Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck‘s Never Look Away (Sony Classics, 11.30) is a sprawling, three-hour epic about a gifted German painter who gradually finds his voice over a long period of totalitarian rule. It begins in World War II and ends sometime in the late ’60s. (Or so I recall.) Like von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, it focuses on the tension between an artist and changing political regimes and upheavals affecting his art.

Inspired by the life of painter Gerhard Richter, who lived under Nazi and Communist rule in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s before escaping to West Germany in ’61, it’s “engaging” in a rather prim and conservative manner, like a romantic TV movie or an on-the-nose airport novel. This happens, that happens…chapter by chapter, episode by episode. The viewer is always being told that the Richter-like protagonist (played by the not-very-tall Tom Schilling) is moving towards a profound climax or destiny of some sort. Struggling through all kinds of adversity and difficulty but gradually breaking through.

It honestly reminded me of The Other Side of Midnight except it’s about a committed artist rather than Marie France Pisier‘s gold-digger. The generous servings of gratuitous (but entirely welcome) nudity also carry a ’70s echo. It costars Sebastian Koch (the striking lead in The Lives of Others), Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl and Oliver Masucci.

Obviously I didn’t find it brilliant, but I didn’t mind it. I was never bored. The last hour is the most rewarding. Most of the critical community has been thumbs-up, and some have been knocked out. Showbiz 411‘s Roger Friedman has called it “a stunning masterpiece…one of the best movies I’ve ever seen in my life.” Who am I to dispute that kind of passion?

A German critic friend says it’s “aimed clearly at a higher-educated, middle-class audience that has an interest in art and history, but not necessarily in cinema. There’s a long tradition in German cinema for films like this that have all done really well. But I agree with you that it’s quite stuffy and almost antiquated — quite the opposite of the kind of risk-taking and wild art that the film champions.”