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“The Lumières Dreamt of 3D”: Wim Wenders on Anselm at Cannes 2023


German filmmaker Wim Wenders has two new features in Cannes this year, one of which, Anselm, is a documentary portrait of German artist Anselm Kiefer. Like Pina (2011)—his filmed portrait of the late Tanztheater dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch—Anselm was shot and projected in 3D (his fourth solo feature to be filmed in the format, with a fifth already on the way), reasserting Wenders’ dedication to the format at a time when few filmmakers in the industry not named James Cameron or Ang Lee continue to explore it. 

Kiefer’s work, like Bausch’s, is naturally accommodating to 3D photography. Filmed at various ateliers in Croissy, Hornbach and Barjac (among others), the stereography emphasizes the labyrinthine architecture of these work sites, calling attention to the work’s weight and shape (not to mention the occasional stray cobweb billowing off the edge of an artwork), as well as the complex materiality of his paintings, which are slathered in myriad oils, emulsions, acrylics and melted metals, in addition other rustic objects he affixes to his canvases. The camera roves and glides through these spaces in choreographed sessions with the artist, who essentially performs himself and his practice on screen. As in Pina, Wenders creatively works in archival footage—in some cases, video is digitally added onto an old CRT television screen (itself captured in 3D)—to assist with the documentary’s informational obligations. There are also re-enactments of Kiefer’s childhood (performed by Wenders’s grand-nephew, Anton Wenders), moments that most resemble a traditional dramatic film, and which strive to “personalize” a body of work that is often perceived, first, as one of provocation and broader historical reckoning. 

While the film is intrinsically acutely political due to the nature of Kiefer’s work—not to mention quite personal for Wenders himself—it is playful as well, giddily exploring a format that I’ve accused Wenders of applying too conservatively in the past. Indeed, most of my notes consist of scribbled down formal gestures followed by an exclamation mark or two: “Crossfades!” “Puddle reflections!” “Hall of mirrors!!” “Foggy light shafts!” “3D steam!” “ASMR whispering!” “Sparks!” “Liquid metal!” “Tunnel shot!” Towards the end of the film, Wenders superimposes one of Anselm’s star paintings onto footage of young Kiefer emerging from a field of sunflowers, and it’s frankly one of the most gorgeous stereoscopic images I’ve ever seen. And as superfluous as these elements may read on paper, they embody inspiration, making felt those ways in which another artist can invigorate how we engage with our own tools and ideas.

Filmmaker: When you were working on Pina (2011), you said that the camera system you used was extremely large and unwieldy, I think you used a crane that you called a “dinosaur.”

Wim Wenders: Yes, it was big, very big, and the 3D rig on it was only HD.

Filmmaker: 12 years later, how has your camera situation changed for your 3D projects?

Wenders: We shot on the new VENICE Digital Cinema Camera, which is a beautiful machine. While it can be big, it can also be quite small if you take the whole back off of it. It can be a very agile and small unit. Franz Lustig, my director of photography, was able to shoot a lot of it with the 3D rig resting on his shoulders. He had somebody carry the back of the camera behind him, but that wasn’t a big drawback, it worked well. Shooting from his shoulder, it made us feel a bit like a fly on the wall, at least for these documentary sections of the film. And we shot it in 6K, knowing fully well there wasn’t a cinema in the world that could handle that resolution yet. Maybe soon. Eventually. We are ready for it.

Filmmaker: What resolution was it shown in at the Lumière theater?

Wenders: In Cannes we had to show it in 2K. They couldn’t guarantee any higher than that. They could have possibly shown it in 4K, but they couldn’t guarantee it would play flawlessly. That said, the projection at the Lumière was impeccable, it looked really well. But, yes, we shot it in 6K and did the full post-production in 6K, and we had great lenses. Altogether, it was such a different experience than with Pina. I can’t believe it.

Filmmaker: You’ve worked with Franz before, but this is the first time he’s shot one of your 3D films. Personally, I thought I felt more depth in the image than in your other ones, as though the lenses were placed further apart.

Wenders: Given the scope of Anselm’s work—some of them are very big—we did more wide shots than we’d do in a fiction film, and for these you can spread the interocular distance wider. 

Filmmaker: With this setup, did the cameras have to be situated differently on your steadicam system?

Wenders: Steadicam was a small, compact unit, for which Franz often used the Easyrig. He’s a master of the Easyrig. And we developed a drone that carries two cameras, which could work with the lenses up to 15 centimeters apart. If the drone went up very high, you would still have a nice 3D effect. Of course, at that distance you couldn’t get too close to the buildings or trees or the effect wouldn’t work. It was actually quite a heavy-duty drone, because it had to carry a rig of altogether 5 kilograms, with the lenses being the heaviest part of it all. It’s the first drone built for a real 3D rig, as far as I know.

Filmmaker: Did this rig use beamsplitter mirror?

Wenders: No, we didn’t need the mirror, because the cameras were far enough part. 

Filmmaker: Your other film in Cannes this year, Perfect Days, hasn’t screened yet, but is it correct that you didn’t shoot this one in 3D?

Wenders: Right.

Filmmaker: I’m curious why you didn’t. Your previous two dramatic fiction films were shot in 3D.

Wenders: Not everything wants or needs to be shot in 3D, I feel. 3D needs a subject that has an affinity to the language. With Every Thing Will Be Fine (2015), I tried to just shoot an intimate family story, and back then I maintained this idea that it needed to be made in 3D. In hindsight, I don’t think so, especially considering that film’s distribution history. I know that most people didn’t see it in 3D, and a lot just didn’t want to. They said, “Why should we see that in 3D? There’s no special effects in it anyway. Why not on a normal screen?” On TV or on streaming, you can’t show 3D, anyway. I just have to live with the fact that most people saw it in 2D, but I’ll insist that most people watch Anselm in 3D, because otherwise they won’t have the experience.

Filmmaker: In addition to capturing the texture and materiality of Anselm Kiefer’s work, so much of Anselm feels like you’re playing with different kinds of effects in your own images—things like superimpositions, crossfades or capturing sun flares through trees while you film one of Anselm’s outdoor installations. The formal properties of your own new images feel as important to this film as the formal properties of Anselm’s work. I almost felt like you were partially using this film to explore all these different formal ideas you thought of in the seven years that passed since you last made a 3D feature.

Wenders: Well, I actually made two shorts between my last 3D feature, The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez (2016) and now Anselm. One was an installation on the work of Edward Hopper, called Two or Three Things I Know About Edward Hopper (2020). It was shot in America, and it’s a film on the work of Edward Hopper, not about the works. They don’t actually appear. Then, last year, I made a 30-minute installation about the French artist and sculptor Claudine Drai, called Présence. Already, the title suggests 3D: “presence.” You witness “presence” in 3D. You don’t have that in a flat movie. I worked a long time on these two short projects, and now when I made Anselm I was in the flow. Technology has made such a huge leap, it’s taken such a huge step. It was just so fluid working on this film, and 3D gave me such a rich palette, I wanted to use it to the max. You listed some of the things I tried—we did a lot of superimpositions, and we tried things in 3D that I’d never done before, including how we worked 2D archival materials into a 3D world. I think I needed the broadest palette I could handle in order to get close to Anselm’s work, which itself is exceedingly large.

Filmmaker: And were a lot of these decisions you mention—the superimpositions, the way you incorporated the archival material—discovered during the editing process, or did you know you were going to use certain techniques before you shot the film?

Wenders: Almost all of it was discovered while editing. I couldn’t have done this film without the long editing process. We shot seven times: our first session was in early 2020, and we finished in late 2022. Each shoot lasted a week or two, then I could go home and edit, and I would realize what else I needed, or what else I wanted to try. Slowly it all fit together, even though I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do with some of these scenes before I made the movie. I needed the time, and it needed to grow out of these shooting sessions. There were some locations where we shot in the summertime, and once I got there I suddenly realized I needed to shoot there in winter, too, otherwise it wouldn’t work. I edited all these times in between, in total for more than two years. It was part of the process.

Filmmaker: The current situation with 3D now is quite different than when you released Pina, in terms of the amount of 3D films that are being released, the number that are being shot natively in 3D compared to being post-converted. You’ve persisted, though, and continue shooting and releasing your films in 3D. I wonder what you imagine is the future of this format, which seems to be losing the industry’s and the public’s interest.

Wenders: In the industry I think it’s even worse than losing interest. I think the industry is actively against it. For example, I tried to make another fiction film in 3D, and the agents told me their actors “were not working in 3D movies.” That was their answer. It’s because they don’t think it’s a serious medium. They think it is necessarily some sort of junk! 

Filmmaker: They weren’t even willing to discuss it with you?

Wenders: No, that was their prejudice. They don’t know how it works. Even cinema owners have become disconcerted with the medium, because of what’s available for them to screen on 3D. They say, “Wim, we’d love to play your movie, but our audience doesn’t want 3D.” I said, “Who is this audience, and what did they grow up with?” and they say, “The only 3D movies we have available usually are ‘this,’ ‘this,’ and ‘this,’ and we didn’t want to show those films to them.” People who program these arthouse theaters have their own audience that they program for; they cultivate that audience, and they know that these audience don’t want to watch the films typically available in 3D. They see the  “3D” logo and they don’t come. I think it’s a pity—well, more than that, a huge scandal in the history of cinema. The greatest dream that cinema had from the beginning…

Filmmaker: Even the Lumière brothers eventually returned to La Ciotat to make it in 3D.

Wenders: Yes! The Lumières dreamt of 3D, they had a patent for it. Cinema wanted to be three-dimensional from the beginning and now this incredible chance for a whole new language is about to get ruined, is being wasted, and it might disappear like it did in the 1950s, and might again become a thing of the past. And it’s all because the industry doesn’t have the guts to show the other side of 3D, which is not spectacle, but reality-driven, poetic cinema. I know I don’t have to convince you necessarily, but people need to know that 3D can be intimate. It can have volume, not just “depth.” I mean, depth is okay, but volume is terribly underrated. Volume, and presence.

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