The British filmmaker talks about moving from pervert’s cinema to painting and sculpture with her latest film, about the work of celebrated German artist Anselm Kiefer.
In her new film, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, British director Sophie Fiennes gains unprecedented access to Anselm Kiefer’s artistic process—the German painter and sculptor one of the most diverse and iconoclastic artists of the later 20th century. Capturing his monuments in the grounds of an abandoned silk factory at Barjac, in the south of France, Fiennes’s documentary is a hypnotic and surprising meditation on the stark beauty of Kiefer’s fragile constructions.
Fiennes says her love of film was only heightened by growing up without a television. “When I came across film, it was like a wonderful, extraordinary world of images and stories and emotional tones; things that were frightening, and things that were exciting; this alternative world. It was very seductive.”
After working for Peter Greenaway during the late ’80s and early ’90s, Fiennes found herself making documentaries. Given she was seduced by the cinema early on, I ask if documentary film is not as seductive. “That’s maybe an assumption that isn’t necessarily the case,” she responds. “We’re fascinated by the moving image. Documentary is just as much a fiction as any other filmmaking, in its biases. It’s subjective in how it’s put together. It’s emotionally manipulative. It does all of the things that other filmmaking does, it just has the guise of being reality.”
Her love of documentary is driven, in part, by the unpredictability that results in making the film. “By making documentaries, I can make films in a way that actually takes away my control, which I enjoy. You never know what’s going to happen. I don’t mean that in terms of plot-twists; what’s going to happen when you film the world and it’s rendered into an image, it becomes something ‘other’. What that is, is always a surprise.”
Fiennes’s films have followed a diverse cast of characters: Slovenian psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek (The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema), Pentecostal minister Noel Jones (Hoover Street Revival), and Belgian choreographer Alain Platel (Tanz and Ekstase). And she says that she’s never set out to hunt a particular kind of story. “It’s something that only becomes apparent. You don’t set out to say, ‘I’m going to direct’; it shapes what it shapes into. I don’t have a perspective on it. I certainly feel like the subjects have a strong smell to them, a strong charge that I as a filmmaker can work with, which makes it interesting to me.” She adds, though, that there is a certain performativity to her characters. “It’s a fictional world within the real world.”
Kiefer specifically asked Fiennes to make a film about Barjac. She was first introduced to his work via a piece of his called ‘The High Priestess’. “[It was] one of these huge lead bookcases. That was fascinating, the scale of it. His work is physically very affecting. Once you’ve seen it in the flesh—and I hope when you’ve seen his work in the film—you don’t forget it, it stays with you, it has a very strong quality.”
Kiefer’s work has rarely been documented, and the structures present in the film go some way towards explaining why it would have been extremely difficult to capture his work on film. Fiennes asserts that Kiefer is “of a different generation to these younger artists who know how to play to the PR machine. He’s of a different generation, a twentieth century, sort of, you don’t flirt with that sort of thing. It was very exciting to film him at work, and that was something he needed a bit of persuading. He realised it was a very interesting thing and he very much collaborated with me.”
Kiefer’s standing in artistic circles isn’t disputed, however Fiennes suggests “outside of an art context, he’s not very known at all. He’s very important in terms of painting and late twentieth century art.” Despite this, she wasn’t interested in canonising Kiefer in the film. “I’m happy for the film that I make to make one part of a puzzle that might be made by someone else. It’s the palette of the viewer has to be kept clean as it were. You can’t bring in another taste.”
Instead, Fiennes’s focus is on the artistic process. “When I had to write the proposal, I realised that what I wanted to capture was the spirit at work in the work, given that while he’s working with materials, he’s not a materialist, he’s an analyst in sense of what he does.” As the film shows, Kiefer’s process can be a little ad hoc, and Fiennes admits to accidental or random discoveries. “That’s the thing about documentary—you don’t know. He would call me and say, ‘I’m in studio G, doing something, and maybe it’d be interesting to film,’ I’d stumble upon things. On the estate in Barjac, there are different things going on all over the place; his assistants might be preparing something, or making the ash, or doing various things. I would never know what was happening.”
One such scene involved a bit of improvised destruction. “I was just filming in the vault, I was just making a documentation of this storage area. He called me and said, ‘where are you?’ I said I was filming in this storage area and he came down and we were looking at it, and he was saying ‘these were things I had when I was fourteen’—this real storage of stuff in his life. And then he said, ‘I know what I’m going to do, I’m go get some crockery and smash the crockery, and you’re going to film it.’ That was completely out of the blue. It’s very instinctive and intuitive the way that he worked and the way then I was filming. I had to move very fast.” Another scene involved Kiefer smashing glass panes. “I was filming in the tunnel with my film crew, and I wasn’t focusing on documentary shooting at that point. He called me and said, ‘we’re breaking some glass. Would you like to come and film?’ Luckily, the camera was still there, there was just enough battery juice. It was only when I got into the edit, I thought ‘this is completely crazy, he’s walking in flip-flops in broken glass.”
These spontaneous outbursts notwithstanding, the film shows Kiefer’s use of light, space, and architecture is quite stunning. Fiennes admits capturing this was a huge challenge. “I love the space of cinema and the way that it reconstructs and plays with space, and there’s a grammar that goes alongside that. It fascinates me. It was something I could really get my teeth into and trace this landscape, and take something that is 2-D in image and turn it three dimensional.”
Fiennes also admits that she was trying to record something that was pretty fragile, despite the ‘sturdy edifices’ Kiefer’s massive structures imply. “That’s one of the things as a documentarian—you’re documenting things, you’re making documents of things, it’s visual history if you will. That feeling is a strong feeling for me, it defies mortality. You make something and it changes, even like the change in Noel Jones’s church, the church has gone, that whole period of community life has gone. There’s a lot of decay as much as there’s creation, and destruction and breaking of things.”
Kiefer himself had seen the film from its early stages to its final version. “I was interested in how he would respond to the framing, as he’s a picture maker himself. I tried to interpret that in how I shot it,” Fiennes says of Kiefer’s involvement in her own artistic process. “When it came to the edit, he didn’t want to come, but then I sent him a rough cut and I watched it through with him. He had a few things he wanted to change. I went on and completed the film. And then, slightly to my horror, after the Cannes Film Festival, he thought the whole process of making the film would continue. He wanted to carry on, and he didn’t understand it was finished.” Despite the finite shooting period, Fiennes’s film documents a truly fascinating artistic process—her approach to step back and simply observe Kiefer at work (and arguably, at play) showcasing his singular talent far better than a bunch of talking heads and art critics could have done.