Wim Wenders portrays Anselm Kiefer: The romantic on the factory floor

In his film “Anselm,” Wim Wenders portrays the painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer as a universal artist in 3D – without critical distance.

Sculptures reminiscent of ruins in the landscape. The artist Anselm Kiefer right in the middle Photo: Road Movies Wim Wenders

The tall, gaunt man shuffles alone through his studio. He whistles a contented tune and stands in front of a screen, examining it. It is not quite as large as is usual for this artist’s paintings, less than six by five meters full of dark, seemingly decayed layers of burnt straw, poured lead or thick acrylic paint. Maybe this time it’s just two meters by one meter standing on a trolley in front of him in the semi-darkness.

He lifts something on the screen, possibly a galvanized piece of sheet metal. His whistle indicates that he is satisfied with his work. And routinely, as Anselm Kiefer has been doing for fifty years, the artist then gives the trolley a strong jerk in order to maneuver it loudly and precisely in front of a whole row of such canvases, all of which are probably waiting for a similar inspection from the master.

The rattling of the rollers echoes on the studio floor for a long time. Meanwhile, the camera slides many meters up and only then do you realize in an early scene from Wim Wenders’ artist documentary “Anselm – The Rushing of Time” what an incredible backdrop this actually is.

In the fading evening light, the interior of a huge warehouse can be seen, a veritable logistics center for art. No, there’s more: On meter-high shelves, between forklifts, asphalt cookers and kilns, Anselm Kiefer has created a monumental site of things and symbols here, in the former warehouse of the French department store chain La Samaritaine near Paris, with bed frames like those from early sanatoriums concrete blocks stacked in ruinous towers.

“Anselm – The rush of time”. Director: Wim Wenders. Germany/France/Italy 2023, 93 min.

The camera is now up above the deserted metropolis of his work. Anselm Kiefer, now 78 years old, still whistles his song, hops on a Dutch bike and disappears into the dark streets of his studio.

Large spaces transformed

The artist Anselm Kiefer delivers breathtaking scenes to his long-time friend, the film director Wim Wenders. And they become more and more impressive as the documentary progresses – in 3-D. The director devotes the loose chapters of “Anselm”, with which Wenders approaches the artist and his art, to Kiefer’s visually stunning workplaces: the attic of a school in Hornbach, the brick factory in the Odenwald, then the La Ribaute estate in southern France Avignon: a forever unfinished, tens of hectare theme park made of rusting corrugated iron halls and a dusty amphitheater, a total of 40 rooms with underground passages and crypts.

Here the camera circles around Kiefer’s mythical “women of antiquity”, these headless female figures in weathered wedding dresses, around a lead aircraft carrier or around the block towers that appear to have burned out. The war-torn Germany of his childhood – Kiefer was born in an air raid shelter in Donaueschingen in 1945, shortly before the end of the Second World War – is repeatedly resurrected by the artist in a ghostly manner in his studios.

La Ribaute bequeathed Kiefer to the Eschaton Foundation in 2020, and the facility can be viewed by the public. Wim Wenders came there for the first time in 2019. “I was really thrown off my feet and said, ‘now or never,’” says the director in an interview for NDR this summer after presenting “Anselm” at the Cannes Film Festival.

The final impetus for the film project that had long been in the works between the two friends was its breathtaking backdrop. And Wim Wenders is now bringing the Kiefer ruins onto the screen, making them even more aesthetic, even more sublime with his floating cameras and the plasticity of the three-dimensional.

The camp of the artist Anselm Kiefer is like a city; he cycles around in it Photo: Road Movies Wim Wenders

While Wim Wenders, who was born in Düsseldorf and was also born in 1945, broke out into the world and, with his now over 60 films, fictionally or documentarily processed the vast expanses of Texas, fashion in Japan, and a bizarre community in a New York hotel, Anselm Kiefer dug deeper and deeper in German history. With his art he worked against the silence about National Socialism in German post-war society. And he didn’t shy away from monumentality. This brought him a lot of criticism in Germany. But abroad, especially the USA and France, celebrated him. Even today, French President Emanuel Macron is considered an admirer of Kiefer and commissioned him for the Paris Panthéon in 2020.

The myth as an open construction site

Kiefer’s dark, large-format attic paintings from the 1970s, for example, were to become famous. He painted this perspective space with dark suggestive power several times, which critics at the time sometimes interpreted as Walhalla in Regensburg, sometimes as a Nazi ballroom. Once he put an empty cradle in it. It was intended to symbolize a place for the young Parsifal, where the medieval heroic epic began – and also the epic of the aspiring artist Anselm Kiefer. Wasn’t it megalomaniacal to identify with this brown-laden myth?

These sequences portray the artist on a lonely path to knowledge and maturity

Whether he is a neo-fascist is the question asked by a journalist in one of the historical television recordings that Wim Wenders repeatedly includes in his film. To which Kiefer replies quite dryly that this question is an insult to him, but that in return he should never call himself an anti-fascist, because that would mean even more insult to the anti-fascists who were persecuted to death by the Nazis.

This is Anselm Kiefer’s clearest political statement that the film delivers over the course of its 93 minutes. And it shows that the artist apparently has more distance from himself than Wim Wenders otherwise suggests with his portrait. He prefers to stage him as the great universal artist in his cosmos, letting Kiefer’s voice, which has sunk deep from smoking, come out with sentences like “The greatest myth is man himself”.

Such pathetic formulas are then replaced by the symphonic sounds of the film composer Leonard Küßner and are absorbed into the overwhelming aesthetics of the film. However, Wim Wenders repeatedly breaks with his own monumentality. Today it shows the artist at work in the studio, where the brush sometimes falls into the paint pot with a big splash or the automatic platform is adjusted over a period of minutes to the correct meter height in front of the canvas.

Childhood as a play scene

And he shows feature film-like flashbacks. Kiefer as a child drawing in the fields of his Baden-Württemberg homeland, played by Wenders’ great-nephew Anton Wenders. Kiefer as a student in the studio, as his gaze travels along the very wooden beams of the attic that would soon appear again in his paintings, played by his son Daniel Kiefer. These sequences, they portray the artist in one – how do you describe that? – lonely path of knowledge and aesthetic maturity. And in doing so, Wenders uses a very romantic cliché.

Wim Wenders likes to bring the formulaic to the screen here. Also in the “Women of Antiquity”, Kiefer’s female figures without heads, symbols for the forgotten women of cultural history. When Wenders lets the camera turn around her weathered wedding dresses on the La Ribaute estate, a young, female voice breathes into the film. Ghostly, also erotic, she whispers something barely understandable.

It’s enchanting in that Wendersian way. And at the same time it is so stereotypical of the director to have the woman appear in the film as such a shadowy, youthful muse.

Anselm Kiefer’s artistic view of women is much more multifaceted than these film images convey. Little known are his erotic watercolors, in which he questions himself as a male artist when he lets his typical symbols, such as towers, sprout like phalluses from the female body. But there is no room for such a self-deprecating jawan in “Anselm”, despite 93 minutes, despite 3-D. With this film, Wim Wenders made a monument to Anselm Kiefer, as pathetic and one-sided as a monument is. A pretty dusty monument, by the way.

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