Film Reviews

Two fine art documentaries premiere a week before Hot Docs

‘Beuys’ and ‘Cinema Through the Eye of Magnum’

Joseph Beuys.
Photo by Ute Klophaus, courtesy Kino Lorber / Zero One Film / Stiftung Museum Schloss Moyland.

(Germany, 107 min.)
Written and directed by Andres Veiel
Starring: Joseph Beuys, Caroline Tisdall, Rhea Thönges-Stringaris, Franz von der Grinten, Johannes Stüttgen

Though it’s more than 30 years since he died, Joseph Beuys’ extraordinary art, philosophy and politics remain startlingly relevant today. Those of us who lived through the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties will never forget his brilliant performance art, astonishingly apt statements and passionate humanistic stances on issues of the day. Beuys’ visage has acquired a resonance that is likely to endure forever, especially when people recall his period of cultural ferment. The intensity of Beuys’ narrow nearly emaciated face, with its high cheekbones, and facial scars only slightly hidden by surgery over his right eye, stare at us with passionate intensity even now. And, of course, every great photo of Beuys is set off by his fedora, the hat that became his trademark.

Andreas Veiel, an award winning German director most famous for his documentaries on theatrical work, has fashioned a bold and thoroughly encompassing look at Beuys. 90% of the film is constructed from archival film footage and photos from Beuys’ heyday when he was stirring up the conservative political and cultural life in post-Adenauer Germany. Not for him the conformity of that time, with its safe Christian Democrat bureaucratic platitudes. Beuys, from his vantage point as a sculptor and professor at a major art college in Dusseldorf decided to take on all establishments: the artistic elite as well as the economic and political ones. Taking a cue from the Fluxus movement, he declared that “Every man is an artist,” which he naively believed. He attacked the art, education and the political systems as cold institutions that were holding back the crazy, life embracing new order of the Sixties.

Photo by Buby Durini
Courtesy Kino Lobber / Zero One Film / Archivio Storico De Domino Durini.

In a famous performance, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, Beuys dramatized the futility of education by whispering to a deceased rabbit (which he was carrying in his hands) why drawings in the art gallery were worthwhile. Beuys’ ambiguous—but mainly negative—attitude towards the U.S. was expressed in his prescient and nerve shattering I Like Amerika and Amerika Likes Me, in which he never set foot in New York—taking an ambulance to and from the airport—and spent his time (in 1974) in a cage with a coyote and editions of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). Beuys had to learn how to deal with a coyote, a mythical symbol of Indigenous peoples, which was ornery, to say the least. Lots of cloth Beuys brought in was torn to shreds as were copies of the WSJ (apart from the ones the coyote used to relieve itself, doggie style).

Beuys had flown for the Luftwaffe during World War Two and survived five plane crashes, which accounts for his scars—both physical and psychological. An idealist, he went through 15 years of depression before emerging in the late ‘50s with a new philosophy: direct democracy. Just as he attacked the pretentions of art, he also opposed Western Europe’s polite socialism; one can only conclude that he understood what neo-liberalism was going to be before it ever stated. One of Beuys’ great art projects, which Is rendered quite well by Veiel, has to be the 7000 Oaks, which proposed planting that many trees next to broken up stones. It is a wonderful metaphor for nature emerging as the life force that can triumph over the so-called benefits of civilization.

Those trees have taken root now. One can only hope that this imaginative, superbly researched documentary will also hit the ground running and find a North American audience. For me, the most beautiful thing was seeing Beuys smile so much—and remember the charming and funny but surely provocative figure, who was West Germany’s great artistic prophet.

Cinema Through the Eye of Magnum
Dir. Sophie Bassaler
Featuring the work of: Robert Capa, Elliott Erwitt, Dennis Stock, Eve Arnold, Inge Morath, Joseph Koudelka, Peter Marlow, Ernst Haas, Raymond Depardon, Patrick Zachmann, Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Nicolas Tikhomiroff, Paolo Pellegrin

It all started, appropriately, with a love affair. Robert Capa, the larger than life photographer who shot the absolutely memorable images we have of D-Day and captured the controversial moment-of-death shot of a partisan slain during the Spanish Civil War met and fell in love with Ingrid Bergman at the end of World War Two. Imagine it: Capa, the great friend of Hemingway and Huston and Peter Lorre—the hard drinking charmer and wonderful image maker—and Bergman, the gorgeous Swedish movie icon, the star of Casablanca and Intermezzo and For Whom the Bell Tolls falling passionately for each other.

Bergman on set

That’s how the greatest photo collective of all time, Magnum, began its extraordinary relationship with the movies. Director Sophie Bassaler follows the Bergman-Capa story as recounted by the actress’s daughter Isabella Rossellini, which culminates in the photojournalist being invited to be behind-the-scenes during the shooting of the acclaimed Hitchcock thriller Notorious, which also starred Cary Grant and Claude Rains. The photos were widely reproduced but sadly, Bergman and Capa broke up.

Magnum and cinema, on the other hand, were just about to begin. The acclaimed photo organization was started a year after Notorious by Capa, his brother Cornell, George Rodger, David “Chim” Seymour and arguably the greatest photographer of them all, Henri Cartier-Bresson. The quintet intended Magnum to be a collective that would cover the globe, shooting documentary images with great style and humanity, unencumbered by commercial restraints. They largely succeeded but certain compromises had to happen though none were disastrous. Often they had to shoot assignments for the popular magazines of the period — Life, Paris Match, Der Spiegel — though none were against their principles. Similarly, Magnum, and Robert Capa, discovered that some films and filmmakers wanted to be documented—and could pay for the service.

Joseph Beuys.
Photo by Ute Klophaus, courtesy Kino Lorber / Zero One Film / Stiftung Museum Schloss Moyland.

In the early Fifties, Capa shot photos of such Huston pictures as The African Queen and Beat the Devil and he also memorably went behind the scenes to cover The Barefoot Contessa, an Ava Gardner award-winner. After his tragic death in Vietnam, Capa’s colleagues kept up the tradition leading up to the ultimate Magnum behind-the-scenes-shoot, The Misfits. A film about the loss of American values, the tragic Misfits was directed by Magnum-supporter John Huston, scripted by the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Arthur Miller and starred Miller’s then-wife Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in their last films. All of the major Magnum photographers covered the shooting of the film: Cartier-Bresson, Eve Arnold, Elliott Erwitt, Dennis Stock and Miller’s last wife, Inge Morath.

Bassaler’s doc covers The Misfits and Capa with great aplomb: the film is nicely divided between still and moving images, propelled by interviews with photographers and others involved with the great productions that were documented. As cinema became more auteur oriented, Magnum photographers continued to shoot photos of artistic productions. We see images of Nicolas Tikhomiroff following Orson Welles’ production of Chimes at Midnight, Gueorgui Pinhassov working on several of Andrei Tarkovsky’s dystopian science fiction fllms, Joseph Koudelka’s impressive near-collaboration with Angelopoulos on the masterpiece Ulysses’ Gaze, and Patrick Zachmann’s impressive evocation of Chinese night life, which was clearly inspired by Chen Kaige’s Temptress Moon and the cinematographer Christopher Doyle.

For lovers of great visual art, whether in film or photography, I recommend this doc unreservedly.

Beuys and Cinema Through the Eye of Magnum open at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on April 20. Cinema Through the Eye of Magnum is also available on TVO.