The Engaging “Beuys” Avoids the Typical Pitfalls of Documentaries

It’s more like a choose-your-own-art-history adventure


The makers of the compelling documentary character study Beuys effectively convey Cold War–era German performance artist Joseph Beuys’s infectious presence and democratic ideals by emphasizing photographs and video recordings of Beuys at work rather than leaning too much on contextualizing interviews with modern-day Beuys experts (all of whom are identified by name only — not titles, associations, or credentials).

Writer-director Andres Veiel’s decision to primarily represent present-day interviewees as disembodied voices gives viewers freedom to interpret Beuys’s lifelong dream of repositioning art as an egalitarian force for greater sociopolitical consciousness. The film becomes something of a choose-your-own-art-history-adventure: Either cover your ears and focus on watching Beuys act out “I Like America and America Likes Me,” a 1974 installation where he tames a coyote with a blanket and a stick, or pretend you’re taking an art gallery’s audio tour and get lost in author Caroline Tisdall’s authoritative reading of Beuys’s piece as a critique of Andy Warhol and what he considered the toothlessness of New York’s scene.

Viewers can also use Beuys’s lecture hall and press conference appearances and/or posthumous critical analysis to evaluate for themselves how the artist’s mercurial personality informed his utopian ideals and controversial reputation. Maybe you believe an offscreen commentator who suggests, when talking over news footage of Beuys attending a meeting of Germany’s radical left-wing Green political party during the mid 1980s, that Beuys felt betrayed. That feeling came after the Green party co-founder wasn’t chosen to represent the Greens in parliamentary elections. Or maybe, when you look at Beuys’s uneasy stare and broad grin, you see a restless visionary plotting his next big move. Veiel’s refreshingly open-ended approach invites you to find your own answers.

Directed by Andres Veiel
Kino Lorber
Opens today, Film Forum