Image: Anselm review – Wim Wenders’ reverent 3D portrait of artist Anselm Kiefer
Seriousness and severity … Anselm. Photograph: 2023, Road Movies
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Anselm review – Wim Wenders’ reverent 3D portrait of artist Anselm Kiefer Peter Bradshaw

17 May 2023

Wim Wenders brings a certain awe, or even shock, or even a kind of reverently docu-dramatised PTSD to his film about the German artist Anselm Kiefer. The creator of paintings, photographs, colossal installations and illustrated book artefacts is celebrated but in some quarters criticised for his engagement with German fascism and the Holocaust, mediated through his lifelong love for the poetry of Paul Celan. The film shows us his work in all its giganticism, with minimal archival interview material, though there are some fancifully conceived but successfully executed fantasy scenes of the artist in boyhood and young adulthood. The title perhaps intends the use of his first name not in any relaxed way, but in a style comparable to Leonardo or Michelangelo.

This is a film which Wenders presents in 3D, just as he did with his study of Pina Bausch in 2011 – the effect of the three dimensions there was to accentuate the physicality of the dancers. Here it has a more architectural effect, especially when we are in Kiefer’s studio areas, such as his huge 40-hectare atelier site La Ribaute in Barjac, near Nîmes in the south of France, which, with all its huge exhibition spaces and sculpture gardens is virtually this creator’s own city state. The 3D delineates the vast forms and monumental structures that loom up and out of the screen: we are immersed in this place in the way visitors would be, maybe even more so, as the camera is mounted on drones and platforms, and the film always encourages you go into cathedral-rubbernecker mode.

There is fascination – and trepidation – in watching the master at work, strolling or cycling around his vast warehouse, with creations piled or stacked in every corner. Does he employ assistants? The film doesn’t really show any, but there are some people doing the humbler tasks of helping him with the machinery he needs, especially when he is creating vast moodscape canvases in which the materials are charred and burned. This is a film of great seriousness and severity, although there are laughs of a gobsmacked nature to be had when you see Kiefer with an actual flamethrower, incinerating the straw-matted surface of a painting, to get that texture of devastation, though he is accompanied by someone whose job it is to spray water on the surface immediately afterwards to make sure things don’t get out of control. Kiefer appears in this film to be a dedicated cigar smoker: fortunately, he doesn’t have one lit while he’s doing this, but the insurance bills must be sky-high. 

Kiefer’s angry, passionate, haunted images are driven, of course, by Germany’s dark past, and Wenders’s film persuasively suggests that it is in the ruins of 1945, the year of the artist’s birth, that the seed of inspiration is to be found. The unforgettable images of shattered Berlin give us the dark uproar from which Kiefer’s work is thrown out. In a confrontationally transgressive and satirical spirit, Kiefer created work derived from fascist or Nazi iconology, or the 19th-century German mythic tropes that the Nazis manipulated. But Wenders’s film gives some space to Kiefer’s detractors, who suggest that he is riding an updraft of demonic inspiration and his work is having its anti-fascist cake and eating it. Kiefer himself is shown in old footage repudiating these suggestions although the issue is not raised in the present tense. It is possible still to be agnostic about the macho grandeur of Kiefer’s work and the “headless women” ball dresses that occupy the film’s opening section. Yet this is a superbly controlled and expressed film and its high seriousness about the nature and purpose of art really is invigorating.

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