A meditation on the work of German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer, Wim Wenders’ concise, spare 3D documentary Anselm allows us to spend time in the presence of the artist and man. Both born in 1945, Wenders and Kiefer share much of the same DNA as creators who tackle the history of a divided country traumatized and silenced. For Wenders, a global filmmaker whose other new picture this year, the fantastic Perfect Days, was made in Japan, Anselm is a thoughtful, contemplative return to some of the themes explored in his seminal Wings of Desire

Anselm gravitates between past and present, the result splitting the difference between the kind of experimental film one might find at TIFF Wavelengths––a slow meditation on landscape, surfaces, space, and performative moments––and a quick biographical sketch produced for an art museum retrospective. Shot by Franz Lustig in 6K 3D, the film deserves to be seen on the largest screen possible for its moments of sheer spectacle. However, even at a respectable 93 minutes, it feels far from a complete documentary capturing the life of its subject.

Known for his paintings, sculptures, and large-scale installations involving straw, ash, fire, and melted substances, Kiefer is also perhaps most recognized for his political activism in the 1980s, in which time his Richard Wagner-inspired works explored the ghosts of Germany’s past. As an artist he’s obsessed with transforming his canvas through materials, turning to the banned rhetoric used by the Third Reich to push boundaries of free speech. Archival materials and interviews flesh out these moments in his life as the artist explores collective memory and theology years before breaking onto the international art scene.

Anselm begins as a focus on the artist’s body of work before shifting into something slightly more playful: Wenders is invited into his massive Barjac complex, once a silk factory and now his storage facility, where the artist bikes around his creations with some conceptual pieces the sizes of billboards. Biographical passages, mostly told in archival footage that rely heavily on interviews with curators and art critics, prove less effective than the more performative elements that bookend the film. The ending, in which young Anslem (played by Anton Wenders, the director’s grand-nephew) walks with Keifer through the spaces that marked his life, proves a touching conclusion.

The resulting film feels like a supplement to a retrospective, but nevertheless an evocative record of time and space. The format used to be the domain (or the promise) of large-format immersive filmmaking, and it’s a shame IMAX chooses to throw its weight behind Hollywood spectacles rather than allowing artists to use the large screens and Omnimax domes to create contemplative spectacles. Somewhat more polished but less invigorating than Wenders’ previous 3D outing Pina, Anselm at its most effecting shows how cinematic exhibition thoughtfully utilizing 3D can make an intimate encounter with an artist. When it’s less powerful, the experience suggests rushed cliffnotes of a fascinating life.

Anselm opens in limited release on Friday, December 8.

Grade: B-

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