In 1993, the artist Anselm Kiefer left Germany, where he was long renowned for his many works informed by the holocaust, for a derelict silk factory in Barjac France. While he continued working in somewhat traditional mediums for work released elsewhere, his most ambitious project was transforming the factory itself into one monumental work of art. It’s sculpture on an enormous scale, transforming the entire area into a post-apocalyptic wasteland where it’s impossible to tell where the art ends and the landscape begins.
Sophie Fiennes’ Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow focuses on this decade-long project, though its approach makes it difficult for anyone not already familiar with Kiefer’’s work to grasp what’s going on. The film begins with a 15-minute-long journey around some of Anselm’s creations while modern music plays, completely without dialogue or context. It’s entrancing, as are other parts of the film when this style returns, but not particularly edifying. Intercut with these sequences are an interview with Kiefer and footage of his working method, but neither does much to orient the audience as to what exactly is occurring.
Particularly unfortunate is the interview itself, which is as inscrutable as it is frustrating. Combined with the footage of Kiefer’s surprisingly hands-off method of working (he’s extremely reliant upon a bevy of assistants for everything we see him create here), they actual create a fairly negative portrait of the artist himself. His obnoxious personality splits the film in two, half filled with the uninteresting and pretentious ideas behind his work and half a gorgeously filmed tribute to the works themselves.
It’s a testament to how fascinating Kiefer’s work is that the film is still enjoyable, if intermittently very dull. Grow’s dialogue-free sections are haunting and memorable, feeling almost like an exploration of a lost world reminiscent of Alain Resnais’ masterpiece Night and Fog. The rest is like watching B-roll, only occasionally interesting and frequently feeling like it’s just there to fill up time. An alternate picture in which Fiennes only filmed the landscape in Barjac—like Chantal Akerman’s Hotel Monterey—would be infinitely preferable, but there’s still enough here to make for a worthy documentary, even if some of it will only be of interest to diehard Kiefer fans.