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Review: 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.
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.)

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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