Superimpositions: How Wim Wenders’ ‘Anselm’ Merges Cinema and Museum

Neuer Deutsche director Wim Wenders and Neue Wilde contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer, fellow West German artists whose works plumb similar themes of agonizing post-war recovery and German denialism, first met and formed their enduring friendship at Kiefer’s 1991 Neue Nationalgalerie exhibition. Early on, Wenders and Kiefer sensed that an artistic partnership was imminent – “Anselm knew that I had always wanted to be a painter,” remarked Wenders, “and I knew that Anselm secretly wanted to make movies – so we shook hands on the idea of making a film together eventually.”

Their artistic vow culminated in Wenders’ 2023 film Anselm, part-documentary and part-tribute to Anselm Kiefer and Wim Wenders’ friendship. While the film is clearly informed by Wenders and Kiefer’s mutual admiration – the 80-year-old Kiefer interacts with himself as both a ten-year-old boy (portrayed by Wenders’ grandson Anton) and a middle-aged man (played by Kiefer’s son Daniel) – Wenders manages to exercise necessary restraint in editorializing, allowing Kiefer’s artwork itself to speak to his artistic depths.

Wenders’ use of dissolves and his iconographic (as opposed to chronological) organization of the film evokes an art historians’ approach to Kiefer’s works and methodologies, eschewing linear structure and genre conventions for a more abstract and emblematic exploration of Kiefer’s artistic career. A scene that showcases Wenders’ editing begins with the carved-out floor of an otherwise organized art gallery within Kiefer’s La Ribaute studio complex. The camera lingers on some of Kiefer’s Femmes Martyres sculptures (mannequins wearing white dresses with objects signifying their identities in place of their heads) in the lower level surrounded by piles of collapsed ceiling. Another shot fades in, layering grainy monochromatic home video footage of German women clearing the mountainous ruins of World War II interspersed with footage of children playing in the rubble.

This one-minute long shot is the first of many superimpositions (or the layering of two or more images in a single frame) that Wenders implements in Anselm. A contemporary extension of the cross-dissolve, an editing technique commonly employed to convey the passage of time, superimpositions are amalgamations of images, textures and motifs, representing anything from multiple actions occurring at once to a character’s cluttered subconscious. In this case, while the two images (of Kiefer’s installation and the women clearing rubble) are of completely different subjects and were captured over seventy years apart, Wenders’ editing pinpoints the visual and thematic inspiration that Kiefer drew from his fraught upbringing in post-war Germany. Later, we see filmed sunflower landscapes dwindling into Kiefer’s own paintings of sunflowers, the US Army exploding a swastika off Nuremberg Stadium match cut to Kiefer immolating one of his own canvases, and a map of Kiefer’s childhood bedroom labeled “The Bad Children’s Cell” fading into Kiefer’s present-day studio.

While layering two images to draw parallels between them is not a practice unique to Anselm, Wenders’ decision to keep the distinct shots and time periods running simultaneously for nearly thirty seconds elevates the superimposition to meditation, almost hypnosis. The shots of Kiefer’s installation that are superimposed with footage of post-war rubble are monochromatic, creating an interplay of nuanced values emphasized by the dynamic camerawork.

Wenders’ use of layered lights and shadows invokes the “distinct world of shadows” present in the 1933 essay “In Praise of Shadows”, in which author Jun’ichiro Tanizaki argues that Japanese architecture intentionally casts shadows, transforming living rooms into mysteriously enshrouded, magical recesses. Although Wenders has not publicly cited Tanizaki’s essay as a source of inspiration, Hirayama, the protagonist of Wenders’ other 2023 release Perfect Days, cultivates his own “world of shadows” through obsessively photographing sun-dappled trees, which Wenders gorgeously depicts as lengthy, hallucinatory, monochromatic superimpositions. In true artistic fashion, Hirayama, like Wenders himself, dreams in veiled values and textures.

Jacques Derrida later applied Tanizaki’s framework to the language of art analysis, dubbing monochromatic photography “skiagraphy, the writing of light as the writing of shade,” in his 1993 essay “Aletheia”. Here, Derrida refers to Tanizaki’s “light” as a shorthand for the photograph’s objective documentation and its subject’s appearance and interiority, while “darkness” is the interiority assigned to the photograph’s subject by both the artist and viewers. Once the subject’s likeness has been captured, it is permanently affixed to paper yet malleable with time, leaving the viewer with a myriad of impressions, even forming false memories, rendering the photograph’s subjects spectre–people existing in their own right and forming many new identities on celluloid. It is at once haunting and comforting, reflecting the cyclical nature of art interpretation.

In “Aletheia”, Derrida invokes a stanza of Paul Celan’s 1967 poem “Ashglory”: “No one / bears witness for / the witness.” In “Ashglory”, Celan’s “the witness” refers to victims and survivors of the Holocaust, including Celan himself, while “witness for” refers to those who have meaningfully intervened in such atrocities and their aftermath, meaning the complete stanza conveys the dehumanization and isolation of consistently being deemed unworthy of being fully “witnessed.” Kiefer, who was born months before the end of World War II to a Wermacht father, has been consistently inspired by Celan’s poetry. Like Celan’s poetry, Kiefer’s artwork hauntingly encapsulates post-war Germany’s obfuscation and negation of its own perpetration of the Holocaust. Both Celan and Kiefer’s works “bear witness to” WWII and post-war antisemitism, a crumbling culture of denial, and Kiefer’s artwork carries Celan’s mission to this present.

If Kiefer’s artwork embodies Celan’s notion of “bearing witness,” then Wenders’ documentary encapsulates Derrida’s. Derrida’s “witness for” is the objective truth of a photograph’s contents, or “lightness,” while his “the witness” is the viewer’s interpretation of the photograph’s meaning independent from the subject, or “darkness.” Wenders’ superimpositions “bear witness” to Kiefer’s body of work by juxtaposing it with Kiefer’s lexicon of visual, historical, theological and philosophical references, a technique which naturally mimics the multistep process of viewing art in museums. Assuming the visitor is viewing an artwork they naturally gravitate towards, their initial impressions are rooted in the elements of art (form, shape, value, color, texture). Once they learn more about the artist’s life from accompanying labels, they apply this context to the art, gaining a greater understanding about the circumstances that shaped the artist’s understanding of or proclivity toward their chosen subject matter. Like Tanizaki’s conceptualization of shadows, encountering an unfamiliar work of art (and its accompanying substantial subtleties of content and form) is a reflective undertaking, measured yet rewarding. And, like Derrida’s transmogrification of Tanizaki’s argument, analyzing art involves reconciling, and sometimes synthesizing, the viewer’s analysis with the artist’s intent.

By virtue of its ninety-three minute runtime and prioritization of sensation above adherence to documentary conventions, Anselm does not paint a detailed portrait of Kiefer’s illustrious fifty-year career. However, it accomplishes something far more ambitious and impressive by tangibly conveying intimate connections we form with Kiefer’s art, reflecting the privilege of being able to bear witness to, and visually transform, Kiefer and Wenders’ collective genius, fulfilling their thirty-year-long promise.

Written by Joanna Seifter

Joanna Seifter is a writer, artist and museum professional living and working in New York City. She is a recent graduate of NYU’s Museum Studies MA program.

You can read more of her exhibition and film reviews here:

Instagram: @joannaseifterart

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