Anselm, dir. Wim Wenders, 2023 (all images courtesy Janus Films)

A white dress on a lone hill surrounded by woods. A line of brides, their heads replaced with a stack of books, a heap of twigs, an atomic model made of lead. Gowns dotting an empty greenhouse. A bucolic terrain eerily still.

One might be forgiven for mistaking the first ruminative minutes of Anselm, shot in 3D with 6K resolution, for an unusually somber outtake from The Polar Express. But in Wim Wenders’s imaginative, image-driven documentary about his friend, German artist Anselm Kiefer, the three-dimensionality serves less to entertain than to sensorily envelope and engross. From the plaster comprising “Femmes Martyres” (2018–19), the sculptural installation described above, to the ship-container towers over La Ribaute, Kiefer’s 100-acre estate in southern France, all surfaces are exceedingly tactile. Kiefer’s artworks punctuate a cinematic field of sweeping, multiplanar proportions — to which Wenders invites us to revel and recoil. 

Wenders’s shot composition mirrors the dense layering of materials that comprise the eponymous artist’s massive collaged works: scorched sunflowers, shattered glass, the rusted handlebars of a vintage bike. The camera moves between the planes of each shot as a dancer moves onstage. It’s no surprise that the director’s first 3D venture, in 2011, was a documentary about dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch.

Anselm, dir. Wim Wenders, 2023

Collaborative in both spirit and methodology, Anselm is less an homage to an individual than an intense poetic dialogue between two visionary German artists grappling with the relationship of form and content, collective trauma and creativity. Both born in 1945, and longtime friends, Kiefer and Wenders represent a specific generation of German citizens forced to reckon with their nation’s past crimes, which have haunted their entire lives. 

Superimposing footage of post-World War II German rubble onto the poetry of Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann, Wenders depicts the 78-year-old artist in his youth, middle age, and as he is today, suggesting that his art cannot be understood without grasping his life experiences during different eras in postwar Europe. (Kiefer’s earlier years are performed by Wenders’s grand-nephew and Kiefer’s own son, respectively, intertwining the legacy and creativity of the film’s creator and subject.)

Thus it’s unfortunate that Wenders does not acknowledge the continuing relevance of the themes Kiefer probes — collective memory, the willful erasure of traumatic history, the culpability of the German people and, by extension, Whiteness itself. As much as Kiefer and Wenders are still contemplating the ethnic and cultural myths that undergirded the rise of National Socialism and laid the groundwork for the Holocaust, why not relate these myths to the more recent rise of fascism and alt-right extremism throughout the world?

Anselm, dir. Wim Wenders, 2023

What does it mean for a film addressing overtly political themes to remain apolitical? As a director, Wenders has often limned this question: his 2023 Perfect Days pays tribute to a fictional toilet cleaner in Tokyo, but refrains from any sustained class critique; his 1987 Wings of Desire follows a brooding angel who falls in love with a circus performer in a divided Berlin. “Every film is political,” Wenders claims in his 1988 book The Logic of Images. “Most political of all are those that pretend not to be: ‘entertainment’ movies. They are the most political films there are because they dismiss the possibility of change. In every frame they tell you everything’s fine the way it is.”

While Anselm’s chief aim is not to entertain, it still resists framing Kiefer’s oeuvre within a contemporary sociopolitical context. While not an outspoken political voice, Kiefer has taken a quiet stand against both American imperialism and the consumeristic nature of the global art market — neither of which the film addresses.

“The greatest myth,” Kiefer intones slowly in voiceover, “is the human race itself.” This is one of the film’s many maxims that feels as profound as it is abstruse. Thankfully, the myth of the Great Male Artist isn’t what Wenders ultimately embraces, as Kiefer’s indebtedness to others is consistently scattered across the screen. It’s more accurate to see Anselm as a poignant, elegiac meditation on what it meant for two German men to make art in the aftermath of 20th-century carnage. How this relates to the 21st century remains largely ambiguous, suggesting the limited reach of both men’s spectacular imagery.

Anselm opens in select theaters on December 15.

Eileen G’Sell is a poet and critic with recent contributions to Jacobin, Poetry, The Baffler, and The Hopkins Review. Her second volume of poetry, Francofilaments, is forthcoming from Broken Sleep Books....

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1 Comment

  1. “Perfect Days” was a gorgeous, understated film that would have been irrevocably ruined by a “sustained class critique.” The toilet cleaner chose his profession. The subtle and suggested class critique in the film was the bias the upper class has against those who choose to do menial work with dignity. I imagine “Anselm” likewise hints at our current political precipice and prompts viewers to think more deeply. That is the power of art vs. politics.

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