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'Anselm' documentary is a thrilling portrait of an artist at work

<em>Anselm</em> offers both a thrilling portrait of Anselm Kiefer at work and, with the aid of terrific archival footage, lets us see what infuses his work with such intensity.
Janus Films
Anselm offers both a thrilling portrait of Anselm Kiefer at work and, with the aid of terrific archival footage, lets us see what infuses his work with such intensity.

Every now and then you come across an artist — Aretha Franklin, say, or Marlon Brando — who radiate such raw, undeniable force that they feel as immense as the Amazon. One of them is the painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer. The first time I saw his work in person, its sheer power all but knocked me back against the far wall.

Kiefer is the subject of Anselm, a new movie by Wim Wenders, a filmmaker who's almost his exact contemporary: They were born a few months apart in the war-ravaged Germany of 1945. Because Wenders is himself a figure of considerable gifts — he's won the top prize at Cannes, Venice and Berlin — this documentary is not a traditional "great artist" doc.

Shot in an astonishingly vivid 6K 3D — which captures art with dazzling clarity — Anselm offers both a thrilling portrait of the artist at work and, with the aid of terrific archival footage, lets us see what infuses his work with such intensity.

The movie begins with a long, gorgeous sequence at La Ribaute, Kiefer's studio/art installation in the southern French town of Barjac. Wenders' camera moves through, around and above mysterious white plaster statues of what appear to be brides — the heads are made of metal or vegetation — that are set out among trees and strangely formed buildings. Just as you fear that Wenders may be indulging his sweet tooth for beautiful imagery, the film begins exploring what gives Kiefer's art its wallop.

Kiefer was born into a country buried beneath post-World War II rubble, fostering a lifelong awareness of destruction. This helps explain why his paintings so often include actual burnt vegetation, shards of metal, hunks of earth, fragments of clothing.

In fascinating scenes, Wenders shows how the cocky, black-clad, elegantly grizzled 78-year-old artist creates his trademark effects — be it charring straw with flame throwers like the hero in a Tarantino movie or fastidiously pouring molten metal onto canvases with an elaborate contraption operated by an assistant.

Yet if Kiefer was shaped by ruin, even more decisive was his country's wilful amnesia. He grew up grasping that Germany and its artists weren't confronting the national past that led to World War II and the mass murder of the Holocaust.

Starting in the 1960s, Kiefer set about rectifying that failure, from his early photos in which he sardonically shot himself doing the Nazi salute in various European countries, to paintings that deconstruct mythic German heroes, to his staggeringly strong visions of what feel like the interior rooms of the death camps.

At once abstract and concrete, his work is all about remembering — and re-examining — a German tradition filled with pro-Nazi geniuses like Martin Heidegger and heroic witnesses like Paul Celan, whose Holocaust poem "Death Fugue" Kiefer takes as a touchstone.

This didn't exactly endear him to other Germans, who didn't like the way he was dredging up the past.

Now, Wenders has made many acclaimed fiction features — most famously Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire — yet he's also been a generous celebrant of those he admires. He's made documentaries about everyone from the aging Cuban musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club to choreographer Pina Bauschand Pope Francis. His appreciation of Kiefer feels especially personal. Wenders knows that Kiefer's work has tackled head-on subjects that he himself has ignored or only approached at very oblique angles.

Focusing on the artist, not the man, the film makes us feel Kiefer's art in all its beauty, bleakness and moral weight. Wenders doesn't get into stuff like Kiefer's marriages or discuss how, thanks to the craziness of the art market, his net worth is estimated at more than $100 million dollars and he can afford to buy tracts of land to build and display his art. He does occasionally dramatize moments from Kiefer's life and these re-creations are the film's one flaw. Not a calamitous one, but hokey and unnecessary.

What has always made Kiefer's art necessary is his sure instinct for what's essential. In what he calls his "protest against forgetting" of Germany's dark history, he got in early on the themes that people continue to explore in films like the upcoming The Zone of Interest, about a family who live happily outside the barbed wire fences of Auschwitz. If you know Kiefer's work, Wenders will show you his artistry in a way you've never before seen it, and if you don't know it, Anselm will make it clear why you should.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.