Published January 24th, 2024 by Russ White
The new documentary about Anselm Kiefer takes a lyrical approach to the artist’s life and work reckoning with German history
On May 8, 1945, with Hitler dead and much of Germany overrun by Allied troops, the Nazis surrendered. Save for a few more skirmishes along the Eastern Front, the fighting in Europe was over, and German civilians found themselves in a landscape reduced to rubble. Photos show great mountains of bricks and blocks where buildings had once stood; at their feet, paths and roads haphazardly emerge as bucket lines and shovel crews make slow progress. Peace would bring hard work.
Born exactly two months earlier, on March 8 in southern Germany, Anselm Kiefer grew up in these ruins, later calling them his “playground.” He would go on to build a wildly successful career as a painter and sculptor, creating monumental works about the legacy of Nazi atrocity, German complicity, and the cycles of life and death in a world caught between natural and mechanized forces.
If you’ve ever experienced a Kiefer in person, especially one of his gigantic mixed media paintings, you will likely remember the effect it had on you. They are sobering and overpowering, large enough to swallow the viewer whole. Black and brown and thick with mud and straw and metal, his paintings are deeply layered material ruminations on history, mythology, poetry, and biology. Not until watching Anselm, a new documentary playing at The Main Cinema in Minneapolis, did I realize the importance of place, as well. You could almost describe him as a landscape painter.
“I think there is no innocent landscape,” he told Jim Cuno on the Getty Art+Ideas podcast in 2017. “Landscape is for me not only beautiful in itself, it is a container for traces, for history.”
Anselm Kiefer, Die Ordnung der Engel (The Hierarchy of Angels), 1985-87. Oil, emulsion, shellac, acrylic, chalk, lead propeller, curdled lead, steel cables, band-iron, cardboard on canvas, 133-1/2 x 220-7/8 x 22-3/4" unframed. Walker Art Center 1987.11.1-.3. Gift of Penny and Mike Winton, 1987. Image courtesy of walkerart.org.
The film follows the artist throughout his life, rooted in the present at his sprawling studio compound in France. Director Wim Wenders, who was also born in Germany in 1945, intersperses his present-day footage with clips from more conventional documentaries, filming them being played on old television sets or projected onto fluttering white sheets. This found footage outlines the arc of Kiefer’s career, and Wenders organizes the story by place as well, sectioning the film out according to Kiefer's times spent at different studio locations in Germany and France. Wenders also takes the liberty of dramatically reenacting portions of the artist’s early life both as a curious schoolboy and as a young man exploring the countryside with a camera. “The child is the father of the man,” wrote Wordsworth, but for these two German auteurs, the land is the father to all.
The documentary clips provide the most exposition — otherwise there is very little talking. Moviegoers should be prepared to experience Kiefer’s work rather than be educated about it; Wenders aspires to match the energy of the artwork, not the wall labels. That’s where the existing footage comes in, providing the crib notes for those of us unfamiliar with his early works: a student of Joseph Beuys, Kiefer first made waves with Occupations, a series of photographs from the 1960s of the artist making the Sieg Heil salute at locations of Nazi conquest — a major taboo in post-war Germany. Kiefer was no Nazi; he was rebelling against forgetfulness and appealing to shame — demanding it, even.
"History is a material," he says in one of the earlier docs. "It's like clay; you can form it as you want it. You can abuse it, this form. They all do."
Anselm is a lyrical endeavor but a dour one at that. It is a feast of grays and browns and blacks, and I counted exactly zero smiles throughout. The biggest flashes of color come from the artist’s handheld flame-thrower, with which he torches clumps of straw glued in patches to his canvases. Studious assistants stand ready to hose down the artwork at the maestro’s behest. Elsewhere in his factory studio, wearing a black t-shirt, baggy pants, and a pair of Toms, Kiefer pours molten lead out of a crucible rigged with hand-clamps to a forklift, splattering the hot metal onto an artwork. Not exactly OSHA-approved.
Still from Anselm, via Indiewire.
As an artist, I found Anselm most engaging during these moments of making. Even his paintings are sculptures, and I assume this is why Wenders shot the movie in 3-D, to add even more drama to his tracking shots of the artworks in situ. Empty wedding dresses stand amidst piles of rubble, their shoulders stacked with bricks and metal. Floppy lead warplanes sprout giant dead sunflowers inside a greenhouse. Massive canvases on wheels line the walkways through the cold concrete warehouse.
Wenders’ film makes no bones about mythologizing this artist as a serious, important man doing serious, important work, making a career of wrestling with history. He smokes, he reads, he rides his bicycle throughout his cavernous studio, and he works. In one of the sampled documentary clips, Kiefer is asked whether he is using myth to escape. “There is no such thing as escaping into myth,” he answers, “because myth is present.” You would be forgiven if you come away from this film thinking it was all a bit much.
The legacy of a world war cannot rest on one man’s shoulders alone, and I’m left considering other post-war artists’ approaches to the deep ennui that followed, even as history kept churning forward. Lee Bontecou comes to mind — an American sculptor (one of my favorites) who constructed menacing grimaces out of metal rods and old canvas. Or Ursula von Rydingsvard, also born in Nazi Germany, whose gorgeous carved wooden sculptures wed material and process to form imposing, bulbous eruptions. Few artists, however — these included — take Nazi horrors as their explicit source material. In terms of staring atrocity in the face, Mauricio Lasansky’s oversize drawings of snarling Nazi officers and bruised, cadaverous infants — on view last year at Mia — go pound for pound with Kiefer. That series maintains an edge of anger that Kiefer’s works do not. Kiefer’s are elegies; Lasansky’s are indictments.
Mauricio Lasansky, No. 5 (detail), 1961, from The Nazi Drawings (Levitt Foundation © Lasansky Corporation) via Hyperallergic.
It raises a question about both Kiefer’s compositions and Wenders’ film: where are all the people? Kiefer is compelled towards totems and symbols and earthly elements, stirring in us the horrors of an empty room or a barren field. But the perpetrators do not make an appearance. In the same way that an exhibition of a work is passive in relation to the making of it, Kiefer is showing us the place where the thing happened, not so much the people responsible. Perhaps we the viewer are meant to be implicated, if not as the actors then at least as the bystanders. It also makes me want to peak behind the curtain of Wenders’ myth here: after a day spent flinging fire and mud about in the studio, who is washing the dirt out of his t-shirts? As was recently popular to ask about Thoreau, who’s making the sandwiches here?
We see a few studio assistants and, aside from Kiefer’s middle-aged son playing a younger version of the artist, only one family member — indeed, the only woman in the film — who is seen for about three seconds vacuuming the floor of a luxurious estate that the boy Anselm gets to explore. The rest of the dresses stay empty, stacked as they are with piles of lead sheets and great metal spheres, labeled with the names of characters from history and literature. There is the obvious virginal innocence signified here (it’s not his strongest work), but this army of anonymous brides also reminds me of the trümmerfrauen, the “rubble women," the ones who did the bulk of the work of cleaning up the ruins of post-war Germany, one wheelbarrow at a time. It should be noted that they, like the landscape, could not claim innocence either.
It is interesting how eagerly Kiefer takes up this spirit of guiltful toil when, with the many millions this artwork has brought him, he could be lounging on a yacht or rubbing elbows with the glitterati — and maybe he does, who knows? But not in this doc or any of the others. I think often of the Del the Funky Homo Sapien line, “The only reason why I’d like to strike it rich is to be able to keep the flow, that’s how deep it go,” and hats off to Kiefer for keeping the goddamn flow. His is the long view — the geologic view — one human lifetime spent saying “Lest we forget” in earth and ash on a wall. His perspectives vanish deep into the distance even as their physical imposition snaps those of us outside the picture into an awe-struck present.
In this present, of course, we find fresh piles of rubble with which to reckon, ones tied intimately to the same legacy of World War 2. Facing the urgent needs of this moment, artworks alone would seem to fall far short.
“Poetry can’t stop a bullet,” said Palestinian-American poet and Mizna editor George Abraham. “Poetry won’t free a prisoner. And that’s why we need to do the political organizing work as well. But if we can’t imagine a free liberated world in language, how can we build one?”
Whether Kiefer and Wenders are looking only backward here is a valid question. The past is the parent of the present, to be sure, but for those of us living and thriving in a culture whose legacy on this continent includes so many atrocities and whose taxes and shopping habits are funding so many others elsewhere, it may be instructive to wonder: At what point does shame become self-indulgent? At what point does a landscape acknowledgment not suffice?
It feels clear to me at what point the film teeters into self-indulgence — no spoilers — but then again, if we are to be embarrassed by earnestness, we are doomed from the start. We just need to be mindful of the myths into which we are willing to escape. ◼︎
Still from Anselm, via NPR.
Anselm is currently playing at The Main Cinema through early February. They have offered MPLSART readers a special discount code for half-price tickets at checkout: ARTFILM24
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