Corinna Belz, Gerhard Richter Painting, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 97 minutes.

FILMING AN ARTIST AT WORK is not merely a challenge for the filmmaker but a potential trauma for the subject. Indeed, the dual process of scrutinizing and recording an act that is meant to be private amplifies the artist’s self-consciousness—and the effects can be detrimental. Legendarily, it drove Jackson Pollock to alcoholic relapse, eventually killing him. The key to a satisfying encounter between filmmaker and artist could be the trust that emerges out of a mutual understanding of the creative process; it is no coincidence that one of the few successful experiments in this regard happens to have been one great artist filming another: Aleksandr Sokurov recording Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at scribble in The Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn (2000), a remarkable scene that is somehow intimate yet noninvasive.

Corinna Belz comes close but doesn’t quite nail it in Gerhard Richter Painting. Those expecting a revealing biopic of the famously elusive painter will be mostly disappointed with this exercise in observational idolatry, which confines itself to two years, 2008 and 2009, in Richter’s working life, culminating in “Abstract Paintings,” the November 2009 exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York.

To Belz’s credit, her camera elegantly captures the artist’s complex method of applying paint through squeegeeing several different layers on a large canvas. It is a complex process—filled with doubtful, contemplative pauses—wherein one painting becomes several different paintings before arriving at the finale. At one intense moment, however, when a painting doesn’t seem to be going right, Richter begins to falter. “Painting under observation: That’s the worst thing there is,” he says. The moment is as uncomfortable for the spectator as it is for the artist, as one cannot determine whether the actual filming itself is to blame or if Richter is merely flustered by being caught in a creative blunder.

In a subtle way, Belz implies that such “traumas” are actually rather slight for a figure like Richter, who understands firsthand the impact that far harsher forces can have on the individual psyche. The film crescendos about three-quarters into it, as Richter is going through a collection of old family photographs. With great restraint, he divulges that, after leaving East Germany in 1961 as a political refugee, he was never able to see his parents again. It’s the closest we are able to get to the core of Gerhard Richter, who otherwise channels all of his emotions and intellect into his canvases and seems to relate to the world purely through images.

Travis Jeppesen

Gerhard Richter Painting is now available on DVD from Soda Pictures. A retrospective of Richter’s work will be on view at Tate Modern in London from October 6, 2011 to January 8, 2012. The film screens at Tate Modern on select dates between October 6 and 23; the October 6 screening is to be followed by a conversation between Belz and Tate Modern curator Mark Godfrey.