Kino Lorber // 2012 // 97 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // September 25th, 2012
"Offers unprecedented insight into the life and work of one of the greatest artists of our time."
Cinema has always felt like the embattled little brother of the more traditional arts. Next to painting and sculpture -- which have their roots in classical antiquity at least -- cinema has always felt late to the party, like an interloper. That's one of the reasons it took a while for cinema to take its current, narrative form. Many early filmmakers wanted to enhance cinema's reputation by associating it with more traditional forms of art, like drama. However, even once cinema had largely legitimated itself as a worthy enterprise, we can still see moments of interaction between cinema and the other arts. One of the most famous is the series of films over the years that have featured painters. Whether filming Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock, filmmakers have struggled to find new ways of making the act of creation visible and visually compelling. We can add Gerhard Richter Painting to the illustrious list of painter-focused documentaries, and it's a worthy addition alongside Picasso and Pollock.
The title of Gerhard Richter Painting is a little misleading. Filmmaker Corinna Belz followed Richter around for two years (2008-2010). From that DV footage, she crafted a documentary that shows Richter painting, but also sees him interacting with curators and presents archival footage of the young Richter in his fiery period of the late 1960s. The overall effect is both generally biographical, but also specifically painterly, as we gain insights into Richter's life and art as well as how they illuminate each other.
There is a famous anecdote where Picasso is supposed to have seen a number of paintings after being asked to identify a forgery. When Picasso picks the forgery, an assistant pipes up with, "But Pablo, I saw you paint that myself!" Picasso is said to have replied with a variation of "I can fake a Picasso as well as anyone." Gerhard Richter is a painter that knows how to fake a Richter, and part of the joy of Gerhard Richter Painting is watching him struggle to ensure that every canvas that leaves his studio is a true, not a fake, Richter.
Part of the problem of finding an true Richter is that Richter himself hasn't stayed in one place. He began his artistic career more focused on photorealism, but eventually began to work in more abstract styles. In Gerhard Richter Painting, we see how his latest techniques incorporate both his own sense of color and composition, but also the elements of chance. He'll lay a swath of paint, then use a large squeegee to manipulate the wet paint. If he likes it, he'll continue, but we see that he's perfectly willing to abandon a canvas to the trash heap if he's unsatisfied. It's both illuminating seeing what he chooses to keep, but heartbreaking when he throws out a canvas that (at least to this viewer) has some potential.
These painting scenes are filmed in a style that is sympathetic to Richter's techniques. They alternate between wider shots of the whole canvas and more detail-oriented handheld photography. Richter's painting becomes a kind of performance, not unlike a dance, where we get the opportunity to see both the whole stage (or canvas, in this case) and the individual movements of choreography (or brushstrokes). It gives these scenes a visual interest that they might otherwise lack, making them art in their own right.
The other material surrounding the painting is just as compelling. We see Richter in conversation. Although he is sometimes hesitant in the face of a canvas, the same cannot be said of his discussion. He has a strong artistic vision and isn't afraid to speak his mind about his work. We learn biographical details that shed light on his experimentation: Wouldn't you be more willing to take artistic risks if you defected from East to West Berlin, leaving your family behind?
Gerhard Richter Painting (Blu-ray) does an excellent job of supporting the film's visual emphasis. The 1.85:1/1080i, AVC-encoded presentation is strong despite being interlaced. Detail is strong throughout, often making individual brushstrokes visible. Colors pop and are well-saturated, and no significant artifacts show up to indicate that this is an interlaced transfer. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track gives viewers a solid sense of space throughout. Dialogue is clean and clear (and in German), while the spaces of studio and museum are given their own character through the use of surrounds. English subtitles are included.
Extras consist primarily of excised moments from the film. About 40 minutes of additional scenes are included. They start with a conversation between Richter and an art historian, and also include a conversation with a curator, and Richter "preparing" for an Munich exhibition. The film's trailer is included, while BD-ROM drives can access an interview with director Corinna Belz as well.
If you don't care for abstract painting, then Gerhard Richter Painting might not be your thing, though the biographical and artistic details are fascinating even if you're not a big fan of Richter.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080i)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (German)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes