Opinion

Wim Wenders' Anselm documentary underlines how hard it is to clear the debris of our history 

A new documentary explores the life of German artist Anselm Kiefer

The scale of Kiefer’s artworks is emphasised in a scene in Anselm, in which the artist cycles around his studio in France.

The scale of Kiefer’s artworks is emphasised in a scene in Anselm, in which the artist cycles around his studio in France. Image: ROAD MOVIES

The truth is that the 3D film Anselm by German filmmaker and writer Wim Wenders blew me away. After watching the film I could not stop thinking about it and the strange almost unfilm-like qualities of it. There was little dialogue, you did not too often get to know the internal thoughts of the artist Anselm Kiefer, the subject of Wenders’ film. There was a bareness and in some ways barrenness about the work. A perplexing, engaging trawl through the life of a painter’s obsession. 

There was no one else in Anselm, so it was perfectly named. A few assistants might intrude, but only to help the artist position his materials to work on. 

Kiefer’s work sells for millions and he is probably considered the greatest painter of our times. His solitariness is the film. His obsessive behaviour shows how he really does create an alternative universe for himself. 

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As well as a maker of highly evocative art that includes burnt straw and scorched boards and canvases, he also produces what can only be called art debris; or even art ‘rubbish’. 

Kiefer’s theme is the troubled landscape of postwar Germany, where he was born in 1945. A bombed and damaged and broken cityscape, though he was country-born. Visiting the cities that were mostly obliterated by allied bombing, he encountered the debris-strewn world of a defeated Germany and he seems obsessed with those early years and finding ways of recreating the broken and twisted wreck of the German Dream, ground down to concrete dust and rubble. 

He is a year older than me; it would be like me spending the whole of my life making debris and art to capture not a defeated Germany but a defeated postwar, slum-strewn Notting Hill; a terrain of defeat and smashed houses and broken lives. The difference is that my terrain was carefully brought into being by a steady growth of late Victorian and 20th-century poverty, bankruptcy and neglect. A bankruptcy of thinking by our imperial masters, who thought it was alright for a supposed civilisation to let people live with rats and disease a threepenny bus ride from Buckingham Palace. 

Kiefer was so successful early on that he had the money to buy a vast, redundant brickworks to fill to overflowing with what looked like the debris of war. Convinced that Germany was sleepwalking through its postwar period, denying its former Nazified world, he wished to provoke people from their myopia and denial into recognising their culpability. He challenged through his art the German desire to bury the truth. 

He asked of postwar German intellectuals, “What would you be doing if you were living and active in 1939? Would you have stuck your neck out? Or would you, like Martin Heidegger, the famous philosopher briefly featured in the film, who joined the party of the murderous antisemitic regime when Hitler came to power in 1933, have embraced Nazism wholeheartedly?” 

At times silently, often quietly, the film tells of this debris-like world of Kiefer as he prods the German
consciousness, making the artist big in America where his first major exhibition showed mock-ups of V-rockets and other pieces of the inventory of war. 

Not satisfied with his enormous, artistically rubbished German brick works, he bought 200 acres of semi-derelict industrial land in southern France and made an even bigger upheaval. Piles of seemingly bomb-damaged towers of rooms imitate the damaged cities of his childhood in this bigger setting; even more successfully creating his loss-world of recent German history. As if in some ways he might be creating an appendage to Auschwitz, a monument to a collapsed and poisoned ideology. 

I watched Anselm in early December in Cambridge and came out of the cinema dazed by the complete submersion in Kiefer’s world. Wenders’ film recorded one man’s obsession with war and death, even though there is little or nothing of death, and that was its intention. But I could not rid myself of a sense of contemporary pain. Of the deaths of Gazans in their thousands after the retribution for 7 October, that horrific attack that saw murdered Jews, like nothing seen since Germany’s Holocaust.  

But would any of this later history have taken place if the war that Kiefer tries to cling on to had not taken place? Would Palestinian and Jew have met in the way they met if Germany’s political system had not thrown up Hitler and his murderous machinery to kill six million Europeans simply on the basis of their ethnicity? 

The debris of history, something I have been writing about, struck me forcefully. One action sets off a chain reaction. 

In many ways Anselm is a beautiful film. And it does not make us tourists in the life of a historical tragedy.  

Showing us one of his huge oil paintings of the rough terrain of a piece of land, incorporating ridges and even straw, he makes a poignant comment: it is difficult to paint landscape once it has been overrun by tanks. 

Anselm shows one whole life trying, creatively and artistically, to keep something alive that could be consigned to the dusty corners of books and archives. Kiefer is a monumental, larger than life artist, describing what was left after Germany tried to tear up history and start it again as a Germanic story. Its echoes still live on in our troubled times. 

John Bird is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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