Is a documentary a true account of reality? Such a question has been at the forefront of documentarian or biographical storytelling. Esteemed filmmaker Werner Herzog famously declared that the “poetic, ecstatic truth” in cinema can be attained only through “imagination and stylisation” in his manifesto, Minnesota Declaration (1999). As such, director Wim Wenders poetically visualises the artistic biography of the acclaimed contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer (1945-present) in this new documentary about his life.
Born just a few months before the end of World War II in Germany, Kiefer has been continually grappling with Germany’s national identity, history, and myths after and before the war throughout his over five-decade-long career. Exemplary works of his interest in retelling the history and the legacy of the Third Reich are the Heroic Symbols Paintings (1969-1970), through which Kiefer further expanded his evocative and ironic intentions expressed in his earlier performative work Occupations (1969). By depicting himself giving the Sieg Heil salute in mythically and religiously symbolic settings, he attempts to expose that ideologies are inlaid within, not intrinsic to, historical accounts. In this way, he reminds us that it is important to question what and how to remember. Although Anselm Kiefer is a revered artist in the art world now, his early artworks often caused controversy and are still perceived to be provocative by many. In this documentary, director Wenders pursues to reach the artist’s poetic truth.
Instead of accounting Kiefer’s life story from an outsider’s objective perspective, Wenders invites the audience to be immersed in Kiefer’s artistic journey and life philosophy. We watch Kiefer, played by the artist himself, creating, destroying, and decorating his gigantic art pieces in his enormous studio in France. We hear his thoughts as he reads Paul Celan (1920-1970), a German-speaking Jewish poet whose use of the German language parallels Kiefer’s utilisation of German cultural icons (arguably, both challenged the Third Reich’s exploitation of the German language and cultural symbols). We are transported back in time to witness younger Kiefer, played by Anselm’s son Daniel Kiefer, working in his different ateliers. We visit his childhood memory. We listen to Kiefer explaining his views on myth, history, religion, and philosophy while he walks us through his works. This is an intimate portrayal, not in the sense that we are in conversation with Kiefer, but instead in the sense that we can hear and see his thoughts.
In this form of poetic documentary, time is anything but linear. The past and the present merge as the childhood Kiefer and the older Kiefer look over a lake while the former is sitting on the latter’s shoulders. This closing scene, along with the previous scenes of the childhood Kiefer going through Kiefer’s 2022 installation in Palazzo Ducale, rather obviously tells us about the painter’s personal growth and journey. On another level, the scene brings back a point he made earlier in the film about myth/history being created in the present. For Kiefer, the past is constantly rewritten through its concealment, mythologisation, and/or excavation in the current time. As in the film, Anselm’s younger self explains how his contentious 1969 performance Occupations, in which he dressed up in a military custom and posed in such a way that imitates Hitler in various settings in Switzerland, France, and Italy, was not a deliberate provocation, rather an invocation of the tabooed history. In other words, director Wenders successfully tells Kiefer’s viewpoint from Kiefer’s own perspective through stylisation and imagination, to borrow Herzog’s words from the Minnesota Declaration (1999).
While watching the documentary, one is most likely to be mesmerised by the visuals rendered in 3D 6K. The imposing shots of snowy fields, dying sunflowers, and Kiefer’s vast studio in Barjac in the south of France, which bears an uncanny resemblance to an abandoned dystopian city, remind me why movies are called moving images: it is as if one could take a shot of a scene in the film and frame it as a painting. As a film about a visual artist, Anselm easily evokes visual pleasure within the spectators.
To circle back to the opening question, I would argue that Anselm is a poetic documentary told by the subject; in that sense, it is the authentic account of Anselm Kiefer’s artistic journey. Wim Wenders positions the subject, Kiefer, as the sole narrator of his own story through old interview footage, work scenes in his studio, and audio narrations by him (sometimes whispered by a female voice actor). Such lack of objectivity brings the audience intimately closer to Kiefer’s philosophy behind his works more than the artist himself.
Anselm is released in UK cinemas on 8th December.
Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor