ANSELM film review

(Wim Wenders 2023, running time 93’)

A few thoughts on Anselm, Wim Wenders’ 3D film about the artist Anselm Kiefer, which I saw as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival. Spoiler alert: infuriation ahead!

The film is a journey through Kiefer’s monumental studio spaces and monumental world view. Whether you are familiar with his work or not, there is plenty to see, and this is perhaps the greatest success of the film: it shows you enough Kiefer to last a lifetime.

Milk tea cinema swagger

We get to see work-by-Kiefer and Kiefer-at-work, in various types of action and meditation, philosophising, burning canvasses, cycling through his studio-hangar space at Barjac in France, and just generally genius-ing. Look Kiefer up, and words such as “majestic”, “giant”, “luminary”, “titan”, “colossus” are how he is generally described. Wenders’ film amplifies each one of them, in a solemn-verging-on-tacky cinematic register.

The film opens with a lengthy shot of an installation of headless white dresses topped with various rubble, stacks of books, barbed wire, and other contorted materials – mythological women crushed under the weight of history, myth, and philosophy (particularly Martin Heidegger and Paul Celan), and channelled through the cigar-smoking, history-contemplating, matter-orchestrating Kiefer.

In the other scenes, we travel through the studio spaces and the grounds of Kiefer’s estate, captured through drone footage of vast man-built landscapes whose scale is hard to grasp. We see how the materials of the art are taken from the landscape and then turned into landscapes themselves, into the architectural formations, canvasses, installations, and archives that form Kiefer’s work. But somehow the footage remails flat and self-congratulatory. There is no challenge, no rupture, no questioning of the genius narrative which Wenders does nothing but reinforce.

And then it gets really weird: the film is punctured by flashbacks to Kiefer’s childhood and his middle-aged self (he is now 78 years of age). Wenders’ grandnephew child Anton plays Kiefer as a boy, and Kiefer’s son Daniel plays his middle-aged father! While watching the film, I was convinced that the scenes of him as a boy were computer-generated, and I still don’t believe they are not (why so tacky??). Isn’t it bizarre that the only protagonists of the film by a German man born in 1945, about another German man born the same year, are their family members?

From left to right: Kiefer, Wenders, Kiefer, Wenders. Photo via imdb

Eminence, reverence, gravitas, austerity, awe – they are the only keys of this cinematic tune. There is not even slight evidence of development and difference to self and in fact, all the flashbacks are showing us THE SAME MAN, in the same poses, with the same reflections. Sure, this makes for a hugely successful art career, but also for a very unlikable character. I imagine my fellow spectators rolling their eyes under their 3D glasses… is everyone as annoyed as I am?

The problem is this. As much as Kiefer’s work engages with the history and landscape of Nazi Germany, it is at the same time so far removed from any of the themes and orientations that are relevant to today’s world, issues of ecological breakdown, working with rather than on matter, narratives of care and multiple positionalities, or re-examinations of centrality and art world canons. Do we really need a movie that praises a figure so preoccupied with his single world view, made by a director who does nothing but enable and prop up his conceit?

Where are all the studio assistants, the workers, technicians, fabricators, builders, makers, ARTISTS who make and maintain one of the grandest art studios in the world? Where are the friends and family members (again: Kiefer’s son only appears as his father!!)? We see a few of them on duty spraying water on some canvasses Kiefer is charring with a flame thrower, responding to the finger gestures of “Herr Kiefer”. What a missed opportunity to enter the intimate space and inner workings of this art operation, at the expense of being fed a lonesome genius narrative to the point of overdose. The studio assistants who seem like the most real humans in this whole mad universe are not even mentioned in the credits.

Why do we need this film? What is at stake in putting this discourse out into the world, what does it do? It gets Sabina writing – which is more than the insufferable David Walsh and his Museum of Old and New Art did (yet!). But at least MONA is FUN and challenging – even with Kiefer designing its new library which is currently under construction. I do have great memories of seeing Der Himmel über Berlin (it must have been 2008), and the 2014 Kiefer exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. They are both great artists who could do with unlearning how to gaze into their own and each other’s navels. German genius men at work are not all the rage anymore – and having so little awareness of one’s place in the big big world of ideas and art is not very manly or arty.

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