How do you make a documentary about abstract painting? When your subject strives for the indescribable, the normal tools of narration and interview become glaringly imperfect; I sympathize with any journalist who feels a sense of futility in the face of a work of art whose emotive power might be ineffable. This includes Corinna Belz, whose film “Gerhard Richter Painting” relies very little on interviews and stated history, and very heavily on long shots of the artist painting in his studio.
As a filmmaking strategy, this has its advantages. At this point in his life, Richter is a frustrating, elusive subject to interview. His answers to reporters' questions are brief and cryptic, and he repeatedly says that “it's pointless” to talk about his work and that painting is a very “secretive” profession. By buying into this attitude herself, you could argue that Belz is simply being reverent. There are a lot of smart, articulate people out there for whom attempts to put beauty into words can feel like blasphemy. What's more, the wordlessness of this kind of storytelling tentatively relieves her of the responsibility to ask inventive questions or provide us with information that we couldn’t obtain from another source.
Given the straightforward biography and family photos she includes, I nevertheless suspect that Belz wants her movie to be taken as a piece of journalism. So why not ask why Richter has been married three times, or how he thinks the mystical language he applies to painting might be betrayed by the worldly ethics of the contemporary art market, of which he is a beneficiary? Nor would it have done any harm to include more footage from interviews with Richter from the 1960s, when the artist was far more verbose, dramatic, and argumentative. If, in the movie, Richter tells Belz that being observed in the studio is “worse than being in the hospital,” then I'd like to know his reasons for cooperating.
Shirking all of these concerns, Belz suggests we should be satisfied to mostly watch Richter move brushes and drag broad squeegees across the canvas to blend bold-colored paints. Yes, when you're alone with them in a room, the paintings speak for themselves. But you're not. Belz is the mediator, and there's a lot that she fails to describe — not because it's indescribable, but because she’s too timid to try.