Conceptual artist Joseph Beuys shown as laughing revolutionary in new documentary - and Germans didn’t get his jokes
Director of the only documentary feature vying for top prizes at Berlin film festival says to understand its subject you have to see how he lived life on the edge
A documentary about German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys wowed the audience at its world premiere in Berlin, depicting him as a creative wizard and provocative prankster who enjoyed challenging traditional thinking about art, politics and money.
The film by award-winning director Andres Veiel shows the contradictory path of a man who voluntarily joined the Hitler Youth and fought in the second world war, only to become one of Germany’s most experimental artists and a vocal proponent of self-determination and grassroots democracy.
“I was very interested in showing his wounds and trauma as being connected to his energy,” Veiel said in an interview on Wednesday. “You can only understand Beuys if you realise that [in life] he sped toward the abyss like a Stuka fighter just to pull up in the nick of time before the plane crashes and he hits the ground. It is this energy that kept him fighting in life.”
During wartime, Beuys indeed survived a fighter jet crash on the Crimean peninsula.
Based on archive footage, audio recordings, interviews and photos, the film sheds light on the question why sculptures like the fat chair were ridiculed in Germany but celebrated in an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
It shows how German critics try to make sense of Beuys, his concept of art and his light-hearted approach of doing things differently – as manifested in his ground-breaking mass tree-planting installation 7000 Oaks for the Documenta exhibition in 1982.
In one of his first installations, Beuys is seen talking to a dead hare on his arm, explaining pictures to the lifeless animal and petting the furry body behind a shopping window. Spectators watch him with a mixture of disbelief and amusement.
“Do you want a revolution without laughter? I don’t,” Beuys, known for a trademark hat that he wore at all times, tells an art critic during a television show in another scene.
Director Veiel said he was fascinated by Beuys’ political thinking and visionary power, warning already back in the 1980s that money was becoming a commodity and that financial speculation could undermine democracy.
“He was way ahead of his time, he basically saw it all coming, the financial crisis and the crisis of capitalism”, Veiel said during a news conference. Beuys died in 1986.
Beuys is the only documentary among the 18 films that compete for the Golden and Silver Bears at this year’s Berlin film festival. The winners will be announced on Saturday.
In 2001, Veiel won the European Film Award for Black Box Germany, a documentary about the assassination of former Deutsche Bank boss Alfred Herrhausen and the police shooting of Wolfgang Grams, a member of the RAF militant group.