'Beuys': Doc about German modern artist wanders around, but has its moments

Posted March 5, 2018 1:21 p.m. EST

The unconventional Joseph Beuys, one of the pillars of the modern art movement, gets an unconventional tribute in ``Beuys,'' a zigzagging documentary that is both illuminating and opaque.

As a biographical exercise, ``Beuys'' is about as straightforward as one of the artist's whimsical creations, whether it's a pile of stones outside a museum or the performance piece ``How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare,'' in which the German provocateur douses himself with honey and cradles a dead hare, all for public viewing through gallery windows.

Indeed, his life story is presented as an Etch A Sketch, leaving out childhood details such as his stint in the Hitler Youth. His marriage and children are mere blips. And most glaringly, the film does little in the way of providing important social and political context that informed Beuys' life journey.

Amid this structural rubble, however, director Andres Veiel's film still has a lot going for it. Veiel has amassed awesome archival footage of the artist at work, and seeing Beuys' genius in real time is exhilarating. Moreover, the late Beuys (he died in 1986) makes for a friendly, engaging presence, and he is articulate in his view about how we are all artists who can bring about political and social change -- a view that was shocking to some at the time, yet has proven influential to this day.

Veiel also uses archival photos to dazzling effect, zooming in on photo contact sheets and making a specific image go live. It's a beautiful artistic conceit, even if it doesn't alleviate our desire for the film to delve deeper into this complex man. Throughout the film, we are often left to fill in the blanks of Beuy's life and legacy, but perhaps that's how the artist might have wanted it.


2 stars out of 4 stars Documentary. Starring Joseph Beuys. Directed by Andres Veiel. In German with English subtitles. (Not rated. 107 minutes.)