An art film in the literal sense of the term, English helmer Sophie Fiennes’ glorious-looking “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow” shows renowned German artist Anselm Kiefer at work at La Ribaute, his sprawling estate in the south of France, where, during the first decade of the 21st century, he began constructing a series of elaborate, large-scale installations. Without narration apart from an opening title card, the docu offers more contemplation than information. A natural for the museum and cinematheque circuit as well as specialized broadcast, it’s too long and a trifle lofty for general audiences.
Pic opens with nearly 20 minutes of the camera slowly gliding over various pieces (above ground and below, in painstakingly constructed tunnels and caves), accompanied by piercing modernist music from composers Gyorgy Ligeti and Jorg Widmann. Earth-colored and covered in debris, Kiefer’s lead-and-concrete sculptures seem as organic as the Roman ruins that dot that area of Languedoc.
The docu illustrates the enormous complexity of fabricating work on Kiefer’s monumental scale. In his vast white-walled studio from a perch atop an industrial-sized paint can, he directs as many as six assistants, taking the definition of artist into the realm of architect and engineer.
Among their many tasks, the assistants operate heavy machinery to hoist his massive canvases and weighty sculptures, grind earth and ash to pour over them and break dangerous-looking sheets of plate glass. Watching rivulets of ash and earth run down a painting as it is raised to its full height is like witnessing a beautiful waterfall.
An extensive interview with earnest German journalist Klaus Dermutz, in which Kiefer dances around the philosophy and inspiration behind his creative process, is featured twice, playing better later in the film as v.o. accompaniment to scenes of the artist at work with his assistants. In the first half, merely watching the men sit at a table talking becomes dull until Kiefer’s young sons enter the frame.
Although some viewers might prefer to learn more about the artist, “Over Your Cities” is no New Yorker profile; rather, it’s about the power of images and art. In addition to lovingly filming Kiefer’s oeuvre, Fiennes keenly observes his raw materials (lead, concrete, ash, acid, earth, glass, gold) and tools (including blowtorches, brushes, brooms, bulldozers and incinerators), to construct her own piece of cinematic art.
The sharp tech package is worthy of its subject, with special mention due Ranko Paukovic’s sound design, which contrasts modernist music with industrial and natural sounds in the pic’s various sections.