The opening sequences of British director Sophie Fiennes’ spectacularly eerie Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow could easily be the start of a horror film. Fiennes’ camera floats eerily through a landscape of what appears to be the ruin of some foreign city, all glass and lead and cement, as slow, atmospheric music builds to a dissonant shriek. It could be the creak of metal in the wind, or a restless spirit, but whatever it is, it seems to emanate from the space—as if its very existence were striking an unearthly chord.
This bizarre ghost town is La Ribaute, an abandoned silk factory in southern France. In 1993, German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer took up residence in the nearby town of Barjac. In 2000, Kiefer began creating installations of remarkable intricacy and scope on the factory grounds, constructing a landscape of looming, empty towers and digging a network of tunnels to connect the industrial buildings that housed his massive paintings and sculptures. Over Your Cities documents the artist’s final projects at La Ribaute before his move to Paris, where he’s lived and worked ever since. (The film screens at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art on Monday, June 17, at 7 p.m.)
Over Your Cities is every bit as interesting cinematically as it is as a profile of an artist. After the doomily beautiful opening sequence—a floating tour of cavernous rooms, crypts, and baffling yet clearly meticulously placed implements of unknown purpose—our eyes are relieved to take in the sight of a human being. When we see Kiefer, he’s immersed in the act of creation, melting lead and smashing glass and generally coming off as some kind of wizard. Flanked by several assistants, he quietly indicates his approval or disapproval at what looks at first like great piles of dirt, metal, and rocks. As the film proceeds, this chaos gradually reveals its hidden order. But just as we begin to understand the plan, watching the beauty of the installation emerge, Kiefer has moved on to another task. Now he’s making dragon teeth out of clay; now he’s setting books on fire; now he’s drilling enormous holes in the earth and filling them with cement.
Few artists employ a creative process so cinematic. Fiennes (whose previous projects include The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema) takes full advantage of this, alternating objective observations of Kiefer at work with her own slow-moving odes; poetically composed wanderings through manufactured ruins.
The film doesn’t tell you that in the ’70s, Kiefer was an informal student of Joseph Beuys. Much like his onetime mentor, Kiefer employs commonplace or industrial materials—cement, glass, metal, straw, ash—in his art. The film also doesn’t mention that Kiefer, now best known as a painter and sculptor, started out in the ’60s as a photographer—or that his artistic career kicked off with a highly controversial series of photos depicting the artist, clad in military attire, doing a Nazi salute in various locations throughout Switzerland, Italy, and France. The series was later understood as a deeply ironic statement about the lasting damage done to his country’s identity as a result of World War II. But in 1969, the pictures struck a nerve, forcing viewers to decide for themselves whether or not the work was indeed intended as a statement or as a blatant display of fascism. Such direct confrontation of national history, however painful, embarrassing, or controversial, became a recurring theme throughout much of the artist’s career.
By the late ’80s, however, these themes had broadened to include ideas about the traumas experienced by civilizations in general. His paintings frequently contained allusions to ancient Egyptian and Hebrew cultures.
In his creations at La Ribaute, these themes are further amplified, suggesting the rhythms of a long-extinct civilization. In Over Your Cities, Kiefer is often seen drawing sigils (abstract symbols associated with medieval and ancient magical traditions), once again feeding the viewer’s inkling that the artist is, in point of fact, a wizard.
Nobody talks for a long time at the start of the film, and nobody ever seems to speak directly to the camera. When we first hear Kiefer speak, it’s only to direct his assistants. (“How do you say ‘spaceship’ in French?” he asks, as a sculpture of a ship is moved with a crane.) As a result, we feel more like invisible observers, somehow privy to a ritual we don’t yet understand.
Director Fiennes doesn’t seem to feel the need to double as a biographer, and the film is much better for it. Over Your Cities seems more about simply watching a work unfold than about connecting it as quickly as possible to some kind of timeline: movement, a school, the artist’s childhood. We are granted one brief but potent glimpse into Kiefer’s thought process in the form of an interview, in which the artist discusses the Bible, the business of naming stars, the existential significance of boredom, and the chemical similarities between blood and seawater.
Fiennes came in at the end of Kiefer’s stay in Barjac, and it seems to have been just the right time to capture the spirit of the artist’s endeavor. Some parts of his labyrinth appear freshly installed, like museum exhibits. Other constructions, like the Bible verse from which the artist took inspiration, are already overgrown. We are left to wonder how much of what we see at La Ribaute is Kiefer’s handiwork, and how much is the work of nature, and how much was simply left there by the last workers before the silk factory closed its doors.
Arts Editor Anna Weltner will tell you one thing: He’s not building a playhouse for the children. Contact her at email@example.com.