden of what the Nazis have labelled degenerate art and are both impressed by what they see. Ellie tells Kurt that she likes some of the works and advises him to never look away. Unfortunately, when Ellie’s symptoms become more pronounced, her parents take her to a state doctor to investigate her aberrant behavior. Once the authorities take notice of her condition, Ellie is put kicking and screaming into an ambulance as Kurt looks on in stunned incomprehension. She’s taken to a hospital where she’s at first sterilized, and eventually gassed.
The professor in charge of these procedures is Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), an SS officer with an overriding fervor for eugenics. He wants to ensure the German bloodline proceeds uncontaminated by substandard human stock and is willing to terminate anyone who fails to rise to acceptable criteria. Koch, who played a sympathetic playwright in Donnersmarck’s first film, The Lives of Others, is chilling in this role, his face set rigidly in a scowl of permanent disgust with his inferiors.
The grown-up Barnert (Tom Schilling) flourishes as a painter. He gains enviable commissions and a widening reputation. He also falls for Seeband’s daughter, Elizabeth, partly because she reminds him of his aunt, Ellie. Thereafter complications come thick and fast, the most horrible being Seeband’s decision to perform an abortion on his own daughter to rid her of the child she’s begotten with Kurt.
The film is well-made and the acting uniformly excellent. Unlike The Lives of Others, which depicts life in communist East Germany, there’s also a fair degree of humor, not least of which is Kurt’s naked leap from Elizabeth’s bedroom to escape from Seeband’s unexpected arrival home. But I had to wonder at Donnersmarck’s decision to present his actors naked in and out of bed for what seems like interminable bouts of lovemaking. Didn’t he trust us to grasp that the characters were intimate? Or did he succumb to the commercial imperative which decrees nudity is a profitable crowd-pleaser? When asked, Donnersmarck explained that his images aren’t exploitative, as those in a Playboy, but are meant to advance story and character.
Perhaps I’m a prude for dwelling on the nudity. As Mrs. Patrick Campbell put it, “I don’t mind where people make love, so long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.” A good principle for filmmakers, playwrights, and milkmen—if only they’d observe it once in a while.
Chernobyl is another film that trades in nudity, only here it is the naked bodies of miners braving the extreme heat at the site of a nuclear disaster. Released in May as an HBO miniseries, it details the events of April 26, 1986, when one of the four nuclear reactors at Chernobyl blew up, scattering radioactive material over a square mile. Thousands of people were evacuated from the area and told that they would be returning to their homes in a matter of days. This was a lie.
The government had from the outset taken steps to hide the incident, broadcasting an innocuous report to the effect that there had been an accident at the nuclear plant but everything was under control. To the workers, however, the order went out: “No one leaves. We cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation. That is how we keep the people from undermining the fruits of their own labor.” This was the totalitarian state in action. Bad news was to be covered up, and the news from Chernobyl was about as bad as it gets. The initial blast killed roughly 30 people, leaving behind enough radioactive residue to fatally poison the vicinity for 20,000 years. There are no reliable figures for the death toll that ensued over the years to follow. By some accounts it ran into the tens of thousands and is still climbing.
At first, the Soviets refused to take responsibility for the disaster. Early reports were lodged by Sweden and confirmed by Norway, both countries having suffered from radioactive pollution when air currents carried the explosion’s debris into their air spaces.
Jared Harris plays Valery Legasov, the Soviet nuclear physicist who oversaw the investigation following the accident. He’s suitably glum as he addresses the other members of the commission. He knows that his government is lying about what actually happened and that he’s expected to do the same. Harris convincingly plays Legasov as a man caught in the middle of these lies, and who is initially unsure how to respond. When he does, the character is made to say what the real Legasov assuredly didn’t—at least not until years later, before he committed suicide. He boldly reports, “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid. That is how an RMBK reactor explodes. Lies.”
The other cast members—especially Stellan Skarsgård as Legasov’s superior and Emily Watson playing a physicist who, improbably enough, comes to tell the truth about what happened—are equally persuasive in their roles. Through its fearful account of history’s greatest nuclear disaster, the film has the salutary effect of highlighting the consequences of evading the truth in service of politics.
High Life proves that with the right kind of reputation a director is insulated from negative reviews. Claire Denis is known as the talented director of such films as Chocolat and Bastards, but High Life doesn’t deserve to share that esteem. It is an opaque science-fiction slog that never reaches warp speed.
Denis’ film is moody to the point of somnolence, and slow as a food-clogged drain awaiting the plunger. Michelangelo Antonioni’s films seem cheerfully light-hearted by comparison. Here’s the premise: A space ship that looks like an abandoned warehouse drifts through the cosmos with several comatose passengers, the better to endure a seemingly endless journey. If only Denis had found means to put her audience in a similar suspension, the movie might have been marginally bearable. Instead we’re left to our own devices. I didn’t think it honorable to fall asleep while watching, so I fought the sandman for most of its two-hour running time—a grueling task.
Denis veils the plot in obfuscation. She begins with Robert Pattinson as Monte talking to his two-year-old daughter (Scarlett Lindsey) in a garden, which we later discover is integrated into the ship to provide food for the crew. The tiny actress is the most engaging character in the production. Monte warns her that they’re in the presence of a taboo. What taboo, we never learn—unless it’s the cargo of three astronauts in suspended animation. The girl looks up at him and giggles. She clearly doesn’t take him at all seriously. After feeding her, he leaves her in a blanketed compartment for the night, or whatever passes for night in the darkness of space. Since he has no one else to speak with and his duty as a narrator doesn’t extend to carefully explained exposition, we’re left on our own for a long while to piece things out as we wander with Monte through the ship, which throbs with hushed machine noises.
The ship’s passengers, it turns out, are death-row prisoners who have had their sentences commuted, in a manner of speaking, into an interminable journey to a black hole for the purpose of…what? The audience never gets the memo. When we finally get to see the black hole, it’s a screen-wide yellow-orange line that widens at Monte’s approach. I’ve never visited a black hole myself, but from what I’ve heard it doesn’t do to get too close. It’s a phenomenon that thoroughly upsets the time-space continuum and squishes would-be visitors.
The film’s special effects are meager by American standards. The most memorable appears in a scene in which Juliette Binoche as Dr. Dibs mounts a sex machine and, with the aid of handled straps, twists and turns until she reaches orgasm. There’s also a masturbation cabinet for men to achieve their own bliss. This is most instructive, but in Dr. Dib’s case, somewhat inconsistent since she’s determined to have a baby, though her method is more than a little farfetched. I won’t go into that.
Other excitement is provided by Monte’s efforts to remain celibate, a feat he achieves with much actorly moroseness.
By the time Monte reaches the black hole, he’s accompanied by his now-adult daughter. What will they do upon arrival? It’s a secret Denis unaccountably keeps under wraps. I haven’t an inkling why.