Joseph Beuys was the fat-obsessed artist in the felt hat; the dapper visionary and former Luftwaffe pilot who survived a plane crash in the wilderness and whose work provoked the German establishment in the post-war era. His life was his art. Beuys deliberately built up myths about his experiences, and told tall tales.
Andres Veiel’s documentary portrait emphasises not just Beuys as an artist, but also his importance as an environmentalist, storyteller and political theorist. “I went to a show of Beuys in 2008 and I was very surprised, not only because of his huge and fascinating collection of pieces of art, but I was fascinated and thrilled by some videos in which he talked about his ideas on what it meant to have a democratic economy in terms of money flow.”
Veiel wanted to reclaim Beuys from the museum world, and to remind the world of the artist’s continuing relevance. He sees his documentary as being in a similar spirit to some of his earlier films dealing with West German politics (and terrorism) in the 1970s and 1980s.
“You see a stiff, dogmatic way of thinking; a very brutal way of thinking, in this period. There is no movement: only good and bad, black and white. Beuys brings the idea of tearing down walls … if you put energy into that, it starts to float, to move.”
An Artistic Beacon
As a young man growing up in Stuttgart, Veiel was inspired by Beuys’ work. Now that he has rediscovered it, he describes the artist as “not only an important artist of the twentieth century, but a lighthouse for the twenty-first century.”
The director originally planned to take a “classical” approach, featuring interviews with the artist’s friends and contemporaries. “Then I discovered the strength of the archive,” he says. This footage was far stronger than the material he had shot on HD. So he decided to “follow the archive.” The director also decided to avoid the chronological, linear approach of the typical biopic. He wanted to be able to jump around.
“He compared himself with the hare. We had to have a structure like the way the hare runs. The hare doesn’t run straight. Sometimes, it runs in this direction, then he pops up from another angle you weren’t expecting.”
A Wealth of Resources
There were 30,000 photos to draw on, as well as lots of filmed footage. The more the filmmaker delved into the archives, the more he warmed to his subject. Beuys had a humour and a sense of “self-irony” not always associated with German artists. “It was thrilling.” Beuys’s family was initially reluctant to help Veiel, but he sent the artist’s widow, Eva Beuys, his previous film, Black Box BRD. Her response was swift. “Yes,” she replied in her letter.
“I got her support, I got her trust. I was really very lucky. She even signed a contract saying she won’t intervene in the filmmaking process. She also supported us a lot … without her, it would have been impossible to make the film. She is like the gatekeeper.”
Eva Beuys attended the premiere of the film at the Berlinale. To Veiel’s immense relief, she gave it her blessing. “The basic response was that it is a great film. I felt a huge relief that she enjoyed the movie.”