Anselm review – a perfect combination of director and subject

Movie

Wim Wenders’ luxe 3D portrait of the flame-thrower wielding conceptual artist Anselm Kiefer is a dreamy delight.

When it comes to profile documentaries, it’s always nice when a filmmaker opts to talk about their subject in terms that they would not only respect, but welcome. Wim Wenders dusts down his 3D cameras – the ones that served him so well for 2010’s Pina – and heads to Barjac in southern France to embed himself with German conceptual artist, Anselm Kiefer. With a bottom-spanking paddle caked with paint in one hand and a flame-thrower in the other (and a fat stogie between his teeth), Keifer is our unsmiling (albeit it playful) host on a a multi-dimensional behind-the-scenes tour of his own private Xanadu – the sprawling studio complex, storage facility and all-terrain gallery space, La Ribaute.

The 3D aspect is often used to mesmerising effect, and dovetails perfectly with an artist whose work often demands the viewer inspect it from multiple angles and vantages. Wenders is also canny in his use of cross-dissolves and the layering of text over image to create multiple planes of perception that pop from the screen. The neo-classical soundtrack selections, too, comprise overlapping ambient sounds and whispered vocals which, again, emphasise the collage-like structure of the film.

It’s worth noting that this is less a film about Kiefer the person, but more a biography of the art itself. The artist gamely plays the part of poetic medium, and the intention appears to be a chronicle of creativity rather than a banal biog. Any information we’re given about Kiefer’s life and career relates to the meanings and symbolism of the art itself, which makes for a much more rich and unique film than one which allows fawning talking heads to do the heavy expositional lifting.

Two key influences that run through the artist’s work are the poetry of Paul Celan, a German-Jew writing critically of the Holocaust as it was happening, and Martin Heidegger, the giant of German philosophy who, in later life, neglected to acknowledge his own participatory acts during the war. Knowing this both diffuses and reframes the idea that, early in his journey, Kiefer was labelled a provocateur by the art world cognoscenti for a work in which he photographed himself in various locales around Germany giving the banned roman salute of the Nazis.

Rather than ironically appropriating fascist iconography, Kiefer was making a statement about the moral imperative to engage with the past, however chequered it may have been. His response to his fixation with ruins, destruction, desolation, is to state that, unlike one of his formative heroes, Van Gogh, he paints landscapes after the tanks have rolled over them.

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Published 7 Dec 2023

Tags: Wim Wenders

Anticipation.

It’s been a long while since the Wenders name was a guarantee of quality.

Enjoyment.

This is one of the good ones: a perfect combination of director and subject.

In Retrospect.

A bold statement on historical remembrance as filtered through the life of an artist.

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