Review: ‘Anselm,’ starring Anselm Kiefer

December 10, 2023

by Carla Hay

Anselm Kiefer in “Anselm” (Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films)


Directed by Wim Wenders

German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in primarily in France, the documentary film “Anselm” features an all-white group of people telling the life story of German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer.

Culture Clash: Kiefer has a reputation for being controversial because he often does art about taboo subjects, such as the sordid history of Nazi Germany. 

Culture Audience: “Anselm” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Kiefer, filmmaker Wim Wenders, and artsy documentaries that don’t stick to the usual formulas.

Anselm Kiefer in “Anselm” (Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films)

Don’t expect a traditional biographical documentary of Anselm Kiefer when watching “Anselm.” It’s an unconventional showcase of a collection of his notable art on display in warehouses and outdoor settings, mixed with archival footage and his recollections. “Anselm” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and then made the rounds at other film festivals in 2023, such as the Telluride Film Festival.

Directed by Wim Wenders, “Anselm” is unlike most documentaries, because there isn’t a lot of talking in this movie. Interspersed with the majestic views of Kiefer’s art, he occasionally makes comments about his life. He is known for making art that is always unque, often provocative, sometimes controversial. (He got a lot of criticism when he was younger for being seemingly fixated on doing art about Nazi Germany.)

The documentary also has re-enactments of his life, with Anselm’s son Daniel Kiefer portraying Anselm as a young man. Anton Wenders portrays Anselm as a boy of about 5 or 6 years old. The depictions of Anselm as a boy also showed he liked to spend time alone drawing and having a vivid imagination n which he would tell stories to himself.

Anselm was born in 1947, in Donaueschingen, Germany. Since 1992, he has lived in France, where he has a 200-acre property (in southern France’s Barjac) that is like a museum of his artwork. “Anselm” has multiple scenes of Anselm riding a bicycle through the massive warehouses on the property. He says he likes living in isolation.

He’s seen occasionally smoking a cigar during his interview commentary, which isn’t particularly revealing, because it’s obvious he doesn’t really like talking about himself too much. (His personal life is not discussed at at all in the documentary.) He gets more animated when talking about an artist he admires: Paul Celan, a Romanian poet and translator, who died in 1970, at the age of 49. Anselm comments that it must have been difficult for Celan to be Jewish in Nazi Germany.

Viewers also get a peek into Anselm’s creative process. The documentary shows him making the piece “Sky Painting Earth,” which involves him torching large swaths of straw on massive panels. There are a few workers occasionally shown assisting him, but no one else is interviewed in this documentary except for Anselm.

“Anselm” opens with sweeping views of Anselm’s 1999 installation “The Women of Antiquity,” which features sculptures of wedding dresses on display outdoors and in warehouse spaces. As the camera glides over the sculptures, a chorus of imaginary women’s voices can be heard whispering things, such as “We may be homeless and the forgotten ones, but we don’t forget a thing.” This installation is seen as visual bookends to the movie, which has many stunning images of Anselm’s inventive art.

“Anselm” was originally released in cinemas as a 3D-only film, which enhances the impressive cinematography by Franz Lustig. The camera work for this documentary doesn’t evoke “fly on the wall” filmmaking; it’s more like a soaring bird. Leonard Küßner’s elegant musical score helps take viewers on this carefully curated but still immersive journey into Anselm Kiefer as an artist. It’s a journey worth taking for viewers who are open-minded enough to go with the flow and expect the unexpected. As a documentary filled with inspired art, “Anselm” is a distinctive portrait unto itself.

Sideshow and Janus Films released “Anselm” in select U.S. cinemas on December 8, 2023.

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