The Nameless and Forgotten Ones: On Wim Wenders’s “Anselm”
By Yael FriedmanJanuary 24, 2024
Both Wenders and Kiefer, two of Germany’s most iconic artists, were born in 1945, into the still-smoldering ruins of the war. Their engagement with the heaviness of history, and the “great silence” of the adults after the war, took dramatically different forms. Kiefer confronted it relentlessly, even bombastically, while Wenders has been guided by it more obliquely. In my recent conversation with Wenders, the filmmaker acknowledged that the two of them “had a very different approach—I wanted to leave it behind, and Anselm wanted to dig into it and put his finger on it. And that is also why I felt we had something to do together.”
In this film, their two sensibilities find form in a searingly beautiful and sobering interrogation of what occurred and how it shaped postwar Germany. Unwittingly or not, it presents a mirror to the present—most essentially, the obligation not to look away, and to adapt to meet the needs of 21st-century realities and conflicts.
This exquisitely layered film utilizes original cinematography by Franz Lustig that provides the only way Kiefer’s work should be experienced: in three dimensions. As with Pina (2011), Wenders’s first foray into 3D, Anselm’s viewers are invited into the physical experience of this monumental artwork and the act of its creation. We watch Kiefer pouring molten lead onto enormous canvases and walk with him amid the Seven Heavenly Palaces (2004–15) he created in Barjac, an abandoned factory complex in the South of France. In Sophie Fiennes’s 2010 documentary about Barjac, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, one can see the process, the grand plans taking shape. But in Anselm, we walk inside it, feel the physical and temporal texture of the space. We can better attest to Kiefer’s desire to bend the earth to his will and his recognition that his grand narrative will succumb to nature or inevitable human intrusions. (While these forces are meant to be imagined on a more seismic scale, like war and climate change, just a few weeks ago, thieves stole a million dollars’ worth of Kiefer’s lead books from his warehouse near Paris.)
Anselm also draws on archival footage and expressionistic reenactment. Kiefer’s son Daniel plays the artist in young middle age, walking through and photographing the severe landscapes he would later recreate on enormous canvases; Wenders’s grandnephew, Anton, plays Anselm Kiefer as a boy, embodying a child’s purity within the purgatory that was postwar Germany, rubble serving as landscape and playground, the silence of adults serving as a damning soundtrack.
Included in Wenders’s exploration of Kiefer’s work are recordings of poets and writers that have influenced the artist for decades, including the Jewish poet Paul Celan. Celan and Kiefer turn Theodor Adorno’s famous 1949 maxim, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” on its head, and Wenders includes a 1958 recitation of Celan’s famous “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue,” 1948) by the poet himself: “Mother, murderers live there. Mother they’re silent. Mother, they’re writing poems. Mother, no one silences the murderers! Death is a master from Germany, his eye is blue, he strikes with lead bullets, his aim is true.” Celan and Kiefer make clear that art and poetry might be the only tools sharp enough to pierce cultural discussions, historical narratives, documentary footage, and ultimately our collective silence; Wenders’s lyrical, cinematic language crystallizes the unspeakable, to invert the facades formed by lies and omissions.
Wenders describes his and Kiefer’s parallel coming-of-age in the years after the war in intimate terms:
We both had grown up in a country that strictly did not exist anymore. It had to start from scratch and build on the idea that there was no past. They didn’t know how to deal with the past, and the only way to have a future [for] that generation who survived was just forgetting and not talking about [it]. Growing up, you sense it […] and it becomes part of your most important memories in life.
He adds, “Eventually you start seeing through it and you understand that your entire life is built on a big lie. And Anselm’s […] reaction was, well, I’m going to lift the lid and I’m going to fight this […] and he did it at great risk sometimes and with great personal implications.”
“I wanted to leave it behind,” Wenders says. “It had taken me a huge detour in America for a long time to come back to Germany and accept my past as being German and accept my being German deep in my soul.”
Wenders eventually returned to Germany after eight years in the United States. It was on the heels of the success of his masterpiece Paris, Texas (1984), with its hypnotic cinematography of the American Southwest and unforgettable characters, dialogue, and soundtrack that seem to expand time itself. Having read Rainer Maria Rilke obsessively while living in the state, he recounts wanting to make a film about “Germany in my heart, a Germany of my youth.” Regarding this period, Wenders told an interviewer a few years later that he remembered “[w]alking through Berlin and almost religiously reading Rilke—these poems are all populated by angels, and they reverberated in the city […] I started seeing them in the city, and I tried to find a story that could express everything I wanted to express about this city and its history.”
Watching Anselm, it is impossible not to think of the film that arose from this—Wings of Desire (1987)—Wenders’s unexpected excavation of his country and favorite German city. In it, Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander play angels perched atop a black-and-white West Berlin, hearing the unexpressed thoughts and desires of its inhabitants, often alighting to walk among them in the streets, alleys, and unkempt fields of this strangely gentle but feral city. In a sort of punk Weimar, trapeze artists and Nick Cave seem as unremarkable as an old man poring over a history book in a library. Through the angels, we hear the old man’s thoughts as he turns the pages: “But so far, no one has succeeded in singing an epic of peace. What is it about peace that keeps its inspiration from enduring and makes it almost untellable?” We hear the prosaic and the profound, from the most innocent or merely practical to the most wearied by history.
“This was the film that I did in Germany when I had accepted that I was not going to not be a German,” Wenders shares. “I was not ever going to be an American. The German language was going to be my home, and I had to confront it.” There is no escape into silence in this movie. Wenders, almost magically, figured out how to confront it and hear the unspoken and unspeakable, to fill that early postwar void.
Kiefer’s ghosts are much more forward and intrusive. To experience Kiefer’s art is to move through a landscape of living ruins and those that inhabit them, the mythic and the once-living, demanding that you bear witness. He works in several mediums and increasingly expanding scales. We often see him in the film riding his bicycle around his enormous warehouse of an atelier, outside of Paris, through aisles and aisles of his monumental art. His studio is like a German neo-expressionist IKEA, an Alexandrian library of building blocks, a newly synthesized world created from the physical materials of the old one.
Anselm follows the artist’s biographical arc and the role he played in breaking the “big silence” around the Holocaust. The German government began its famously lauded reckoning as early as 1952, when Chancellor Konrad Adenauer proposed reparations, and the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials that began in 1963 were another major milestone, the first time Holocaust perpetrators were tried under German law. This top-down approach did not require individuals to confront themselves or the actions of their friends, families, neighbors. But it did seem to drive at least some of the “68ers,” as Wenders and Kiefer’s generation has been called, to take personal ownership of the process.
The film shows footage of Kiefer being interviewed in 1969 about his project Occupations, in which he would photograph himself wearing his father’s Wehrmacht uniform in different locations in Europe, performing the Sieg Heil salute (banned in Germany in 1945). In one of the archival interviews in the film, he explains,
It wasn’t […] a provocation for the sake of it. I did what I thought was absolutely necessary at the time […] It was during a time [1968–69] when the whole subject of World War II, fascism, the Third Reich, was not addressed at all. In school, we had it for three weeks and that was it. At this time, it was very important to bring all this back into memory and work on it. I held a mirror up to everyone’s face.
Kiefer would continue this direct confrontation with Germany’s history, working for years in total anonymity, despite the blowback and consternation of many Germans. He credits Joseph Beuys with providing him the recognition and support he needed to forge ahead. In 1980, he represented Germany at the Venice Biennale, where he showcased paintings of major heroes from German history and literature fetishized by the Nazis. Many dismissed Kiefer’s elaborate provocations, and his often grandiose view of himself as oracular truth-teller can certainly be off-putting. In an interview from the Biennale, when asked about critics accusing him of being a provocateur, or a neofascist, he replied, “I don’t say ‘fine.’ I feel injured. But I don’t go in front of my paintings and say I am anti-fascist—because if you say I am anti-fascist, it’s an insult [to] the real anti-fascist who was [there] at that time.”
Over the years, Kiefer has blended his confrontation with Germany’s past with stories from antiquity and Jewish myth. His interests have grown more metaphysical and, in many ways, universal. His ruins have evolved from their role as witnesses to horror and the material of childhood memory. Kiefer is especially fond of the legend of Lilith, the first man’s first wife, explaining to writer Klaus Dermutz in 2008 that “she lives in a place the prophets have decreed to be a non-place: your cities will be abandoned, they will be desolate, they will lie in ruins, grass will grow over them […] She is in fact ahistorical, there shouldn’t actually be any people left, but Lilith is there.”
Wenders enables us to walk amid Kiefer’s monumental works, and the film delivers the same visceral reaction that the art provides for those who have experienced it in person. Kiefer’s enormous visions are incredible, and more than a touch grandiose. It is easy to roll one’s eyes at his grandeur and some of his more ridiculous proclamations. But it’s far more fun to suspend disbelief and judgment, and merge with his work. Some of his canvases measure 11 feet by 25 feet with depth of field, layers of paint, and other materials. Other works feel like long-forgotten theatrical sets, with spectral actors ready to return at any moment. The towers of his Seven Heavenly Palaces—each between 42 feet and 62 feet tall, made of reinforced concrete—are biblically inspired, which you could guess without knowing. Kiefer’s legacy will encompass his work’s wild ambition—easily excused by his ability to execute and entrance—but his unflinching early confrontations are certainly the most entrenched in the story of Germany.
The generation that came of age in the immediate postwar period shaped the path on which Germany has set itself. This course arguably placed it in the straitjacket of a perpetual postwar identity ill-suited for its most current challenges, like official German reactions to criticism of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza: invitations and prizes withdrawn, events canceled, multiple resignations from major cultural institutions.
As German journalist Sebastian Moll contends,
In many ways the ur-trauma of the Nazi era is our identity that we can’t shake easily and especially my generation (the late boomers) don’t want to. We grew up with the “never-again” mantra and our entire education was geared toward that. Many of us thought we had done a fairly decent job of reckoning with the past and have gotten corresponding accolades, not least by Americans, who lament that the U.S. is doing far too little to face the darker sides of their history.
“However,” Moll continues,
I observe that in many ways the German reckoning with its own past has failed to adapt to a changing world. And this is very much surfacing in this very moment […] I have German Jewish friends who loathe German liberal philo-semitism more than they loathe straight up antisemitism. [Kiefer and Wenders] are in the generation that first forced Germany to wake up and face its past in the ’60s. But my question to their work would be how much they have evolved from that initial and very necessary stance that has become somewhat dated and limited over time.
Younger artists are making some inroads. Most prominently, Wolfgang Tillmans, a superstar himself, with a 2022–23 MoMA retrospective, has taken up the mantle of the politically active artist. Born in 1968, he came of age in a very different Europe. As he told a New York Times interviewer, “We were getting up into a new age […]The new ’90s, a new Europe, breaking down borders, we’re in this together: That’s where my language came from.” However, Brexit, and the other “earthquakes of 2016,” as well as his partner’s death from AIDS, had given him a “sense of ‘the fragility of what is considered unkaputtbar [unbreakable].’” Tillmans has been very outspoken about a variety of political issues, not least Germany’s culture of memory and how it is currently affecting the government’s response to the situation in Israel and Gaza.
Kiefer’s work has grown far beyond the ruins of war, and lately their lament feels harrowingly palpable. And yet, both he and Wenders, for very understandable reasons, were formed by the specific shock of World War II, as was much of Germany’s official policy. The younger generations, and the urgency of today’s challenges, will perhaps catalyze a German response that can hold its guilt of the past alongside the needs of the present.
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