THE STORY – Anselm Kiefer is one of the greatest contemporary artists. His past and present diffuse the line between film and painting, thus giving a unique cinematic experience that dives deep into an artist’s work and reveals his life path.
THE CAST – Anselm Kiefer, Daniel Kiefer & Anton Wenders
THE TEAM – Wim Wenders (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 93 Minutes
Based on all available evidence, no living filmmaker has had a better grasp on how to use 3D technology than Wim Wenders (as always, James Cameron is the exception to the rule). In 2011’s “Pina,” the German auteur brought to life a collection of choreographer Pina Bausch’s dance pieces, using the depth of the 3D frame to put the audience right in the middle of the dance, as opposed to their usual vantage point from a theater seat. More than a decade later, Wenders returns to the 3D artist documentary with “Anselm,” a portrait of the German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer. Once again, the stunning 3D cinematography offers a closer look at its subject’s artwork than we could ever hope to get in real life. Still, Wenders fragments Kiefer’s biographical narrative too much, taking some big artistic swings that unfortunately don’t connect.
The film begins with shots of a field in which a spotless white dress stands, with a ream of white fabric behind it dotted with puddles of water. How did this dress get here? What is it meant to represent? We do not know. In fact, we don’t even learn until much later in the film that the dress is on the property of Kiefer’s 35-hectare studio in Barjac, France, which appears to be the largest indoor/outdoor live/work space on the planet. The giant warehouse that occupies most of the property serves as a studio, gallery, and archive for Kiefer. However, how he has managed to fund such an undertaking remains a mystery, as does why he created this space. Watching Kiefer bike around the studio space both entertains and allows us to see his character, but without any context for what we’re seeing, it becomes tedious.
Granted, what seems to interest Wenders the most is not Kiefer’s life story but his philosophy about art. Thus, Wenders shows us many scenes of Kiefer looking through or working on various works of art while talking about the German national identity and how he sees his own position as an artist in relation to that. Kiefer has never shied away from making explicit political commentary in his work; you can feel his passion when he speaks. Whispers fill the film’s soundtrack — sometimes giving way to a poetry reading (usually Paul Celan, one of Kiefer’s most long-standing inspirations) — as if the ghosts of the past are speaking directly through the art that fills practically every square inch of the frame. You won’t find a scene in any film this year that matches the visual artistry of watching Kiefer blowtorching bunches of straw on a canvas so large that he has to use an industrial scissor lift to reach them all. All at once, we see the art, the artist, and the artistry and work that goes into creating artworks on such a massive scale, something we would never see otherwise. Franz Lustig’s eye-popping 3D cinematography gives everything a tactility unmatched by other films, bringing the art to life in a way that film has never managed to achieve before. While this keeps the eyes entertained with so much to look at, all those unfamiliar with Kiefer and his work will likely find their brains asking numerous questions: Are these new pieces, or is he touching up older pieces? What are these specific pieces about? Why did he make these pieces so large?
Eventually, an old television provides an exposition dump of archival footage that puts Kiefer and his work into some context, at least regarding his rise to prominence. However, Wenders has concocted a scenario in which we follow a young Anselm (Daniel Kiefer) through some of the spaces where he lived, sometimes joined or watched by the present-day, real-life artist. At first, these scenes are hard to connect to, again because of the ambiguity surrounding what we’re watching: Are these dramatizations of past events, or are they imagined? Is Kiefer at a particularly reflective period of his life and/or career, or is this just a device that the filmmakers have decided to use? The film remains frustratingly oblique about this, even after it adds historical biographical context, making these scenes even more frustrating, especially since the artworks on display are so dazzling.
It cannot be understated just how incredible those artworks are, and as long as “Anselm” focuses on Kiefer’s art, the film is magical to behold. Wenders has made a film that matches his subject’s boldness and the tactile qualities he brings to his art. Whenever the film focuses on Kiefer’s life, it leaves something to be desired. This may not lead to a movie as wholly satisfying as “Pina,” but Wenders does match his earlier film’s unimpeachable visual craft and, in some ways, even tops it. One can’t help but hope that Wenders makes a third 3D documentary portrait of a German artist that pushes the use of 3D even further.