Never Look Away grapples with Germany’s sterilization and murder of 270,000 disabled people

Never Look Away Gerhard Richter

Never Look Away (2018, Sony Pictures Classics) is inspired by the life of artist Gerhard Richter.

By William Craig

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away is a riveting movie about the importance of the individual in art.

Loosely based on the life of artist Gerhard Richter, it follows a young German artist’s path to finding his own voice, against the forces holding him back, first from the Nazi, then from the Communist regime, and finally from the dictates of fashionable art in the free world. The movie makes a profound, always-relevant statement that the individual voice is all that matters in any work of art, more than the critics or the dictates of society.

But the movie is notable for another reason as well. It shines light on a lesser-known part of the Holocaust – Germany’s murder of its disabled and different-thinking citizens. Under the Third Reich, approximately 270,00 handicapped and disabled people were forcibly sterilized and murdered. This included thousands of people deemed “feeble-minded” or “mentally ill.”

Nowadays many of those sterilized and murdered would probably be diagnosed as autistic, or somewhere on the spectrum.

As a child, the movie’s hero Kurt Barnert has a beloved young aunt named Elisabeth. Although her condition is never completely specified, Elisabeth clearly thinks differently than those around her. She has unconventional ideas about what is beautiful, and moments of erratic behavior that are troubling to her family. The Nazi doctors deem her schizophrenic, and Elisabeth is forced away from her family to be sterilized, later to die in the gas chambers with other mentally divergent women.

His aunt’s death haunts Kurt for the rest of the film, and when he reaches his breakthrough moment, she becomes his first subject.

Never Look Away is brimming with intelligent dialogue, tense scenes and powerful performances, but it is Elisabeth who makes the first great impression, stealing each scene she is in, from the brilliant opening sequence in which she leads her nephew through the Nazi’s ‘Degenerate’ art show, which intended to convince the German people of the evils of modern art.

While the guide explains the ‘depravity’ and ‘un-German-ness’ of the artworks on display, Elisabeth slyly whispers to Kurt, “Don’t tell anybody, but I like it.” The actress Saskia Rosendahl plays Elisabeth with just enough eccentricity to detach her from the people around her, but also with an enduring warmth that makes the viewer wish to hear more and see through her eyes. It is clear from the start why she has such a special bond with her nephew.

Watching the film was especially haunting to a spectrum person like myself.

Nowadays our society is more open to different ways of thinking and learning. We are just beginning to value unique perspectives. Autistic people have ways to express themselves and show their true potential that were unavailable just a generation ago. Our voices are being heard, and we are succeeding in spite of, even because of the unique way out minds work.

Yet if I, or any other autistic person had lived in prewar Germany, or even in the prewar United States, we would be doomed by our condition. The most gut-wrenching scene of the film, for me, is not a scene of war, or even of Elisabeth’s death. It is the scene showing the Nazi doctors in conference, calmly and carelessly receiving instructions to dispose of their handicapped patients and “relieve them of their meaningless existence.”

It is impossible not to ponder the scope of this atrocity. How many people like Elisabeth were there? How many unique and intelligent minds and voices were silenced by a society that labeled them as “useless?” All throughout history, how many people have been swept under the rug who might have been heard and appreciated today? It is a question not many films or books have asked as eloquently before now.

Elisabeth’s story does much more for Never Look Away than provide historic context and a tragic backstory for the hero. It is she who first encourages Kurt to search for inspiration, and to look beyond the harsh guidelines set in place by the society they live in. Even after her death, she guides Kurt throughout the film to his final moment of truth. It is she who speaks the titular line – “If you never look away, your gaze will become strong as steel. You will see the truth. And everything that is true is beautiful.”

A person like Elisabeth could have made her own voice heard today. Nowadays she might have found doctors, teachers or therapists who would help her express her find her own unique place in the world. Because she was dismissed as mentally inferior, it is up to Kurt to give her gift to the world through his own. There were many people like her who died in the Holocaust, throughout all of history, without having their stories told. Mr. Donnersmarck does us a great service by giving us this story. Elisabeth’s beauty shines throughout this film as it shines through his final artwork, a reminder of what truly unique minds can tell us about art, about beauty, about truth.

Never Look Away was nominated for Cinematography and Foreign Language Film (2019 Academy Awards).

William Craig

I was born and grew up in Washington DC. I discovered my creative side from the age of one, and my love for writing at the Lab School of Washington, where I was one of the only students diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Even at a school for special needs students there was some uncertainty how to teach a person with my needs, but thanks to some very special teachers and the encouragement of my family, I was able to discover and hone my creative skills.

Since graduating, I have worked with the DC Public Library, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and at Learning Ally making books on tape for those with reading disabilities. I am still honing my creative skills today, drawing, writing creative fiction, and blogging on current events and popular culture.

After all this time I see my autism not as a burden but as a benefit, as my unique way of seeing the world, along with my strong memory and eagerness to learn. When I take an interest in anything, it becomes a passion. When I discover something it drives me to learn more, to read, study, expand my knowledge base and to secure details in my memory. This is what has driven me from an early age to learn all I could about subjects ranging from mythology to cartooning to the history of film and theater. I have been memorizing facts, songs, scenes and poems almost since I was able to speak, and I believe that same spirit drives me today.

1 Comment

  • How awesome that Never Look Away was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. Some stiff competition this year.

    Saw NEVER LOOK AWAY in August 2019 and the fate of Elisabeth engaged me so much.

    Of course pre-war United States developed the eugenics that Germans practised so monstrously. And in the Nordic countries too and even in France [Vichy most likely]. And of course it was practised on the National Socialist occupied nations.

    It is a hymn of the heart to German expressionism and to modern art more widely. It inspires and encourages historians; artists; journalists and I hope those in the social care and medical professions.

    “It is she who speaks the titular line – “If you never look away, your gaze will become strong as steel. You will see the truth. And everything that is true is beautiful.””

    Of course. Truth is beauty; beauty is truth; that is all you need to know – that is what Keats said.

    When first I read about a Val McDermid book about the Institute of Developmental Psychology which was set in Nazi Germany in 2001-02 …

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