Sophie Fiennes’ Portrait of the Artist at Work


In the new documentary Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, artist Anslem Kiefer opens up his studio to show the daily life of an artist. Directed by Sophie Fiennes, the film is an engrossing portrait of an artist and his work. In 1993, Kiefer moved to Barjac in the south of France and took over an abandoned factory. For nearly two decades he lived and worked there, creating enormous sculptures and artwork by digging tunnels underground and building massive concrete towers. Rather than simply showing some canvas on a white wall, Fiennes’ film wanders through the artwork much like an actual person would. The result is meditative film that both shows how art is created and still manages to keep the creative process a mystery.

Fiennes told Interview that the call to document Kiefer’s studio complex came out of the blue. The artist wanted someone to record his process before he moved out and let nature take its course. Fiennes first visited the complex at night and was struck by the sheer size of both the work and the space. “I saw that it had a dramatic quality and a cinematic quality,” said Fiennes. “I thought of it as a landscape film because the scale of the work was so big.”

Fiennes initially faced the technical hurdle of how to correctly capture the structures on film. “It’s basic practical hurdles I’ve [had] to overcome, which is how to create a three dimensional film image to capture [a] three dimensional physical landscape,” she explained. Rather than pulling the camera back to get the giant pieces on screen, Fiennes let the camera meander around the artwork—just as a human visitor would approach Kiefer’s pieces. As she said, “I was interested in the challenge in not having a person looking, but the eye of the camera that wasn’t a privileged point of view.

Although the film is a documentary, Fiennes was inspired by an unlikely source: the French New Wave film Last Year at Marienbad. She wanted to echo the way that movie cinematically explores a landscape: “I think that idea of orientation and disorientation in a hermetic world—there’s something about that. that’s very absorbing.”

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow features minimal dialogue; there’s only one interview with Kiefer in the middle of the film. Fiennes wanted the film to be a vehicle that would allow audience members to view and judge the artwork on their own. “I’m not the kind of person who goes around exhibitions with the headset with the person telling you what you’re looking at,” said Fiennes.

Instead, the director emphasizes the physicality of Kiefer’s creations. “There was this direct childlike energy you see in the film. I think that surprised a lot of people,” Fiennes told us. She shows the artist breaking giant panes of glass (while wearing sandals) or torching metal to create a molten pile of dirt and lead.

After being a fan of Kiefer’s for so long, Fiennes has been pleasantly surprised by how audiences have reacted to her film. “I think it’s amazing, actually, how the creative process is immensely captivating to us as human beings,” said Fiennes. “I have a fascination with that—so I was happy to discover other people do too.”