Whitehot Magazine

Anselm: Wim Wenders’ Immersion into Artistic Obsession Debuts on Streaming Platforms


Anselm: Wim Wenders’ Immersion into Artistic Obsession Debuts on Streaming Platforms. A scene from ANSELM, Courtesy of Mongrel Media.


After its debut at Cannes in 2023, and a slow rollout of the film internationally over subsequent months, Anselm finally arrives on streaming platforms, and on The Criterion Channel exclusively in the U.S. and Canada. Highly-praised upon release, and in particular for its effective use of 3D, acclaimed German director Wim Wenders’ overview of Anselm Kiefer’s life and work is both intimate and expansive, and it is a tribute to Wenders’ filmmaking skill that the viewing experience still holds up even at home. 

Wenders is one of the rare filmmakers who can create a tangible sense of place, where the viewer is not simply looking into another world, but feels immersed in the environment onscreen. While more mainstream filmmakers like Ridley Scott, Terry Gilliam and Wes Anderson leverage spectacular production design to frame their stories, Wenders uses the observational skills of an artist to draw attention to small details, making his films feel grounded, rather than fantastical. No surprise then, that Wenders originally wanted to be a painter before deciding to pursue film instead.  

In recent decades, Wenders has gained a higher profile and critical praise for his documentaries, three of which (Buena Vista Social Club, Pina, The Salt of the Earth) have been nominated for Academy Awards, and each of which addressed a specific artistic discipline—music, dance and photography, respectively. While his narrative film Perfect Days gained the majority of awards attention this year, Anselm may also prove to be one of Wenders’ enduring works. 

The seeds of this film were planted back in 1991, with a chance encounter between Wenders and Anselm Kiefer at a crowded restaurant in Berlin. Their immediate rapport expanded into two weeks of intense dinner conversations, culminating in an agreement to do a project together. Decades passed, however, until Kiefer reached out again to invite Wenders to visit his Barjac compound – now the Eschaton Foundation – in the south of France. Upon arrival, Kiefer gave Wenders a map and told him to just “go explore.” At the end of the day, Wenders realized it was “now or never.”

Anselm: Wim Wenders’ Immersion into Artistic Obsession Debuts on Streaming Platforms. A scene from ANSELM, Courtesy of Mongrel Media.

As a framing device for Anselm, Wenders decided to recapture that same feeling of exploration and discovery, as his camera wanders through both Barjac and Kiefer’s current studio in Paris, revealing the vast array of work on display, and observing the artist himself walking in and around the surrounding grounds, researching through old books, working on new pieces at all hours of the day and night, and seemingly lost in thought, often about past traumas, both historical and personal. However, Wenders is more interested in immersion than documentation, making us feel like we are floating through a crumbling landscape, moving backwards and forwards in time, experiencing the emotional journey of an artist who both haunts, and is haunted by, a world of his own creation. 

To this day, Kiefer remains a polarizing figure in the art world, and Wenders does not flinch from this. Photographs from his Occupations series (1969), in which Kiefer mockingly incorporated the Nazi salute wearing his father’s military dress, are addressed, along with his other well-known works from the 1980s, which both embrace and subvert National Socialist and mythological iconography, including Innenraum (Interior) (1981) and Your Golden Hair, Margarete (1981). Interspersed with these historical touchpoints are snippets from interviews over the years in which Kiefer explains his thought process, along with dramatizations of Kiefer as a young artist experiencing the inspiration of the natural world and its impact on his work (portrayed by Kiefer’s son, no less). The influence of poet Paul Celan is also a narrative thread that weaves its way throughout, with spoken passages from his poem Todesfuge (“Death Fugue,” 1945/1952) that explores the relationship between the Nazi perpetrator and Jewish victim. 

Even with such provocative material at his disposal, Wenders is not interested in using Anselm as a polemic. Both Kiefer’s controversial history and his importance to contemporary art history must be addressed, of course, but Wenders instead uses Anselm to build an impressionistic portrait of a complicated figure. In Wenders’ elegiac scenario, Kiefer’s family is nonexistent, and his studio assistants are nameless, faceless individuals who hover at the edges of the frame and only serve to provide raw materials. Kiefer sleeps alone, works alone, bicycles through his studio alone, all in the service of new, monumental pieces. 

Anselm also fits thematically alongside Wenders’ most well-regarded narrative films, each of which features an obsessed central character. From the leukemia-stricken Zimmerman in The American Friend (1977), determined to make the most of his final days, to the disoriented Travis in Paris, Texas (1984), desperately in search of his missing wife, to the angel Damiel in Wings of Desire (1987) who yearns to become human, Anselm’s Keifer is similarly obsessive, driven solely and entirely by work that grows larger in scale with every passing decade. Wenders clearly has an affinity for such individuals, and Kiefer’s unyielding commitment to prolificacy is presented honestly, leaving the viewer to decide if his life-long focus on disruptive thematic content has been unfairly misunderstood.

Anselm: Wim Wenders’ Immersion into Artistic Obsession Debuts on Streaming Platforms. A scene from ANSELM, Courtesy of Mongrel Media.

Having visited Kiefer’s 2023 Exodus show at the Gagosian at Marciano Art Foundation here in L.A. on two occasions, I found the recent work to be profoundly moving in a way that was both haunting and transcendent. The opportunity to have different experiences from various perspectives – extremely close, far away, and even from behind, where one can appreciate the architectural interconnectedness of each piece – proves the vital importance of interacting with art physically, in person. Therefore, Wenders’ choice to pursue immersion over analysis emphasizes that truth, while creating ample space for lively and intense conversations after the credits roll.  

For a filmmaker known for his meandering pacing and occasionally lengthy runtimes (Until the End of the World’s first assembly was rumored to be 10 hours before it was edited into the almost five-hour directors’ cut), Wenders’ work here is brisk, compacting his story into an economical 93 minutes, but does not feel overly accelerated. Wenders’ innate sense of composition is truly on full display, as he leverages the stunning cinematography of Franz Lustig (who also lensed Perfect Days) with impressive sound design, which, at various times, layers in whispering voices and the sounds of the natural world to great effect. 

These elements are key to the effectiveness of Anselm in the streaming environment. Wenders filmed Anselm in native 3D, and in 6K, a much higher resolution than the current 4K standard, in order that the film would best capture the experience of seeing Kiefer’s works in person, particularly on an appropriately monumental theater screen. I’ve seen Anselm in both formats, and the film does benefit significantly from Wenders’ use of 3D. That said, even in 2D, Anselm holds up to repeated viewings, providing a visually rewarding retrospective of a master artist and the haunted world he inhabits.

Anselm is now available for streaming on The Criterion Channel (subscription required). WM

Christopher Heyn

Christopher Heyn has spent many years working in television production. In addition to providing online content for Warner Bros. and USA Network, he has written about film and music for a number of regional publications. He is the author of the book Inside Section One: Creating and Producing TV’s La Femme Nikita (2006), the second edition of which will be released later this year.

view all articles from this author