'Beuys': Film Review | Berlin 2017

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A directionless film about a visionary artist.

German filmmaker Andres Veiel's documentary looks at the life and work of Joseph Beuys, one of the seminal German artists of the 20th century.

There’s little doubt that Joseph Beuys, the German performance artist and sculptor, deserves a feature-length movie that explores his fascinating and complex body of work and his unique position in not only 20th-century art history, but also in German history in general (his work could be very political and he was part of the country’s nascent Green Party). But the documentary Beuys, directed by Andres Veiel, doesn’t do much more than scrape together bits and pieces of archive footage and photos into a cacophonous collage without a real structure and without a clear aim.

In its current edit, the film seems neither suitable for those unfamiliar with Beuys’ work — since there is no attempt at all to situate his work within any wider artistic or art-historical context — nor, since it is about 95 percent archive material supplemented with only the tiniest sliver of new interview material, particularly revealing or new for those already in the know. Distribution prospects seem minimal.

Veiel (Black Box BRD) seems intimidated by his subject, which is vast and variegated, and unsure from what angle to tackle the wealth of material available, which ranges from the purely biographic to the artistic and the political. This is most obvious in the film’s schizophrenic structure, which initially looks at some key works from the 1970s and 1980s and a general approach to Beuys as an artist — early champion Caroline Tisdall is heard in footage shot at the artist’s 1979 Guggenheim show and also in new interview material — before plunging into a more traditional chronological exploration of his life and work and then ending the film with some material shown earlier. The overall impression is one of a writer-director and two editors who half-heartedly decided to organize some of the material thematically and the rest chronologically, hoping they’d get the best of both worlds. Instead, the narrative just feels overly cluttered, at times too repetitive and at others, too superficial or cryptic.

Veiel also doesn’t seem sure whether he really wants to talk about Beuys as an artist or as a person who happened to be an artist. The film is oddly devoid of mentions of Beuys’ predecessors and contemporaries — a fleeting glimpse of a stood-up Andy Warhol at an opening notwithstanding — making it impossible to judge for non-art historians to what extent his work was new, revolutionary or different. There is one Beuys acolyte who is also an interviewee, Johannes Stuttgen, whose first intervention consists of him saying he was a follower of Beuys at the Dusseldorf Arts Academy, where he taught, but that followers aren’t a good thing because artists should be taught to do their own thing. So much for getting a sense of how Beuys might have influenced other artists.

Judging solely by the movie, Beuys was a solitary figure who evolved alone in the art world as he experimented with performance art and expanded the idea of what sculpture could be and do (though the subtitles struggle to come up with a better translation for the German term “Plastik” than “sculpture” even though the two are not quite synonymous). Quite a lot of time is devoted to a few public instances in which Beuys was called upon to defend his ideas of what art and Plastik could be, which might be useful for those unfamiliar with Beuys’ work but which is not really necessary in this quantity because Beuys’ place in 20th-century art history has never really been in question since his death in 1986.

The filmmakers also seem unsure how to explore the political dimensions of his work and how those fed into the artist’s more purely political activities. His part in the early years of German Green Party is touched upon, as well as the student kerfuffle that led to his dismissal from the Dusseldorf Arts Academy in 1972, but there is strangely no mentions of him founding the German Student Party years earlier, which might have helped to explain why he defended students’ rights and access to education so vigorously. (And speaking of lacking context: At least a fleeting mention of the 1968 student movement that emanated from Paris, which contributed to the combative political atmosphere in Europe among youngsters and artists, might have been apropos.)

The new interview footage has been kept to such a minimum that some of it has become almost useless since there is no time to develop or contextualize what the interviewees say or even who they are. It is not clear, for example, that interviewee Franz Joseph van der Grinten was one of the earliest collectors of Beuys’ work and that he, together with his brother Hans, got him his first solo show in the early 1950s. In another odd omission, Van der Grinten’s interview is intercut with typed excerpts from what sound like letters about Beuys, but they are never credited. One of the most important witnesses of Beuys’s early career is thus reduced to an enigmatic bystander delivering unnecessary soundbites.

To keep the succession of archive material from becoming too static, Veiel lets the camera drift left and right over photographs and countless contact sheets, zooming in here or adding some coloring there. This approach is creative in a rather generic sense, with Ulrich Reuter and Damian Scholl’s percussion-heavy score similarly sounding serious and arty without having any real personality or connection to Beuys’ ideas or work. If there’s one thing that Beuys believed in that the makers haven’t taken to heart, it is the fact that humor is an important ingredient for any art piece or revolution. If he can be spotted with a smile on his face several times, it feels like the filmmakers took their job way too seriously.  

Production company: Zero One Film, Terz Filmproduktion
Director: Andres Veiel
Producer: Thomas Kufus
Director of photography: Jörg Jeshel
Editors: Stephan Krumbiegel, Olaf Voigtländer
Music: Ulrich Reuter, Damian Scholl
Sales: Beta Cinema

No rating, 107 minutes