Wim Wenders has mainly enjoyed success in recent years thanks to his documentaries about artists. After Pina, on the choreographer and dancer Pina Bausch, The Salt of the Earth, on the photographer Sebastiāo Salgado, and the Cuban musicians of Buena Vista Social Club, here is the filmmaker from Tokyo-Ga (in the footsteps of filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu) is interested in the work of contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer.

Presented in a special screening at the most recent Cannes Film Festival, where Wim Wenders won the Palme d’Or in 1984 for Paris, Texas and the Best Director Award in 1987 for Wings of Desire, Anselm (The Sound of Time) is a contemplative, dreamlike, poetic and meditative film, inspired by the sculptures and paintings of Anselm Kiefer.

The documentary begins with the barely audible rustles of women whispering parts of sentences like incantations, while a camera slides from one plaster wedding dress to another. These sculptures from the installation Die Frauen der Antike (Women of Antiquity) have “heads” of bricks, steel, lead or twigs, favored materials of the German artist, whose Museum of contemporary art from Montreal presented a major exhibition in 2006.

We then see Anselm Kiefer in a studio the size of a warehouse in which he moves by bicycle between monumental works, magnificent paintings which he covers with thick paint, burns with straw or on which he pours molten lead. Canvases so huge that he has to hoist himself onto a hydraulic platform to finish them.

Kiefer, inspired by philosophy, mythology, religion and literature – particularly by the poetry of the Romanian Paul Celan, whose parents died in a concentration camp – practices a very physical art, even at 78 years old. Wenders offers an intimate portrait of his compatriot and friend, who was born like him in 1945, a few months apart.

The filmmaker retraces 50 years of a singular career, using archival images from Kiefer. He recalls his controversial beginnings, when the artist photographed himself in the costume of a Wehrmacht officer, parodying the Nazi salute in the heart of different European landscapes. A way, he said, of confronting Germany with the silence surrounding its dark past.

These Hitler salutes were obviously perceived at the time as a provocation. Kiefer, who some suspected of being a neo-Nazi, had conceived them as a protest against oblivion, when the Third Reich was not being talked about in schools. In an interview, the artist wonders in particular about the famous German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who hid his Nazi past. Kiefer wonders which side of history he himself would have found himself on in 1939. “Most intellectuals don’t ask the question,” he laments.

In addition to archive images, notably of German children playing in post-war rubble, Wim Wenders relies on period reconstructions to tell the story of Anselm Kiefer. The painter’s own son, Daniel, plays his father at the start of his career, and it is Wenders’ great-nephew, Anton, who plays Anselm in his early childhood. Like most reconstructions, these are difficult to integrate into the documentary.

Despite this somewhat forced marriage, Anselm (the sound of time) remains a fascinating film on art, not only because of its rich subject, but also thanks to its form. The camera in constant movement, with splendid fluidity, presents us from different angles the works as well as the artist at work. The images are superb, in particular thanks to the 3D relief (a technique that Wenders also used with Pina), and the reflection on time, as profound as it is relevant.