Sophie Fiennes’ new film, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, is a record of German-born artist Anselm Kiefer as he transforms the grounds around his sprawling hilltop-studio in Barjac, a town in southern France. The film is as much about Fiennes adulation of the artist as it is about Kiefer.
The film begins by roaming through underground tunnels and passageways, crumbling walls and concrete bunkers. The camera moves right to left, up and down, never staying in one location to long. The mood is dark. If Nosfertu popped his head around the corner, I would not have been surprised.
The camera notes detritus left behind by the artist — an exposed light bulb, a plum of soot in the air, a broken vessel left on the ground, a few handwritten messages scrawled on a wall, a sculpture placed here or there, a painting belly-up on the floor.
To say Fiennes eschews traditional documentary techniques is a gross understatement. The film is bare bones. She disregards interviews, voiceover narration or contextual information.
The film is most challenging when it pairs montages of Kiefer’s work with an atonal music score. Composed by György Ligeti and Jörg Widmann, the soundtrack has all the charm of fingernails scraping against a chalkboard. These sequences reduce the documentary genre to the sparest sound, image and movement.
I found the score too manipulative, too intrusive. Let me make up my own mind about the work; do not make up my mind for me.
The film is most successful when it presents Kiefer at work. The lengthy scenes appear natural, unrehearsed. The artist flings paint on an enormous canvas; the artist throws glass panes on the floor; the artist pours molten lead down a mound of dirt; the artist requests a crane operator to adjust a concrete slab a little to the left. No music is added to these sequences, just ambient noise — roar of a furnace, snap crackle pop of breaking glass, warble of a backhoe or two.
I could not help but wonder how Kiefer finances this manufactured wonderland of ruin. The material alone, not to mention the manpower and equipment, must cost a fortune. Fiennes never addresses these types of financial realities. The film never tackles his personal life, his family, or his background. Who is this guy? What makes him tick?
As I watched Kiefer amble through the grounds, I pictured actor Gloria Swanson, as Norma Desmond, the former silent-film star in Sunset Boulevard. Like Desmond, Kiefer spends most of his time honing his craft in a derelict compound, issuing instructions to his subordinates or muttering to himself. (“You see. This is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!”)
For me, the most telling moment in the film occurs during a conversation between Kiefer and some unnamed man in the library. Fiennes does not address the context of the talk. As Kiefer and the man discuss the work, a boy enters the frame, and then another boy follows suit. For his part, Kiefer neither acknowledges the boys presence nor admonishes them for interrupting entering the scene. Kiefer continues the conversations.
He speaks of Heiddegar, the abyss, N.A.S.A. numeration, the role of boredom, etc. The boys’ name, age and identity are never revealed. Whose kids are these anyway?
If I were one of those boys I know what I’d do. Ditch the library and play among the ruins. The world Kiefer built is an ideal playground to get dirty and fuck shit up.
Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow is playing at theater around the United States, including currently at Film Forum (209 West Houston, West Village, Manhattan).
When I saw the film at Film Forum, I was thinking a lot about texture. Densely textured surface are what makes Kiefer works stand out as unique. And I thought the goal of much of the “non-narrative” footage was to spotlight texture by suppressing other content and expose and sensitize viewers to the various kinds of textures on his wonderland. Did you like the scene where he poured the molten metallic liquid over a mound of dirt? I thought it was an incredible sight.
Also, what was your take on his definition of beauty as the puppet in front of him? I’m still trying to figure that one out.
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