Anselm Review: Wim Wenders Documentary Is A Portrait Of The Artist In 3D Cannes

Though he is still mostly known for his lyrical, America-set road movie Paris, Texas, which won the Palme d’Or in 1984, Germany’s Wim Wenders does most of his best work when he’s back on home turf. The Berlin Wall, for example, provided the backdrop for his 1987 masterpiece Wings of Desire, in which philosophical angels roamed a divided city that was still trying to reckon with the shame of the Second World War. His new documentary, Anselm, is ostensibly the biography of a fellow artist, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to read it as a veiled autobiography, in that its subject isn’t so much a person as the way that life experience and intelligence combine to create art.

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In that respect, Wenders’ film, a Special Screening at the Cannes Film Festival, will not do much to generate a whole new audience for artist Anselm Kiefer; though his portfolio is astonishing — Shelley’s famous phrase “Look upon my works ye mighty and despair” comes to mind — it remains achingly oblique. Wenders gives context but never answers, and arguably it’s to his credit that he seeks to preserve those mysteries. The opening scenes are a statement of intent, as Wenders’ camera circles a forestful of wedding dresses, stiffened with plaster, that have bricks, or shards of glass, or planetary sculptures, in the space where a head should be.

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The allure of 3D for this is immediately obvious, notably when a ray of sunlight cuts through the trees, but the format comes into its own when Wenders takes us into Kiefer’s studio. The room is stuffed with paintings that hang in all directions, but when the artist cheerfully rides into frame on a bicycle, the sheer size and scale of the art becomes shockingly apparent. That it’s so enormous is one thing, but, as the film goes on to reveal, there’s also an awful lot of it, all seemingly in a perpetual state of gestation.

As the film reveals, Keifer has been an artist for almost all his 78 years, showing precocious levels of talent at an early age. Born in the spring of 1945 in the Black Forest — five months before Wenders — he missed the bulk of the war but grew up to be fascinated by it, not just in the cycle of destruction and regeneration it caused but also in the psycho-geography of battlefields. Another key tenet is the use and abuse of classic art and mythology by the Nazis, notably Wagner, but his own personal muse is the Jewish poet Paul Celan. Celan’s words are sprinkled throughout Anselm, and act as a rebuttal to the historic charges of fascism that have been levelled at the artist over the decades, usually by fellow Germans who were especially outraged by Heroic Symbols (1969), an action piece that depicted him giving the infamous (and illegal there) Hitler salute.

After digging into Keifer’s background with ingenious use of animation, a lot of archive and a little bit of re-enactment, Wenders largely tackles the artist’s life via the approach of identifying key phases, which mostly align with his use of studios. His first was a disused brick factory in Höpfingen, Germany, and Keifer embraced its previous identity by creating curious installations involving random piles of rubble, some of which look eerily like empty spaces in a disused brick factory that have been filled with random piles of rubble. The concept of modern art being the emperor’s new clothes is as old as the movement itself, and Keifer clearly wants to play with that prejudice, leavening his work with wit and self-awareness that is made clearer by scenes of him at work, which he approaches with the casual professionalism of a diligent manual laborer.

Nothing about his art is particularly figurative, and nor is it ‘easy’ by any metric; a particularly telling sequence sees the artist melting silver in a crucible and splashing it over a blackened canvas. Whether there’s a health and safety department nearby is never made clear, but it does show the level of risk and physicality involved here. It also raises questions about the boundaries of art, as Keifer’s portfolio seems to expand exponentially. Unlike Picasso, he doesn’t abandon canvasses, he outgrows whole studios, and currently occupies a series of aircraft hangars in France. 

By the time film has brought us up to date, it’s hard to imagine seeing it in any format other than 3D for this reason alone, and if Anselm fails in broadening the reputation of its already internationally known subject, it’s an extraordinary post-pandemic endeavor that succeeds in reminding viewers of the thrill of being in the presence of great art.

Title: Anselm
Festival: Cannes (Special Screening)
Director: Wim Wenders
Cast: Anselm Kiefer, Daniel Kiefer, Anton Wenders
Running time: 1 hr 33 min
Sales agent: Hanway

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