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Documentary on German artist 'Beuys' fawns rather than enlightens

Documentary on German artist 'Beuys' fawns rather than enlightens
Joseph Beuys with students Johannes Stüttgen, from left, Chris Reinecke and Fernand Ries at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Winter Semester 1967-68. (Kino Lorber / Zero One Film / Stiftung Museum Schloss Moyland)

Postwar German artist Joseph Beuys cemented his reputation for provocative performance art with a 1965 gallery action called "How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare," in which people could peer into a window at Beuys, his head covered in honey and gold leaf, as he talked about art to a hare carcass. But as visionary, political and philosophical as Beuys was as a proponent of a conceptual social art that empowered the artist toward self-determination and civic engagement, Andres Veiel's documentary "Beuys," plays like a fan's flip book divorced from meaningful resonance.

Beuys was a wounded war veteran who fought crushing depression with a challenging approach to his work — mixing the ephemeral, unusual and conscious — which polarized the international art world and invited cult-like observance. (Keep saying, "Everyone is an artist," and you'll surely get followers.)

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But Veiel's timeline-jumbled, image-manipulated assemblage of archival footage and photographs — from happenings, interviews and public talks — intrigues without establishing a helpful context for the noninitiated. (Beuys' Hitler Youth years are maddeningly ignored, for instance.)

The man himself, whether arguing with art-establishment scolds or laughing with anyone else, is an obviously compelling figure: Beuys' toothsome smile, skeletal features and trademark hat and vest giving him the air of a haunted adventurer. But apart from a few fascinatingly detailed accounts of works like "7000 Oaks," a massive tree-and-rock-planting project, and odd-materials sculpture events like "Fat Corner," this nontraditional portrait could have been called "How Not to Explain Beuys to an Audience."

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‘Beuys’

In German with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; also Feb. 26-27 at other Laemmle theaters

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