Bryan R. Monte
AQ38 Autumn 2023 Film Review
Wim Wenders, Anselm Kiefer, (Road Movies; German with Dutch Subtitles), 93 minutes.
On 12 October 2023, I attended a special showing of Wim Wenders’s new film, Anslem Kiefer, in combination with the press preview of Anselm Kiefer’s Bilderstreit exhibition at Museum Voorlinden in Wassenaar, The Netherlands. The film was shown at the Haagse Filmhuis in the centre of The Hague. The official premier of the film was four days later on the 23rd, so this was something of a treat. In the film, Wenders shows Kiefer at work in his enormous atelier in his art village in the French countryside, which also includes sculpture gardens, warehouses, and exhibition areas.
However, the film does more than that. It also recapitulates important scenes from Kiefer’s youth and his career as an artist. We follow Kiefer from schoolboy with his traditional German, knee-length trousers to his first art awards, through his different and increasing larger ateliers in Germany and France, until Wenders captures the old master himself at work on some of his most recent, large canvases—with a flamethrower and assistants at the ready with water to put out the fire before it completely consumes the canvas.
The film begins with work not included in Museum Voorlinden’s collection: concrete-like white dresses draped over metal frames exhibited outdoors among the trees reminiscent of a fashion designer’s sketches for his/her dresses without a body to fill them. From time to time the textures of the natural surroundings, such as birch tree trunks or the edges of the artwork come to the fore due to Wenders filming of scenes in 3D. In the background the sun is low in the sky, perhaps a sunrise or sunset, but due to the undefined celestial orientation of the camera, that is not certain. Some dress frames are capped with what appear to be representations of atoms, similar to the one atop the former GDR Weltklok, in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz; others with bricks, blocks, or wire. There is the sound of breathing and next the viewer sees Kiefer’s art towers on the grounds of his estate. Then the scene changes to a greenhouse which shelters more of these white dresses representing women of antiquity with books, cubes, ladders, bricks, and a bird cage instead of heads, and shards of glass in the folds of one dress, thus introducing many of Kiefer’s recurring materials and themes.
Next, we see Kiefer riding a bicycle in one of his enormous storage areas or ateliers. There is the sound of airplanes overhead as Kiefer passes enormous shelves with various objects he will recycle into his artwork. In particular he sees old aircraft wings and names them after Biblical angels: Uriel, Raphael, Michael, etc. In addition, Kiefer looks through drawers of old photographs for inspiration and/or material for other artwork. Lastly, he cycles past his large canvases.
Then, Wenders mixes the past and the present in his film by showing the young Kiefer, (played by his grand-nephew, Anton Wenders), looking at a black and white diorama, then photos of boys running through the snow, and lastly, the young Kiefer actor walking through Kiefer’s art village. It is also a filmic technique and metaphor repeated throughout the film: the child being the father of the artist. Another is the interspersing of historical films and photos, such as women sorting through and recycling bricks in post-WWII Germany interspersed between scenes in the present.
After that, Wenders adds a third element: quotes from Martin Heidegger and Paul Celan in Kiefer’s oeuvre. Celan’s Totesfuge is read, a poem about the Shoah. Next, we see Kiefer on an enormous bed with white sheets illuminated by one bare light bulb in his enormous workshop surrounded by metres-large canvases in progress. Then, we are shown Kiefer’s library of heavy lead books, and then X-rays of patients with advanced brain cancer. A voice over says that Kiefer would have liked to have met Heidegger. ‘He did meet Paul Celan in the ‘60s. Neither of the two mentioned the war.’ Another voice over is by Columbia University art critic Simon Schama. He states that Kiefer’s art ‘prods incessantly at the wound of German history.’
Then Wenders shows Kiefer at work in his different and increasingly larger ateliers: an attic in Hornback where he draws a scene from a photo projected onto a canvas, an abandoned factory in Buchen, and a disused brick factory in Hopfingen, Germany, during his German period. In 1992, he moved to France and bought a former silk factory in Barjac, where he established his above-mentioned art village. Wenders cuts between old or recreated footage from Kiefer’s former ateliers to his present one in Barjac and connects some of them with his own narrative. For example, an actor, portraying the 30-something Kiefer, drives an orange VW bug, with some canvases attached to its roof, from his workshop in a snowy, forested landscape to a photo of another, the abandoned brick factory in Buchen ‘because he needs the space’. Here the artist or the actor states, he likes to put photos in books ‘to have them for the next 2,000 years’.
The narrator states that this is when Kiefer made it big in the US at the MOMA, showing some of his books, sculptures, and black and white photos. Wenders also shows some of the Hitler salute photos Kiefer made of himself while wearing his father’s former WWII German army uniform as a protest against people forgetting what happened. (The Hitler salute is still illegal in Germany and punishable with up to three years in prison).
Next, Kiefer himself in the present tosses clothes that he has made flat and heavy, from a spiral staircase in his present workshop. One item is similar to the white chemise he used in his Karfunkelfee (2009) vitrine sculpture. (See Kiefer’s Bilderstreit exhibition review in the issue for more details). Each falls to the floor with a thud. This is followed by a 3D section about Jason and the Argonauts, a bit of the story is read in a child’s voice. Then a section about Lilith in the Garden of Eden followed by a historical footage of the bombed ruins of a post-WWII city. In German, a voice over says ‘the great myth is humankind itself’ and a little later, ‘myth is the way to understand history.’
The scene returns to an aerial view of Kiefer’s art enclave with the sound of airplanes overhead as the Der Morgenthau Plan is mentioned. Henry Morgenthau was US President Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture. In 1944, during the throes of the war when Allies weren’t making much progress in Europe, Morgenthau suggested starving the Germans into pacification after the war was over. (See my review of Museum Voorlinden’s Bilderstreit exhibition for more about this artwork). Then a constructed ruin in Kiefer’s art park is shown, a shaft of sunlight revealing a subterranean, partially, sand-filled area.
Next, a boy wearing the traditional 1950s German child’s school backpack rides up on a bicycle to a palace. He walks up the steps. Inside, he sees a drawing, which include animated portraits of philosophers speaking to themselves or each other. Then the scene cuts to Kiefer or the older Kiefer actor looking at photos from the 1950s of his family, then footage (recreated) of when Kiefer won the Jean Watters prize in 1963, which enabled him to visit the places that had inspired Vincent van Gogh. The film briefly shows pencil sketches of a man’s and a woman’s faces. It reveals, perhaps, the reason for Van Gogh’s lasting influence on Kiefer’s work, and in particular, Kiefer’s repeated use of the sunflower motif. Then, the child lies down in a field of sunflowers. Next, Kiefer is shown lying down on the ground with stars overhead. After that, the film cuts to some of Kiefer’s bicycle sculptures: a bicycle with two large fronds or feathers attached to the handlebars and another bicycle carrying bricks.
The next scene is in Venice where Kiefer himself walks down a marbled portico, and then he is in a room with one of his enormous, wall-size canvases. Then, a scene of post-WWII Germany with people still living in flats with the occasional wall blown out, followed by a possibly historical film of a man walking a tightrope over the ruins. Then the camera pans higher and higher until a scene in a forest replaces the sky. The schoolboy Kiefer stands by a lake. Then the older Kiefer replaces the boy in the same position. With Lilith dresses in the background and a voice saying ‘Childhood is time of education, that’s where the man begins.’ the film ends with the sun again low in the sky with one of Kiefer’s winged, semi-abstract, metal sculptures in the foreground.
Wenders’s Anselm Kiefer provides a praiseworthy look into the artist’s development, including his now spacious atelier, his artistic enclave in Barjac and some of his artistic production methods. However, a deeper insight into Kiefer’s psyche, especially his flesh and blood relationships, is missing. What about his relationships with other contemporary artists and his own family? How did these people influence his art? How much would we really understand about Picasso if someone made a film about him, but didn’t mention his female lovers, models, partners, and the artists, writers, and artistic movements with which he associated in Spain and in France?
After an hour and half film about this master, I have little or no idea how his human and artistic relationships are reflected in his work. To really know him better, I would have preferred a bit more flesh and blood. AQ