Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow
Directed by Sophie Fiennes
In her 2006 film theory video essay collaboration with critical theory star Slavoj Zizek, The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, director Sophie Fiennes gave voice and visual support to a prodigious and outspoken man of words. Her subject in Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, the German contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer, is also a bibliophile—his gloomy expressionist sculptures, paintings and installations are marked with notes handwritten in chalk or charcoal, and many also feature giant books made of lead. But save one interview given in his impressively stacked library, the artist keeps quiet, only speaking to address his assistants at the massive studio complex in the south of France where this entire documentary was shot.
The studio, a workspace-as-artwork maze of chambers and tunnels amidst old oaks and restored industrial ruins, is the film's true star. Fiennes' camera explores its halls and walkways repeatedly, including for the superb opening twenty minutes, guided only by Freie Stucke Fur's jarring and powerful score. The beautiful, slow panning, tracking and tilting shots reveal a disorienting, rugged and enigmatic temple of sorts pieced together from impressionistic fragments. "In boredom," Kiefer says, paraphrasing a Heidegger lecture, "you are at the base of experience." The pacing of Fiennes' disembodied explorations, though hardly boring, creates a heightened awareness much like the one Kiefer describes striving after in his work.
Just as, he notes, the endless proliferation of scientific theories only confirms the vastness of human ignorance, Kiefer never attempts to explain or contextualize his work. Instead, Fiennes focuses on his process and its unsentimental treatment of materials: layers of dust cascading off an enormous canvas like a small landslide, a massive lead book burnt then smashed with a shovel, pieces of glass and concrete thrown against the studio floor. Watching the assembly of several pieces virtually in real time—especially the final, massive series of Pisa-like concrete towers—reveals a process of chance, degradation and collaboration to counterbalance the thorough scientific, historical and theological interests from which most of his projects emerge.
Excitedly quoting the titular Bible passage, Kiefer comes across as a much more genial character than his sombre work suggests, and one whose creations quickly outgrow the reductive categorizations of his critics. What it lacks in talking heads exposition Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow more than compensates for with fly-on-the-wall studio footage, haunting installation explorations, and formal choices that reflect the artist's aesthetic. Fiennes' contemplative restraint matches her subject's and refocuses our interest onto the creation of a sprawling artwork the size of a small city. Sure enough, in the final shots a giant mound of dirt concealing one of Kiefer's underground installations is covered in grass.
Opens August 10 at Film Forum