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film ‘Anselm’ Review: An Artist Contemplates the Cosmos, in 3-D

The history and thought of the artist Anselm Kiefer is threaded throughout this exceptional documentary from Wim Wenders.

Anselm,Janus Films

In an age when virtual reality headsets are, if not common, at least accessible to gear heads and gamers, watching a 3-D movie feels a little quaint. In its gimmicky heyday, 3-D was a lark. You laughed at yourself for suddenly ducking at, say, a snake that came hissing out of the screen. More recently, filmmakers have turned to 3-D to enhance the moviegoing experience: Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity.” With films like these, you’re seeing into a world inside the screen, rather than being poked by it.

But for the most part, 3-D — often added after the film is shot in regular old 2-D — has been a way to sell a more expensive movie ticket. Yet occasionally it adds a dimension (so to speak) to a movie that expands its possibilities and reinforces its explorations.

The first great contemporary 3-D film I ever saw was “Pina,” Wim Wenders’s 2011 tribute to the German choreographer Pina Bausch, with her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, as its cast. Less a biographical documentary than a vibe, “Pina” used 3-D to give the viewer the feeling of a front-row seat to some of Bausch’s most famous works, performed in unusual architectural and natural spaces. I’ve seen a number of the same works performed onstage, but I sometimes forget that I wasn’t technically there for the dances in the film because my brain reacted the way it does when I’m in the audience for a live performance.

Wenders must have liked making “Pina,” because he finds a natural register with his latest 3-D artist documentary, “Anselm.” He is not the first to make a film about the German artist Anselm Kiefer, who brings a poetic impulse out of the filmmakers who train their cameras on him. In her 2011 documentary “Over Your Cities Grasses Will Grow,” Sophie Fiennes crafted a gliding, observational portrait of the artist at work at La Ribaute, his atelier-estate in southern France. The first 20 minutes or so of that film consist of smoothly shot footage flowing through the many tunnels and halls on the grounds. It’s a bit like watching a dance, with Kiefer as principal in a duet with his work.

By contrast, there’s a bit more of Kiefer’s history and thought threaded throughout “Anselm.” Those who know little of his work will find enough to stitch together an understanding of his import in the art world and beyond. There’s archival video, mostly news footage from decades ago, played on vintage TV sets. There’s a sort of puppet show consisting of Kiefer’s earliest family photos set in elaborate layered stage sets, and there are re-enactments of young Anselm (played by Anton Wenders, the director’s grandnephew) as his imagination and artistry develop. Later, Kiefer’s son Daniel plays his father as a young man, observing barren landscapes, beginning to paint, creating a visual language founded in a drive to look at, not away from, discomfiting history.

So while “Anselm” does follow a roughly chronological path, it has the feeling of time collapsing on itself, which harmonizes well with Kiefer’s body of work. The artist (born in 1945, at the end of World War II) met controversy in the late 1960s, when his re-appropriation of texts and myths co-opted by the Third Reich was viewed with suspicion: Was he a neo-fascist? Sympathetic? What was he doing?

Reflecting on that time in interview footage that appears in “Anselm,” he says he saw his fellow Germans trying to put Nazi atrocities behind them by refusing to talk about what happened. For him, he says, the art is about trying “to bring this all back into memory and work on it.” Small wonder he’s fascinated with Martin Heidegger, and also frustrated with the philosopher’s silence on his own Nazi past. “Nothing but silence from the great philosopher. Nothing about his errors,” he says. “The whole of society was silent then; all failed to grasp the unimaginable. I myself lived among people who had been all around and didn’t want to talk about it.” (In archival footage, a voice characterizes Kiefer as having “prodded incessantly at the open wound of German history.”)

One major theme of “Anselm” is the artist’s obsession with converting the repressed, the forgotten, the merely intellectual into physical form. To that end, we watch as he works to externalize what he feels, a septuagenarian with a remarkably physical practice. He glops paint onto canvases, slaps them, scrapes them, burns them, scribbles the words of Paul Celan (a Jewish poet who wrote in German, and another key touchpoint) onto them. Watching the film, it’s easy to see why Kiefer’s work has been so widely praised and shown. It is enormous and elemental. What he’s doing feels like an attempt to capture the whole cosmos.

This is why “Anselm” is so splendid as a 3-D film. (You can watch it in 2-D, and it’s good, but if 3-D is available, don’t skip it.) You feel the heat of the torch, the texture of the paint, the straw, the stone. And indeed, the stuff of the world carries the memories we’d prefer to forget or suppress. Buildings and landscapes and statues and the yellowing pages of books testify to what we do to one another, generation after generation. A film like “Anselm” is another level of preservation as well as a contemplative experience, in which the past and the future meet, in a way we can feel as much as see.

The film ends with the child Anselm and the adult Kiefer walking through the same spaces: the Doge’s Palace in Venice, where the artist exhibited last year, and his childhood home and bedroom. We’re there with him, viscerally, letting history enter our senses. What wounds him is permitted to wound us, too.

Not rated. In German, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. In theaters.