April 14, 2024

Wim Wenders describes himself as “a man of habits,” which helps to explain the respect he shows the routine-driven lead character of his latest narrative feature, “Perfect Days.” The gentle drama, which takes place in Japan (it was selected as the country’s official Oscar submission this year), focuses on a Tokyo craftsman who spends his days cleaning the city’s public toilets.

Routine is central to Wenders’ life as well, and it’s thanks to one of Wenders’ rituals that he found the subject for a second feature film he premiered at Cannes last May: “Anselm,” a 3D portrait of the controversial German artist Anselm Kiefer more than 30 years in the making.

Wenders first met Kiefer back in 1991, as the unconventional sculptor was preparing his biggest exhibition to date at the National Gallery in Berlin. The show appears in the film: It’s the one featuring giant jet planes made of lead. Wenders was editing his film “Until the End of the World” not far from the museum, and as was his habit, he ate dinner at the same restaurant every night.

“One day, this guy comes in with a big cigar,” Wenders recalls. “He saw that there was a space at my table, and he came over and sat down.” Though they had never met, the two men recognized one another and struck up a conversation. “We were the last people to leave the restaurant. He had invited me to his cigar, and we talked for four hours.”

Both artists were born in 1945, albeit at different spots along the Rhine River. “I have exactly the same memories,” Wenders says. “While he grew up in a small town in the country, I grew up in Dusseldorf, which was almost 90% destroyed. Like Anselm, I was born in the rubble, and when I went to school, I was taught by Nazi teachers, so I lived in the same country that didn’t exist anymore and wanted to reinvent itself on the basis that it had no past.”

As that first encounter drew to a close, Kiefer asked the director what he was doing the next day. “I’m gonna be here,” Wenders replied, to which Kiefer said, “Well, then we’ll see each other again.”

“We dined there and spoke every night and really got to know each other very closely. I spoke more to Anselm in those three weeks than to all of my other friends together,” Wenders says. “He knew at the end that I always had wanted to be a painter, and he revealed how much he would have liked to make movies, so we shook hands on the idea that the two of us were bound to do something together.”

When Kiefer’s show opened, the reviews were cruel. “He was ripped to pieces so much, he left Germany a few months later and moved to France,” Wenders says. And so their collaboration didn’t happen for almost three decades. Meanwhile, during that time, the scale of Kiefer’s work kept expanding, to the point that he transformed a 200-acre estate near Barjac, in the south of France, into a massive art project. In 2019, Kiefer called Wenders.

“You’ve never been to Barjac, right?” the artist asked. “It’s about time.”

“He had the good sense to just leave me alone there,” Wenders says. “I spent the whole day on my own in Barjac, blown away by the proportions and seeing it all for the first time, and I remembered our promise to each other.”

Three decades earlier, Wenders didn’t have much experience with documentaries, but by this time, he’d made several — and also experimented with 3D, which he felt could be an essential tool to communicate the scale and ambition of Kiefer’s work. Though many of the art-house theaters that played his 2011 modern dance documentary “Pina” still have the technology, “There’s almost a resistance to use it because it had been completely abused, or used only for one purpose, for these big action movies,” Wenders says. “So the studios have really ruined a beautiful language.”

While Hollywood’s interest in 3D has proven largely to be a fad — a way to upcharge theatergoers for an often-gimmicky experience — Wenders never gave up on the format, continuing to experiment on its potential.

“In my opinion, 3D was completely misunderstood, but it still has great value to become a poetic language to decipher reality … or art,” he says. “It was something that filmmakers really dreamt of from the beginning. I mean, the Lumières had a patent on 3D, but were not able to use it because technology was difficult. Now the cameras are so small and light, and for the first time, you can do 3D handheld. It has become so versatile.”

Wenders considers 3D an essential tool in communicating to audiences the full impact of Kiefer’s work, which he was determined to convey visually. “I don’t like it in movies when artists reveal their secrets or explain them,” says Wenders, who didn’t want to make a talking-head documentary. “I felt his work should speak for itself.” So he sat and spoke with Kiefer for seven to eight hours a day for an entire week before shooting began, aiming to reveal all he could about the artist and his worldview.

“We spoke about childhood in Germany. We spoke about science and mythology and all the subjects that his work opens up, and we had it transcribed. It was more than 1,000 pages. I had asked him everything I could possibly have asked, and in the end, I felt I knew enough to make the film,” explains the director, who found himself able to say certain things about his country and its past through Kiefer that he’d never committed to film before.

“I respected him a lot for doing what he did, for having the courage to dig deep into the past to make [German] people recognize their act of forgetting and expose their hypocrisy,” Wenders says. Whereas Kiefer had dedicated his career to confronting Germany’s distorted self-image, “In many ways, I did the opposite of what Anselm did,” the director admits. “I mean, I fought the Vietnam War, but I didn’t fight the neo-Nazism in Germany. In hindsight, maybe I should have.”

Instead, Wenders’ reaction had been to leave Germany. While Kiefer was breaking the law, taking scandalous self-portraits of himself making the Hitler salute in spaces still tainted by the Fuhrer’s legacy, Wenders notes, “I just went out, and I became a filmmaker all over the world. I shot in America and Australia and Japan, but I didn’t shoot much in my own country.”

By Wenders’ own estimation, “The only effort I made was ‘Wings of Desire’ when I was already much older. I had lived in America for 15 years, so it was my homecoming.” In shooting that film, Wenders started to come to terms with Germany’s legacy. “It was also an effort to see the history of Berlin vertically, back to the Hour Zero,” he explains. “If you look at the film, it is facing fascism and the war period in Berlin as the root of the entire evil that invaded the world. But of course, when I did this, it was in the late ’80s, shortly before the wall fell, the world was a different place than when Anselm did it.”

With “Anselm,” Wenders breaks his own silence. Though his own discussions with Kiefer can’t be heard in the film, the director samples from other interviews, amplifying Kiefer’s critiques of the Germany they both knew — and which Wenders had made an almost-lifelong habit of keeping silent.

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