A documentary filmed at the extraordinary south of France studio estate of Anselm Kiefer captures the dramatic resonance of the German artist’s work and reveals his working process of interdependent destruction and creation.
A derelict silk factory set across a private site of 35 hectares near Barjac in the south of France is the other worldly setting for Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, a documentary by Sophie Fiennes. In a film that follows German artist Anselm Kiefer in the days before he moved to Paris, the star of the show is undoubtedly Kiefer’s sprawling home and studio, La Ribaute. Like a strange village of art, the compound is composed of a series of monumental installations and working studios that are linked by a network of underground tunnels dug out by Kiefer. Dotted amongst the industrial landscape are pavilions built to house the artist’s paintings and installations, an underground pool and a 20m-tiered concrete amphitheatre. In a film that documents Kiefer’s meticulous working process of destruction and creation, La Ribaute serves not only as a moody backdrop that gives context to his work but is also shown as the artist’s most ambitious work yet.
Kiefer famously spreads dust and earth, as well as other materials, across his paintings. Using a crane, the giant canvases are lifted so that the excess materials fall down the painting and create hazy, apocalyptic scenes.
Since Kiefer moved to La Ribaute in 1993, the 35 hectare estate has morphed into one giant installation of concrete structures and metal pavilions that contain his paintings.
Lead, concrete, ash, acid, earth, glass and gold are the preferred materials of Kiefer and La Ribaute is his ultimate canvas. In this scene he heats lead with a blowtorch and pours the product down a pile of contorted concrete before setting it ablaze to complete another corner of his estate.
Part of the landscape at Kiefer south of France studio includes an urban jungle of concrete towers that are assembled like fragile card houses.
Sophie Fiennes, director of Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, talks of the working with Anselm Kiefer and of the artist’s extraordinary studio estate
How did you first become acquainted with Anselm Kiefer? How did the idea to film him working at La Ribaute come about?
I had followed Kiefer's work in a loose way since first encountering it in my early 20's. I met Kiefer on a few occasions in London during the late 80's and early 90's, when I was invited to openings of his shows. In 2007, out of the blue, Kiefer and Lorcan O'Neill, his Rome gallerist, invited me to Barjac to see whether I saw a way to make a film about the place. Kiefer was planning to leave and move to Paris. When I saw what he had created in Barjac, I was immediately excited and shared ideas with Kiefer on how to film it. The scale of the place suggested cinema and the film making devices that can recreate space. As Lorcan said, 'once Anselm leaves Barjac, it will never be the same.' This idea of capturing something, documentation as a little fight against mortality, this always moves me to action.
How did you go about filming in the midst of Kiefer's process of creative destruction, which involved, among other things, him throwing ash, melting lead, and smashing glass?
Anselm works and thinks at great speed. Although he spends time alone in the very early morning reflecting, planning and writing his work journal, by the time the working day starts everyone just has to try to keep up with him. The estate of La Ribaute is 45 hectares, with various working ateliers that he would move between throughout the day. I had a pretty heavy camera kit, shooting with prime lenses on a big camera, but I didn't want to have a big crew. I prefer to shoot footage myself. There was usually only one other person working with me. I had to think very fast, make decisions quickly in order to capture the intensity of the moments. It was a very physical process. I worked closely with Anselm during the shooting and showed him footage at various points. It was important for me to sense how he as a visual artist might think as a filmmaker.
Did you interact much with Kiefer's assistants? What is their role and what is Kiefer's relationship with them?
The team that Kiefer works with varies. In Barjac he had five assistants, but now in Paris he has many more. It depends on what the work he is making requires. Kiefer is very much the master of his processes, but like any intelligent creative person he will take the good suggestions, but not the bad ones.
Most of the assistants in the film are local. Two of them are artists in their own right, Boualem Moujaoui and Lior Gal. I think they were excited and invested in what Kiefer was doing. They are both no longer working with Kiefer since he left Barjac. To work in this very beautiful and hermetic world of La Ribaute is different to working in the outskirts of Paris. Being a small shooting crew, we could work in the midst of their work and not disturb it. They helped out much of the time too.
What inspired your choice of soundtrack for the film?
Aside from the conversation in the middle of the film, (which as one audience member imaginatively suggested, appears like objects do in the middle of Kiefer's paintings), the film is structured in two layers; his creative process as present-tense, observed moments, and a film sequence in three parts that travels the strange underground/overground world of La Ribaute. There is no source sound to this material. I wanted to find an immersive sound that could work formally with the footage. I explored various approaches and I found this Ligeti 'music statique' the most exciting. For me it works both formally and contextually, but it resists obvious emotional effect I think, because Ligeti created it without using harmony, rhythm or melody. Ligeti's thinking behind these compositions was influenced by looking at the sea, which he saw like a massive canvas, in which the water is undulating, but the overall image is not moving.
Kiefer liked this choice of music, and it was important for me that he did. He responded to it as sound. It has a material quality. It's sound built from layers of chords, so it's rich in texture, but with an ambiguity that I think is also present in Kiefer's work. There is something Kiefer and Ligeti share as post-war European artists; the melancholy, but also a sophistication about how meaning and emotion can make art or music an ideological operation which they want to resist and even critique.
The music runs in parallel to the images. In a way these sequences of the Kiefer landscape are still silent sequences, but accompanied in the way that silent movies are.
What was the editing process like? Did the direction of the film or your feelings about the film change when you left Barjac and entered the edit suite?
The shooting period is a gathering process, you gather as much footage as you can, mindful of the range necessary and working with a sense of the formal language you hope will communicate the subject. Then the edit is a process of analysis and experiment. I try to keep open to being surprised by what the material can do, to see the possibilities and not the limitations. I was off-lining for 8 months. I reduced about 18 sequences of Kiefer and his team working, of which you see about 10. And I shaped the travelling material into three sections. It wasn't until I had really reduced all the material that I could find the structure. Decisions are very intuitive for me, (but intuition itself is a very rapid process of cognition). It's like writing with sound and image. It can be arduous and lonely, but there are these moments when the tone and rhythm of the film emerges which is very exciting.
Everything about Barjac stays with me, perhaps because I worked in an intimate and hermetic way in both the shooting and the editing. Even though, as with any creative process, there was a certain anxiety, it was a rich and privileged experience to make this film.