Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow

Shows Artist Anselm Kiefer at God-like Work

By: Ethan Gilsdorf

World-builders have chutzpah. They have to, in order to pull off their ambitious, painstakingly detailed alternate realities. Think of Tolkien, who spent decades imagining, mapping, and documenting his Middle-earth, populating it with histories, family trees, languages, races, creatures, landscapes, songs, cosmology, and legends. Novelists, filmmakers, and religious leaders have taken on similar missions to create a believable, hermetic setting for their works.

Anselm Kiefer has been engaged in a similar pursuit. A German photographer, painter, and sculptor known for his mass-scale works, Kiefer has always chosen the thorny past as his subject. For one of his more infamous works, he took photos of himself mimicking the Nazi salute in various locations across Europe. In 1993, Kiefer departed his native Germany for La Ribaute, an abandoned silk factory near Barjac in the South of France. Starting in 2000, he began building a series of installations on the thirty-five-hectare site: concrete towers, excavations, and buildings—some working studios, some “homes” for a series of massive paintings and sculptures—all linked by a network of underground tunnels dug by Kiefer and his team of workers.

In 2008, Kiefer abandoned this complex and relocated himself and hundreds of his works to suburban Paris. Before he moved, he wanted the place memorialized. Filmmaker Sophie Fiennes became interested in the project, and after more than two years of shooting on-site with Kiefer, the result is Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.

Still from Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, 2011

Fiennes’s other films include The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (her 2006 collaboration with “radical thinker” Slavoj Zizek) and Hoover Street Revival (a 2002 film about a Pentecostal church community in Los Angeles). In this latest film, she alternates between three modes. First, crane and dolly shots take us through the innards of the compound, set to the haunting, horror-like music of Jörg Widmann and György Ligeti. Given what cheap tension the music sets up, at least to my mind, one half expects a serial killer or cave troll to jump in front of the camera. None does: The place is deserted. “When I first showed some footage to Anselm,” Fiennes wrote in Artforum, “he said, ‘the framing is good, but can you take the people out?’” She did. No human appears until a good twenty minutes into the film.

When they do, we see the filmmaker’s second approach: shots of the artist at work in his cavernous factory studios. “It’s not the sculpture I want it to be,” Kiefer complains to an assistant, as his idea of pouring molten metal down a mountain of dirt doesn’t quite have the desired effect. In another sequence, giant books made from lead sheets salvaged from the roof of a Cologne cathedral are juxtaposed against sober, monochromatic seascapes. The elements are so heavy they must be hoisted and manipulated by winches. “Go fetch the sea,” he says to one of his minions.

Fiennes depicts scenes of Kiefer as alchemist—throwing ash, smashing sheets of plate glass, pulling hot objects from fiery furnaces, and pouring liquid gold—all as if he were inventing his own creation myths and rituals. He orchestrates backhoes that dig a labyrinth of dirt pillars. He directs cranes as they stack ten-foot high, 500-pound concrete pieces, like building blocks, into towers. Caution: God at Work. World-Building In Progress. Proceed with Caution.

Oddly mired in the middle of Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow is a somber interview with a German interlocutor, which gives Kiefer an opportunity to wax poetic about his creative theories. He claims connections to “the celestial palaces” of Jewish mysticism, The Odyssey, Sternfell (the mythical story of stars falling to earth), even our cellular memory of once being sea creatures. He infuses his world with history: His rock-like sculptures are meteors that have fallen from the heavens and left traces in his underworld. He takes sublime pleasure, he tells us, in “making streets on the land where there were none.” One almost expects him to chortle with a maniacal laugh.

While most have categorized Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow as documentary, given the artist’s clear hand in shaping the project, it might be more accurate to call this a collaboration, or a video catalog of his installations (though, sadly, no aerial shots reveal the complex’s true scale).

A curious, at times gorgeous portrait of an artist and his work, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow shows the intersection of art, world-building, and hubris. But the complex is not a museum. Like a mad urban planner or archaeologist from the future, Kiefer erected a ruin. Or is it a movie set for a post-apocalyptic plot?

Kiefer left for Paris. The towers have crumbled. Over his buildings grass now grows. Fiennes’s film is the next best thing to visiting Kieferland. Yet one is left with the tinge of exasperation. What was the point to Kiefer’s mystical art-world, if no one other than the artist was ever intended to visit it?


Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, and is a film and book critic for the Boston Globe. More information about him can be found at www.fantasyfreaksbook.com.

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