Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow is Sophie Fiennes’ towering portrait of the artist Anselm Kiefer at work at La Ribotte, his massive studio in Barjac, France. In 2000, Kiefer began constructing a series of elaborate installations there, comprising 48 buildings, and a labyrinth of tunnels, bridges, lakes and towers resulting in a place that seems like nothing else on earth. The artist, whose creations in Barjac utilized industrial materials married with paintings, sculptures and the surrounding landscape, is a fascinating figure; bespectacled and always in full command of a small army of assistants, construction crews and heavy equipment, Kiefer merges a keen emotional understanding of man’s complex relationship to the geography of the natural world with an almost mythological narrative of decay and transformation. Fiennes captures the burning intensity of Kiefer’s creative force, juxtaposing the eerie, abandoned structures and sculptures that define La Ribotte (presented here in disorienting, deliriously gorgeous close-ups) with compelling sequences of the artist at work, using hydraulic lifts to raise and lower canvases, steam shovels to clear the earth, blowtorches to melt lead into a shimmering liquid, kilns to burn stacks of books, and even the soles of his feet, barely protected by a pair of flip-flops, to break giant panes of glass into millions of tiny shards. The result? The sensation of visiting a primal ruin, a place that exists out of time and place populated by beautiful, abandoned structures and devastated, meticulously arranged temples that now stand as monuments to the crush of history.
A traditional documentary film would typically try to conform to the “natural” state of the subject while making the “meaning” of his work the centerpiece of the narrative, but Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow instead grapples with the emotional impact of Kiefer’s art, using stunning cinematography (the film was shot in CinemaScope) and beautiful use of the music of György Ligeti to great effect. Interestingly, Ligeti’s music was a favorite of Stanley Kubrick (who used various Ligeti compositions in his own films) and here, Fiennes’ camera has much in common with Kubrick’s, evoking the suspended revelations of those prowling, menacing tracking shots though the Overlook Hotel in The Shining or inside the bombed out Vietnamese buildings of Full Metal Jacket. The effect is mesmerizing; Fiennes builds upon her recent exploration of dance and process in VSPRS: Show And Tell by creating a portait of an artist that focuses on the relationship between a life spent making art and the powerful experience of feeling and contemplating the work.
Early on, Kiefer splatters a sticky substance onto his canvas using an industrial broom, before instructing his assistant to cover the entire canvas in what seems to be concrete dust. When the huge canvas is finally raised, an indecipherable cloud of gray slowly falls away to offer a glimpse at small portions of the painting beneath. Kiefer then instructs his assistants to shake the canvas from behind, which causes the remaining dust to crumble down the face of the painting, revealing a haunting image of a dark forest accented by the newly-applied concrete. It is a thrilling moment, one that forges a rhyme with the experience of watching the film itself; Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow is a major accomplishment, the rare non-fiction film that pulls off the feat of revealing the complexity of its subject by prioritizing the aesthetic and emotional over the literal and interpretive.
Sophie Fiennes’ Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow