“Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow” is that rare art documentary — one that places the art front and center, not as an adjunct to its maker’s biography. The artist in this case, Anselm Kiefer, doesn’t appear until 20 minutes into the film, and he’s always seen in interaction, mainly with the crew of assistants who help him produce and move his monumental canvases and sculptures.
Sophie Fiennes filmed the last two years of Kiefer’s decade-and-a-half project in the South of France, where he turned the site of an abandoned silk factory into a studio compound and elaborate invented world. As with much of Kiefer’s work, the effect is preindustrial and postapocalyptic. In Barjac, he built a city of ruins: a labyrinth of rough-hewn tunnels, an amphitheater and, most haunting, a set of towers inspired by the biblical story of Lilith (which gives the film its title).
With their emotional heft and gloom-steeped palette, the installations could be the sets for a Bela Tarr film. Like Tarr, Fiennes favors long takes. In slow, gliding pans, the camera beholds Kiefer’s artistic process and its results. A modernist score marked by metallic groans and discordant strings is perfectly attuned to the formal widescreen compositions.
Fiennes’ refusal to explain or question Kiefer’s work, to establish a context for it or clarify how it’s financed, will frustrate some viewers. But if she enshrines the art, she has at the same time memorialized an extraordinary undertaking, and created a film of hypnotic beauty.
“Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.” No MPAA rating; in French and German with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. At the Laemmle Playhouse, Pasadena; Laemmle Monica 4, Santa Monica; Laemmle Boulevard Cinema, Lancaster.