One of the key sequences in Wim Wenders’s documentary on Anselm Kiefer studies a series of photographs the German artist took of himself delivering the Hitler salute in various inappropriate bits of Europe. The collection remains one of his most famous statements, a reminder of the collective amnesia that took over his home nation after the war. It was important for Wenders to include that provocation, but through the rest of the piece a very different man forms himself. Emerging in the era of Warhol, progressing in the era of Jeff Koons, Kiefer stands as a creator of unfashionable seriousness – or should that read “sincerity”? Not for nothing was Joseph Beuys an early mentor.
Wenders, nonetheless, begins in playful mood. We are in Kiefer’s storage facility. A significant number of knobbly, mixed-media paintings take up the space. Then the artist emerges on a bicycle and we realise how breathtakingly huge these things are. The camera also allows us to get a true sense of their textures. Wenders, having a good year, with both this and his lovely drama Perfect Days graduating from Cannes raves to awards-season contention, has remained stubbornly true to 3D, years after its second wave largely deserted the mainstream. The cameras locate the images in space. They also plot the hills and valleys of their surfaces. How odd that, decadal adventures from James Cameron aside, 3D is now, as much as anything, a tool of the arthouse.
The film investigates some of the more slippy and intellectually taxing debates of the contemporary art world. There is a sense of director and subject trying to make sense of mortality, creative responsibility and the place of Germany in a changed world. There is nothing patronising about Wenders’s approach. There is no sense of him offering an “easy way in”. Yet those unfamiliar with Kiefer will find huge vistas opening up. He is not a delicate miniaturist. Much concerned with the poetry of Paul Celan, he has filled those literal warehouses with his eclectic exercises. It is as if Wenders were pointing us towards a more austere Picasso.
Late Wenders sits at an odd angle to the young man obsessed with wandering and with the United States. There is a sense of a busy mind eager to share enthusiasms. Its generousness is part of the appeal.