Wim Wenders’ documentary film, Anselm, delves into the life and meteoric career of painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer. The 3D film retraces how the artist established himself as a giant of the contemporary art world. It is a testament to the seventy-eight-year-old artist’s commitment to his vision of humanity, spirituality and how we deal with history.

Wenders has taken remarkable care in realising this artistic epic. I watched it in 3D glasses at the Sydney Film Festival premiere, the whole time wondering if these were really necessary. As in most art presentations now, the need for entertainment and spectacle creeps in—but hey, this was a theatre, so I went along with it. Wenders’ film focuses on the monumentality of Kiefer’s work and the sheer breathtaking ambition of scale. Rather than simply documenting the artist’s oeuvre, the director sets you up to “experience” Kiefer’s sculpture and paintings. Early on, we watch Kiefer ride an old bicycle around his massive studio hanger in Croissy-sur-Seine, on the outskirts of Paris, surveying miles of stacked works in varying unfinished states–alluding to the artist’s depth of ambition and engagement with his ideas.

The director constructs flashbacks to Kiefer’s development as a child, scrawling maps and architectural drawings in a small nondescript bedroom attic in his childhood home. The child’s character is played by Anton Wenders, the director’s grand-nephew. The young Anselm Kiefer is also portrayed by Kiefer’s son Daniel. He shows footage of Kiefer’s home town in ruins in 1945 during World War II, the year of the Kiefer’s birth. The bombed German cities, rubble, images of a rebuild that surrounded a young Kiefer as he grew up. It’s not hard to make the associations of the ruinous tactility and surface buildup in the future artist’s artworks. Kiefer himself has said, “Rubble is the future. Because everything that is will pass. There’s a wonderful chapter in Isaiah with the verse: ‘Over your cities grass will grow.’ This saying alone always fascinated me, even when I was a child.”

After a false start in law, Kiefer turned his love of art and passion for poetry into a career. The film quotes verse by Paul Celan, a great Romanian poet and lifelong source of inspiration for the artist. Celan experienced the horrors of the concentration camps, having been forced to work at one and losing his parents at another. Kiefer says, “Celan does not merely contemplate nothingness; he has experienced it, lived through it . . . ’only poems are real they are matter in the abyss of antimatter.’”

Kiefer is seen studying under the tutelage of German artist Joseph Beuys, moving on to cut a swathe in the art world on his own merits, with his dissection of Germany’s historical dark past and skewering of Fascist and Nazi iconology. He was often criticised for dealing with the Holocaust, and we see a young Kiefer defending his art to critics. The film highlights the elder artist’s later reluctance for interviews. As a greying artistic statesman, Kiefer now speaks eloquently and sparingly after years of poking.

The process of destruction and trust in the accident are important elements of Kiefer’s practice. We see him using flamethrowers to torch and distress his materials, pouring molten lead over surfaces and throwing clay, plaster, paint and/or straw onto massive canvases. Wenders took two years to film this process, delivering a beautifully poetic documentation.

Kiefer comes alive as the human architect of these awe-inspiring works. Through clever drone cinematography his monumental works in the landscape are given even more poetic weight. Wenders carefully manoeuvres through and around the colossal sculptures on one of Kiefer’s previous properties, in Barjac, near Nîmes in the south of France. Tomb-like towers that reach up to nowhere, empty ruined vaults and lonely statues of headless goddesses—such as the mythic, demonic, female outcast Lilith—inhabit the windy, quiet scenery. Wenders is a fan but maintains a careful distance and respect for the work. In an interview with Charlotte Pavard from the Festival de Cannes, Wenders says, “I’ve been always impressed by the immense scope of his work, reaching deep into history, astronomy, philosophy, biology, physics, and myths. There are no limits to his palette or his imagination.”

The film is more than a documentary. It’s a moving and captivating encapsulation of Kiefer’s work and the arc of a great career. A tribute to a visionary artist and filmic record, not to be missed by serious art lovers who are unconcerned with fashionable celebrity. It’s purely about how great art is formed.

This review was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 65 
Since premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2023, Anselm is on view in select cinemas worldwide in 3D and 6K-resolution. Distributed through Janus Films and Sideshow.
Runtime 93 minutes.

Latest  /  Most Viewed  /  Related