‘Anselm’ Review: Wim Wenders Explores the World of German Artist Anselm Kiefer in Glorious 3D
Shot stereographically on ultra-high resolution rigs, Wim Wenders’ latest documentary Anselm offers a mesmerizing, cinematic catalog of German painter-sculptor Anselm Kiefer’s deeply tactile, maximalist oeuvre.
As with Pina, Wenders’ luminous 2011 tribute to the late dancer-choreographer Pina Bausch, Wenders makes here the best case yet for arthouse theaters to keep their 3D projection kit up to date. For this is one of those rare movies that’s actually enriched by the use of the format, and not an excuse for a gimmicky thrill ride for the easily amused or very young.
The Bottom Line
A thrilling portrait of the art, if not the artist.
As a career survey of its subject, Anselm overlaps with Sophie Fiennes’ exquisitely austere doc Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, which also debuted at Cannes, albeit back in 2011. Wenders’ film, however, broadens its focus to take in Kiefer’s earliest and more recent work, and not just the monumental installation that is his former studio-cum-city-state in Barjac. , France, which Fiennes explored in depth. What’s more, this latest film also features two actors — Wenders’ young grand nephew Anton Wenders, and Kiefer’s own middle-aged son Daniel Kiefer — playing Kiefer at younger points in his life, while the now 78-year-old Kiefer plays himself throughout. .
In other hands, dramatic reenactment stuff such as this would seem like the cheesiest of documentary gimmicks, redolent of tacky true-crime docudramas. But here it mostly works, thanks to restrained deployment by Wenders and the way he uses his actors almost like statues or fleshy maquettes. They are often arranged to echo key figurative poses from Kiefer’s work, for example, performing the Nazi salute that Kiefer photographed himself doing in assorted places in his controversial, satirical series. Besetzungen (Occupations), or lying on the ground with hands behind his head, a posture Kiefer has painted into several works.
However, the real star of the show is the art itself. For much of the film Wenders has the camera gazing languidly at Kiefer’s sculptures, especially the stacked structures and free-standing plaster dresses, and the ginormous paintings (frequent collaborator Frank Lustig is on DP duties, with Sebastian Cramer on stereography), tracking slowly around them or following Kiefer as he cycles through the repurposed factor spaces where his work is kept.
This where the 3D and 6K resolution really come into their own as they afford viewers a rare chance to get up close and personal with the work, which often has a thick impasto surface, made up of all manner of materials aside from paint significant to the artist: dried vegetable matter; metals which he smelts and pours on the surface; paper ashes from where he’s burned away previous layers (we get to see one such pyrotechnic process in action with assistants on hand to hose down the flames); human hair; cat fur; Kiefer’s own ejaculate. I’m only kidding about the cat fur, and Kiefer doesn’t actually discuss his onanistic art practice here, but it’s well known that he used semen as material for a while back in the day.
It’s arguably worth knowing that last fact about Kiefer given that with his phallic cigar and rangy physicality (at one point he’s seen actually walking a tightrope — not bad for a 78-year-old), he does tend to come across as a proper grand old man of the art establishment, full of swagger and BDE. There are snippets of interviews with him about his work, which he discusses somewhat gnomically, but not a whiff of probing into his personal biography — as if all that matters is the work.
It is of course very eloquent stuff, especially the works that engage in a challenging way with Germany’s Nazi past, an era that came to an end the year Kiefer — and Wenders — were born. Clearly, the director feels an affinity with this similarly prolific and protean artist from his own generation, whom he has known personally for years. And as much as one can respect the decision to keep the film focused tightly on the art itself, some viewers might long for more material that reveals Kiefer the human-sized person, not the larger-than-life legend. Or alternatively, if Anselm only wants to communicate by quoting from and gesturing towards his idols, poets Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann and philosopher Martin Heidegger, why not interview the fabricators we see helping Kiefer make his work to get some insight? The interviewing of dancers who worked with Bausch was one of the most fascinating aspects of Pina.
But that will probably be the stuff of another documentary someday, one that might throw some light on how Kiefer amassed enough capital to create these vastly expensive and expansive works of art, and why this moment was chosen to throw a cinematic spotlight on him.
Check the latest Hollywood news here.