by Dave Tacon
David Tacon studied German at the University of Melbourne and Cinema Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, completing a thesis entitled Road Movies: Wim Wenders und der amerikanische Traum in Melbourne as part of his BA (Hons). He currently resides in Melbourne and works as a translator and editor.
Born only a few months after the end of the Second World War, Wim Wenders
is a product of post-war (West) Germany. One of the formative elements in
Wenders' youth was an obsession with the mainly American (but also British)
pop culture of comics, pinball machines and, most importantly, rock and
roll. Wenders, the most commercially successful exponent of the neue
deutsche Kino, has become known as the most American member
of the movement, in terms of his filmic content as well as the measure of
success that he has achieved in carving his own niche as a European filmmaker
in America. Wenders is also the only 'member' of the 1970s German film movement
to have attended film school (the then theatre director/playwright Rainer
Werner Fassbinder was turned down by Munich's Hochschule für Film und
Fernsehen, from which Wenders and his long-time cinematographer, Robby Müller,
and long-time editor, Peter Przygodda, graduated).
In the four years before settling on a study of filmmaking, Wenders, the son of a chief doctor at a Catholic hospital, dropped out of studying for a medicine degree in Munich after two semesters. He then moved to Freiberg to study philosophy, left that and moved back to Düsseldorf to study sociology, before finally discontinuing his university studies altogether. At this stage, Wenders was more interested in watercolour painting than pursuing an academic career.
In Düsseldorf, Wenders became friends with Austrian writer Peter Handke, who in 1966 was experiencing his first success with a number of spoken word pieces. Handke would later become a long-time collaborator with Wenders on such films as Wenders' first commercial feature for German television, The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty (1971), Wrong Move (1975, a loose adaptation of Goethe's Bildungsroman Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre) and Wings of Desire (1987), which marked Wenders' return to Germany after more than a decade living as a filmmaker in the United States.
A further formative period was a year spent in Paris. Initially the young Wenders moved to France to continue his studiesthis time with an artistic bent. He applied for a place at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, then for admission at the famous Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques (IDHEC) film school. Rejected on both occasions, he ultimately began an apprenticeship in copperplate engraving with Johnny Friedlander after he was not even allowed to take part in the candidature at the IDHEC. (1)
Wenders has described this time as the loneliest period of his life, however the combination of isolation and a freezing Parisian apartment created the perfect conditions for him to study film more intensively than possibly anywhere else in the world. Every evening from the time that Friedlander's studio closed up until midnight, Wenders could be found alone viewing some of the world's most significant cinematic works at Henri Langlois' Cinémathèque. During his year in Paris, Wenders viewed well over one thousand films. (2)
Wenders returned to Munich to commence studies at the then newly founded Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, but first he undertook a three-month internship at United Artists' Düsseldorf office. This experience at United Artists left a sour taste and was later recounted in 1969 in a short essay titled Verachten was verkauft wird (Despise what is to be sold):
Once back in Munich, Wenders' background in watercolour painting and copperplate engraving was reflected in the spatial elements of his shot composition in his short films. His early short films, Locations (1967), which was subsequently lost, and Silver City (1968) comprised extended static shots. Silver City, for example, is literally a moving picturea static image of a Munich street, taken from a window ledge with a little movement within the static frame provided by passing cars trains and the occasional pedestrian. Each sequence lasted a little over three minutesthe duration of a 30m roll of 16mm stock. (4) This predilection for long sequences of apparently inconsequential subject matter would continue through his work, with their suggestive emptiness providing mood and depth to Wenders' often linear narratives. The tendency to give his films English titles was also indicative of the young director's obsession with rock 'n' roll culture.
A little-seen work made during Wenders' four years of experimentation at film school is Polizeifilm (1968), which was made for Bavarian television, but never shown to the general public. In this unusually humorous mockumentary short, a whispering voiceover tells the viewer of new police tactics for use against protesters. Police are shown first assaulting a clichéd hippie protester with a placard, and then displaying an alternative method of attempting to befriend the apprehensive young man, offering him a cigarette and conversation. This short also included still cells from a Disney comic depicting police attempting break down a door to apprehend a villain, which actually turns out to be a seal in a bathtub.
As part of the '68 generation, Wenders was drawn into politics at this time, at one time being arrested and charged for resisting arrest at a demonstration. However, although he was active in protesting against the Vietnam War, he was not able to shake his ambivalence towards America. He continued to attend screenings of his beloved Westerns every evening and thus never quite fitted into the anti-imperialistic milieu of his student sharehouse. (5)
This film was Wenders' second with Robby Müller, whom he had previously met on a set where Wenders worked as props man and Müller as camera assistant. Like the short Alabama 2000 Light Years From Home (1969), Summer in the City features stylistic elements such as extended tracking (establishing) shots, presenting the view from a moving vehicle (possibly for lack of a dolly). (7)
After Wenders had initially cut his film together, he ended up with a feature that was more than 3 hours long. He was persuaded by a confident young acquaintance named Peter Przygodda to hand over the editing reins for additional editing. Wenders only later learned that this was Przygodda's first real editing job after a single stint as an assistant editor. The director fought tooth and nail against each cut, but finally a 125 minute print emerged. (8)
Wenders' collaboration with Przygodda was the beginning of a long working relationship and both Przygodda and Müller were on board when Wenders was given the opportunity of realising Peter Handke's screenplay of The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty, adapted for the screen from Handke's story of the same name. The goalkeeper in question is once again a loner, who inexplicably allows an easy goal to pass through during a soccer match, insults the referee and is sent from the field in the film's opening sequence. He then wanders aimlessly through Vienna, has a chance meeting with a cinema ticket window cashier named Gloria, and strangles her after picking her up and going to her home. He continues to drift from Germany down through Austria until he reaches a village near the Yugoslavian border where he visits a female friend and joins in a bar-room brawl, apparently spurred by Van Morrison's Gloria which blasts from a jukebox. Throughout, he seems apparently unconcerned with the police's efforts to find him, which he follows in the news.
The story bears obvious similarity to Albert Camus' The Stranger and although Wenders' film technique is apparently influenced by Hitchcock, it is curiously devoid of any kind of suspense. In general, his film aesthetic has a very cool, detached feel and takes on the same-distanced subjectivity of Handke's original text. (9)
WDR, the co-producer of The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty, was so impressed with Wenders' direction that they signed him on as director of another screen adaptation, but this time of a better known textNathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, written in 1850. From Wenders' point of view, the production of The Scarlet Letter (1972), which was filmed in Portugal, was an unpleasant experience from the start to finish. After the film was completed, Wenders remarked that he never wanted to make another film where no car, service station, television or jukebox is allowed to appear. (10)
Following his disappointment with The Scarlet Letter, Wenders moved to New York City and began developing Alice. His project nearly suffered a devastating blow when he attended a preview screening of Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon (1973) and discovered, to his horror, that the film that he had been developing had an identical storyline to Paper Moon. In desperation, Wenders contacted maverick American director Sam Fuller at his home in Hollywood (the pair had met in Germany during Fuller's shooting of Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street , which had also been produced by WDR). Together they reworked the story of Alice and Wenders, who had been considering giving up filmmaking, was able to make the film that cemented his resolve to continue.
For Alice in the Cities, Wenders decided to return to shooting with black and white 16mm film stock. Again, as in Summer in the City, the main character is a male loner, a drifter confronted with the seeming meaninglessness of his existence. In this case, the 'hero' is Philipp Winter, a German journalist who has become spiritually lost while travelling America by car, searching for inspiration for a story he is unable to finish. Purpose for Winter comes by chance, in the form of Alice, a five year old girl, whose mother puts into Winter's charge. When Alice's mother fails to meet the pair in Amsterdam after they have flown out of New York ahead of her, they are stuck with each other.
Just as the Chuck Berry song Memphis worked as a catalyst for the genesis of the film, it also plays a pivotal role in the film's plot in a documentary-style scene when Winter views a live performance by Berry after handing Alice over to the police. This moment of identification for Winter leads him back to Alice, who has fortunately slipped away from her new charges. The two then set off in search for Alice's grandmother, who lives in Düsseldorf.
Wenders commented that for an extended period after Alice, he received reviews that discussed the three As: Alienation, Angst and America. (12) In this, his first production to be partially shot in America, Wenders certainly touched all bases. Winter's alienation from society is reflected in his incessant photographing of his American surroundings with a Polaroid camera, which at the time of filming was only available as a prototype. Winter finds that he has been numbed by his American experience and the Polaroid camera renders the gulf between reality, reproduction and expectation visible. (13)
Winter reflects Wenders' ambivalent attitude to America, as he is a character both fascinated by and despairing of America. He also reflects views later discussed by Wenders' in an essay/poem, titled Der amerikanische Traum, first published in 1984. In Der amerikanische Traum, Wenders states that America has betrayed and sold its own dream, something that the character of Winter seems to agree with wholeheartedly. As in Wenders' poem, American television is used in Alice as a point of reference for Wenders' harshest criticism of American culture. Early in the picture, during Winter's stay in a cheap Florida motel, John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) provides the soundtrack to the journalist's dream of an endless road, which we see superimposed over a close-up of the sleeping Winter. (14) Winter wakes to find that this Young Mr. Lincoln has been interrupted, highjacked by meaningless advertisements. In the only violent act of this gentle film, Philipp smashes the television set on the floor of his motel room.
The film also closes with a final homage to Ford via a newspaper obituary titled Lost World, which Winter is reading as he and Alice travel through Germany to meet Alice's mother in Munich. Despite the sense of loss, the film ends on a joyous note with a swooping aerial shot which starts on Winter and Alice smiling out of the window of the train and then soars away to a bird's eye view of the landscape, with the train hurtling towards its destination. (15)
For his next feature film, Wenders once again collaborated with Handke, this time on a distinctly European, or rather German, premisea Handke screenplay adaptation of Goethe's 1796 Bildungsroman, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship), set in 1970s West Germany with Rüdiger Vogler once again playing the lead. In contrast to Alice in the Cities, Goethe's novel and the Bildungsroman tradition, Wrong Move is perpetually bleak in its outlook and Vogler's Wilhelm does not experience any enlightenment during his travels through West Germany. Movement in Wrong Move is motivated by Wilhelm's search for inspiration in his attempts to become a writer. However, every decision and direction seems to be a wrong one and in the end Wilhelm has learned little about himself.
By this time, Wenders had established two distinctly different methods of filmmaking, which he elaborated on at a colloquium in Livorno, Italy in 1982. His black and white films, he described as Group (A), These arose, without exception, from an idea of Wenders' ownidea being a very unspecific term including dreams, waking dreams and experiences. The second type, Group (B) were colour films which followed a script very closely. (16)
Perhaps the most interesting casting decision though was 13 year-old Nastassja Kinski, estranged daughter of Klaus, in her first acting role. Her inclusion in the film came about when she caught the eye of Wenders' then partner Lisa KreuzerAlice's mother in Alice in the Cities and Wilhelm's girlfriend in Wrong Moveat a Munich nightclub. Kinski plays the mute companion of the hobo Laertes, played by Hans-Christian Blech, who is enveloped in the shadow of Germany's nazi past. When Wilhelm discovers that the old man was a commandant in a concentration camp he decides to kill him, but ultimately lets him go when the opportunity presents itself. Later at the film's closure when Wilhelm stands at the top of Germany's highest peak, the Zugspitze, contemplating his general failure, he bemoans not hearing Laerte's storywhich he considers yet another wrong move. This would be the first instance of Wenders venturing outside the narcissistic inner world of his heroes, opening a discussion about Germany's Nazi pastinstead of ignoring, or replacing and suppressing it with American pop culture. However, he remains distant from a direct confrontation of social and political issues such as that which exists in Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend (1967) or the films of Fassbinder.
The third movie in the trilogy, Kings of the Road, also starring Rüdiger Vogler, marked a return to black and white photography, this time on 35mm and 16mm stock. This was also the first film produced by Wenders own production company, Road Movies. Although this male buddy movie takes place along West Germany's most impoverished areathe Zonenrandgebiet bordering East GermanyWenders and Müller again turned to American images for the film's look, using photographer Walker Evan's images of America during the Great Depression as their aesthetic reference point. To paraphrase the film's most famous line, Wenders and Müller's aesthetic consciousness had been colonised by the Amis [German slang for Americans] in this highly stylised film about male companionship in the absence of women and the seeming demise of German small town cinemas.
The linear narrative follows the relationship between two men: Bruno Winter (Vogler), a travelling cinema projector repairman and Kamikaze, a man who has just left his wife. The men begin travelling together after Bruno witnesses Kamikaze driving his VW beetle at breakneck speed into the Elbe River. In a comical scene of an attempted suicide, the driver is deprived of his means of transportation and also earns himself his nickname.
At first distant from each other, the two slowly bond over the course of their journey along the Western side of the border of the two Germanys, which is determined by Bruno's work. As in Alice in the Cities, rock 'n' roll is a crucial factor in character and plot development with a spontaneous sing along to Bruno's portable 45s player blasting out Just like Eddie as the two men become closer.
While American images shaped the look of Kings of the Road, Wenders also criticises the American or American-influenced action and porn films that cinema owners were forced to show due to the major distributors' system of block booking. During a period when Kamikaze has temporarily left the partnership, Bruno visits a cinema showing a sex film. Being a consummate professional, he is dissatisfied with the projected image. When he enters the projectionist's booth and catches him masturbating, the projectionist angrily departs and Bruno pieces together a loop of film material consisting of naked breasts, a burning house and a woman being raped in mud as the voiceover states Cruelty, action, sensuality. 90 minutes which no television a damning metaphor of the situation of German cinema in the '70s.
Once again, although the film was predominantly set in Europe, the unifying aesthetic was American. This time, Wenders and Müller decided to model the film's look on Edward Hopper, whose own work had been heavily influenced by American cinema. Wenders was drawn to Hopper's simplicity of framing and the ominous mood of his paintingHopper's often deserted urban landscapes seemed to capture a moment of quiet before all hell breaks loose. (18) The choice of Edward Hopper combined with Jürgen Knieper's brooding score created a sense in the viewer that danger is always just around the corner. Furthermore, the use of a deliberately American aesthetic in European locations brought a peculiar geographic confusion to the viewer with cross cutting geared to accentuate this confusion.
Although heralding a shift towards more conventional genre filmmaking for Wenders, The American Friend still features Wendersian motifs such as the use of rock 'n' roll, with Jonathan singing the Kinks' There's Too Much on My Mind to himself in his workshop; motion, as in Jonathan's travels from Hamburg to Paris and Munich, and allusions to the corruptive nature of American movies. Wenders' discourse on Hollywood is at once damning and reverential, as he ironically cast Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller as an art forger and a crime boss respectively. (19)
The American Friend was Germany's only entry in the Cannes Film Festival in 1977. It did not win a prize, unlike Kings of the Road, which won the FIPRESCI, but it did catch the eye of Francis Ford Coppola, who was beginning his attempts to shape himself into a studio mogul, founding his own Zoetrope Studios. Wenders was travelling in Australia when he got word that Coppola wanted him to direct a feature film in America.
During the numerous setbacks during the production of Hammett, Wenders did not remain idle, but found the time to make four films, which were far more personal. He also married singer songwriter and former Bob Dylan backing singer, Ronee Blakely, whose voice he had previously enthused about in a review of Robert Altman's Nashville (1976) in the German newspaper Die Ziet. However, the marriage failed to outlive the production of Hammett.
Lightning Over Water (1980) was a collaboration between Wenders and Nicholas Ray during the last weeks of Ray's life, as he succumbed to terminal cancer. It is an intimate portrait of the director as he reflects on his life and career and blends documentary with fictional elements. During the extensive post-production of Hammett in 1982, Wenders also made two short films for French television. Reverse Angle was a film diary about the editing of Hammett. Chambre 666 was filmed in room 666 at the Hotel Martinez during the Cannes Film Festival in which such luminaries as Jean-Luc Godard, Werner Herzog, Steven Spielberg, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michelangelo Antonioni are all put the question: "Is cinema a language about to get lost, an art about to die?"
The feature film, which Wenders' directed during the complicated birth of Hammett happened quite by accident. Wenders was visiting the set of Ráûl Rúiz's The Territory (1981) on location in Portugal and was wistfully reminded of the way that he used to enjoy making feature films. However, Rúiz's own production was hardly trouble free and they ran out of film mid-shoot. Wenders helped out by sending for some stock stored in a refrigerator in Berlin, thus enabling them to wrap the film. After shooting concluded, Wenders asked whether he could borrow the cast and crew to start another film straight away. This film became The State of Things, which addressed many of the problems that Wenders had encountered working within America. The film also borrows from Rúiz's experience in the opening sequence on the Portuguese coast where a German director, Friedrich Munro (addressed as Fritz and obviously a reference to two of the most famous German émigré filmmakers), played by Patrick Bauchau, is told by his cinematographer, played by Sam Fuller, that further shooting is impossible, as they have run out of film. The State of Things marked a return to Wenders' more spontaneous style of filmmaking. Cinematography was provided by an even older camera veteran, whom Wenders was surprised was still alive: Henri Alekan, who had shot Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la bête, 1946). This time, photography was in black and white, with Wenders' feelings on this perhaps best summed up by Sam Fuller's line as cinematographer: Life is in colour, but black and white is more realistic.
The storyline of The State of Things is very bleak indeed, chronicling a cast and crew in limbo in Portugal after an aborted production of a science fiction remake ironically titled The Survivors. (21) In a desperate attempt to rescue the film, Fritz travels to Hollywood to try to track down the film's missing producer, Gordon, who it turns out is on the run from loan sharks who were unimpressed with the film's black and white visuals, asking What's wrong with the colour? However, it is in America where Wenders' film really finds its feet, with a series of stunning compositions and a wonderful burst of what the film lacked to this pointnarrative drive. In America, Fritz finds himself in a real life movie, which ultimately costs him his life. As Wenders' commented in the short documentary Fish Flying Over Hollywood (1982):
During the production of Hammett,Wenders also met musician/writer/actor Sam Shepard, who at one stage was acting in Frances (Graeme Clifford, 1982) in an opposite studio. Shepard gave him a manuscript of his poems and short stories, which at that stage was called Transfiction, but was later published as Motel Chronicles. This manuscript was the inspiration for a collaboration between the two which resulted in one of Wenders' most artistically and commercially successful works: Paris, Texas (1984).
Paris, Texas begins with the depiction of a man who collapses outside a small town. The man, Travis, is mute, but a crooked German doctor (played by Bernard Wicki, who directed the anti-war film The Bridge [Die Brücke, 1962]) finds a card in his wallet and calls the number and so Travis' brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) who hasn't seen Travis for some years is summoned from LA to collect him. Since Travis disappeared, Walt and his French wife Anne (Aurore Clément) have raised Travis' son Hunter as their own. (23) Travis gradually begins to regain his identity and after bonding with his son, they set off to find Travis' estranged partner Jane (Nastassja Kinski) who, according to Anne, is in Houston. The film is a family drama/road movie, which moves from the Texan desert bordering Mexico, across the country to LA and then to Houston. The transition from desert to city is gradual, with only the suburbs of LA being featured before Hunter and Travis arrive in Houstona city of glass and steel.
Wenders viewed the film as being the closure of his American phase. The film also represents a break in Wenders' own tradition of filmmaking. The film follows Shepard's screenplay up until Travis and Hunter's departure for Houston in their search for Jane. At this point the film (in progress) left Shepard's script behind, in search of its own ending. However, the film came to a halt until some phone calls to Shepard (with Wenders furiously scribbling away on a notepad) produced the final two monologues between Travis and Jane.
Rather than the usual rock 'n' roll that is so often in Wenders' films, Ry Cooder's haunting soundtrack stands alone, providing a perfect counterpoint to Müller's evocative imagery. Although Wenders and Müller decided against an aesthetic model before commencing filming, the opening sequence has Travis walking through the landscape of an American Western mythologya landscape very similar to Monument Valley where John Ford shot such films as Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956). The cowboy parallels once again appear at the film's closing sequence, where Travis drives away from Houston into the sunset. Thus Travis is painted as a heroic figure, rather than a coward, for leaving his wife and child, as he has made a painful decision, sacrificing his own hopes for the happiness and those he loves most. (24)
Wenders returned to Germany for his follow up feature to Paris, Texas, a foray into the realm of fantasy about angels watching over the citizens of modern-day Berlin. The film, Wings of Desirewhose German title, Der Himmel über Berlin, has a double meaning in English as The Sky/Heaven Over Berlinreunited Wenders with two of his past collaborators, Bruno Ganz and Peter Handke. Ganz plays the angel Damiel and Otto Sanderanother well-established actor, who Ganz had often acted with in the theatre, but never on filmplays his angel friend Cassiel. Both are invisible to all human 'mortals' with the curious exception of children. Wenders also cast his editor for Tokyo-ga, French Solveig Dommartin (with whom he was also involved in a relationship with), as Marion, a circus acrobat, with whom Damiel falls in love and for whom he decides to relinquish his immortality, taking human form, to gain the ability to feel physical sensation.
Like The State of Things, Wings of Desire was shot on black and white 35mm stock by Henri Alekan. The first half of the film is almost exclusively in black and white, subjective to the angel's distance from humanity, however colour stock was used to represent human existence. The divide between the angels and humans within the film also echoes the division between the East and West of the city of Berlin. The original idea itself was Wenders' own, but like the second half of the production Paris, Texas, a number of key monologuesoriginating predominantly from the thoughts of random Berlinersoverheard by the angels, were provided by Peter Handke. Richard Reitinger, who had co-written Mika Kaurismäki's Helsinki-Naples All Night Long (1987), in which Wenders appeared as a gas station attendant, also contributed to the screenplay.
Wenders admits to having only vague ideas of how the angels should look, even at the beginning of filming. He finally opted for long black coats (and pony tailsvery '80s) after various variations of armour and wings had not worked. The realisation of the angels was a collaborative effort. At one point, Otto Sander aborted a take when he started to get rained onno one had considered that angels should always remain dry. This realisation also led to the application of extra hair gel to ensure that the angel's hair never moved.
The inclusion of Peter Falk (starring as himself) was actually the idea of Claire Denis, who was Wenders' first AD, as she had been on Paris, Texas. This decision was made after she and Wenders had mused upon various well-known identities that could function as ex-angels including sports stars and politicians. Falk actually wrote his own monologues once he had returned to his home in LA, recording them in a sound studio. However, one thing that Falk overlooked was his reminiscences about his German grandmothera rather contradictory aspect to his character that Wenders chose to ignore.
Wenders returned again to Tokyo when the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris commissioned him to make a short film on the subject of fashion. The result was Notebook on Clothes and Cities (1987), a 79 minute essayist documentary reflecting on the creative process, cities, identity and the digital age through conversations with Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto.
Certainly the most ambitious film of Wenders' career thus far was Until the End of the World (1991). Solveig Dommartin again featured in an all-star cast including Max von Sydow, Jeanne Moreau, William Hurt, Sam Neill and locations as diverse as the cast's nationalities. Robby Müller and Rüdiger Vogler also returned to the fold for Wenders most expensive film by far. Set in the future of 1999, with a script written by Wenders and Peter Carey, Until the End of the World features a plot involving a camera that can enable the blind to see, a love triangle, bank robbers, the CIA and bounty hunters, all of whom are chasing each other all over the globe, all the while an Indian nuclear satellite is headed for earth. The plot is confusing to say the least. To keep to contractual obligations, the sprawling narrative was cut from 270 minutes down to 179 minutes for the Japanese, German and Australian markets and 158 minutes for the US. On release, the film was generally greeted with a lukewarm reception by critics and audiences alike. However, Wenders, dissatisfied with the result, had other ideas for the fate of his film. He put the following comments on the newsreel of the site www.wim-wenders.com in October 2002:
Wenders has shown this director's cut in various places around the world and claims that the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.
In 1992, Wenders possibly bewildered a good portion of his fans by making a 30 minute short for children, titled Arisha, the Bear and the Stone Ring. The story description posted on Wenders' website reads as follows:
In this children's fable written by Wenders, Rüdiger Vogler is the guy in the bear suit and the director appears as Santa Claus. Another outcome of the film's production was Wenders meeting his future wife, Donata (then Donata Schmidt) who was the film's camera loader.
Rüdiger Vogler reprises his role as private detective Philipp Winter from Until the End of the World, which reunites him with a much older Yella Rottländer as his guardian angel. Peter Falk once again appears, but this time in a number of disappointingly unfunny sequences. Willem Defoe plays his role with appropriate menace and has a number of memorable scenes with Nastassja Kinski (as Cassiel's angel friend Raphaela). This time, Robby Müller did not act as DP, with Jürgen Jürges (who had shot Arisha) taking the role. Richard Reitinger, who had also contributed to Wings of Desire, shared writing credits with Wenders and the East German poet/playwright/actor Ulrich Zieger.
In Germany, Wenders attracted a certain degree of criticism for using a veteran actor who had remained in Germany during the Nazi era, Heinz Rühmann. Rühmann's role as Konrad, a chauffer who worked through the Nazi era, draws some questionable parallels between his own life and his character's experience. In a scene where Konrad lovingly cleans a vintage car, he sympathises with it for being sent out to serve in the military campaign in the Sudetenlandevading the distinction that cars are not equipped with moral judgement. Wenders defended his decision to cast Rühmann in his final acting role, claiming that he had looked into the actor and decided for himself that he was never a Nazi.
Michail Gorbatschov, who makes a cameo appearance as himself, was perhaps the biggest casting coup. Part of his agreement to appear was that Wenders direct a promotional film for Toyota as a favour for a relative of the father of perestroika. This short commercial film titled Drive my Car has rarely been seen.
Wenders was signed on as insurance for the completion of Michelangelo Antonioni's Beyond the Clouds (1995), who had suffered a debilitating stroke 11 years previously. The film, which was based on Antonioni's journals and short story collections, once again featured an international all-star cast, this time including Sophie Marceau, John Malkovich, Vincent Perez, Peter Weller, Jean Reno, Fanny Ardant, Jean Moreau, Jeremy Irons and Marcello Mastroianni. The film consists of a series of vignettes that bear the unmistakable framing of Antonioni and are, in turn, ponderous, melancholy and heart-wrenching or jaw-droppingly pretentious, depending on your taste. Each story centres on the physical and emotional aspects of relationships between men and woman. The stories are framed by a prologue, epilogue and series of intertitles, all featuring John Malkovich as the director, and which are the result of the familiar collaboration of Wenders, Müller and Przygodda.
Possibly inspired by his own film within a film in Lisbon Story, Wenders returned to his old alma mater, the HFF in Munich, to make a film with its students, shooting mainly with a hand-crank camera. This collaboration became A Trick of the Light (1996) and traced the birth of cinema in Berlin courtesy of the little known Skladanowsky brothers, who invented a camera projector at around the same time as Lumière in France and Edison in the United States.
Los Angeles was the setting of Wenders' next film, The End of Violence (1997), written by the director and the American Nicholas Klein. It was also the director's first to be shot in cinemascope. Wenders return to LA saw him reunited with past collaborators, recruiting Ry Cooder to compose his film's score and casting Frederick Forrest and Sam Fuller in small supporting roles. However, this time Robby Müller was not on board, with Frenchman Pascal Rabaud carrying out DP duties.
The reoccurring challenge to define violence is indicative of the meditative nature of this film, which deals with violence and alienation, the latter most often represented via technology. However, the full threat of the technology which Ray oversees is never revealed. On the whole, the effect of so many plot strands and open-ended ideas is quite puzzling.
Wenders' next film was to be quite different. The origins of Buena Vista Social Club (1998) begin with Ry Cooder and the elderly Cuban musicians that he had been acting as producer for in Havana, prior to joining the End of Violence team in LA. During work on the soundtrack, Cooder was listless and distracted. When Wenders' asked him what was wrong, he said that he was still in Cuba and played Wenders a tape of the Buena Vista Social Club recordings. Wenders was excited about the recordings, but intrigued to find out the age of the musicians, who had he assumed to be young up and comers. (26)
Focusing on the recording of Ibrahim Ferrer's solo album, the life stories of the players, who also played on the album Buena Vista Social Club, the film also features footage from concerts in Amsterdam and documents the musicians' first ever trip to America, to perform at Carnegie Hall. Loose in terms of structure and still a road movie of sorts, Buena Vista Social Club was one of the first major films (feature or documentary) to be shot entirely on digital video. Rather than an aesthetic choice, it was a one of practicality, allowing greater flexibility for the camera operators, as well as considerable savings in film stock and lab costs. This time, gun steadicam operator Jörg Widmer shared DP credits with Robby Müller and Lisa Rrinzler. Widmer was responsible for the fluid camera movement, in scenes such as Ibrahim Ferrer's duet with Omara Portuondo on Silencio. Wenders himself also shot a great deal of second unit footage. Ultimately, 80 hours of raw material was edited down to a 101 minute film. (27)
Wenders next film was once again a music film, but far smaller in scope. Willie Nelson at the Teatro (1998) features 10 of Willie Nelson's songs, performed at Daniel Lanois' (producer of Bob Dylan and U2) studio, a converted picture theatre in Oxnard, California. The film alternates between film and video footage and features Emmy Lou Harris on backing vocals.
The building in from which Tom Tom plummets is a flea-pit called the Million Dollar Hotel, once a respectable residence, now the home of sundry impoverished misfits. However, the story really begins with the earlier death of another residentIzzy (played by an uncreditedie unpaidTim Roth) who was a nasty piece of work and also, it turns out, the son of a billionaire. Enter Detective Skinner (Mel Gibson) an FBI agent who has been sent to solve the mystery. Did Izzy jump, or was he pushed? In order to get to the bottom of the case, Skinner installs an elaborate surveillance set-up, bugging the entire hotel with cameras and microphones and recruits Tom Tom as his reluctant informant, using the tragic beauty Eloise (also a Million Dollar resident) as Tom Tom's bait.
The Million Dollar Hotel is a fairly patchy effort from Wenders, although it has some surprisingly comic touches. It doesn't quite succeed either as a mysteryby the time we have know Izzy's fate it doesn't seem importantand Tom Tom's innocent, platonic love Eloise fails to push many romantic buttons. One of the most problematic aspects of the film is the confusing (and confused?) characterization of Tom Tom, whose conflicting voice over and actions cause the viewer to wonder whether he is an intelligent, sensitive young man pretending to be an idiot, or just an idiot. This confounds any effort by the viewer to actually understand the character and ultimately undermines the story itself. This time, Phedon Papamichael (son of the Cassavetes collaborator of the same name) took over cinematography duties.
Since Million Dollar Hotel, Wenders has made two more music films Der BAP FilmAn Ode to Cologne in its English titlea tribute to a veteran German rock BAP, who sing in their native Cologne dialect, Kölsch, and a segment for The Blues (2002), a documentary series featuring short documentaries by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood and Mike Figgis. Wenders' installment is a tribute to two obscure American bluesmen, Skip James and J.P. Lenoir, titled Devil got my Woman. (28)
Prior to completing his Blues segment, Wenders also contributed a fictional short film to another series of themed works titled Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet (2002). Wenders' film Twelve Miles to Trona, features alongside works by Chen Kaige, Víctor Erice, Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, Aki Kaurismäki and Spike Lee. Wenders' contribution drew on a personal experience that he has not often discussedan accidental drug overdose 33 years prior to filming that ended up with the director being rushed to hospital and almost dying.
As well as a having amassed a large body of filmic work, Wenders has also worked extensively as a director of commercials for Cadillac, Pontiac and Deutsche Bahn (German Rail) and continued to make music videos for U2 as well as David Byrne and the Eels. In addition to this, he has authored three books of collected essays and interviews\. Wenders currently has a travelling exhibition of photographic prints titled Pictures from the Surface of the Earth. Many of the prints featured in the exhibition were taken during the location scouting for such film as Paris, Texas and Until the End of the World. The exhibition could just as well be titled Locations as it is the images are mainly renderings of desolate locations themselves with no intruding in the frame. Many of the images in the exhibition have also been published in various collections of Wenders' photos. Alongside, commercial and music video directing, writing and photography, Wenders is the president of the European Film Academy and has recently taken a newly established Visuals Science chair at the Academy of Fine Arts in Hamburg. Wenders is obviously not one to stand idle.
Since the 1990s it has often been remarked that Wenders' glory days as a filmmaker are behind him. Wenders' best work, such as Alice in the Cities, Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire feature a grace and simplicity that has been lacking from some of his more recent work. The pitfalls of Wenders' improvisational filmmaking technique are clearly apparent in films such as Far Away, So Close!; where too many ideas fly around, confusion reigns.
Much of Wenders' best work has been achieved in collaboration with a writer with a strong sense of structure and storywhether it be the cool intellectualism of Handke, the tough American romanticism of Shepard or even the chilling meticulousness of Highsmith. In the American spring of 2003, principal photography is set to begin on Wenders' second collaboration with Sam Shepard, a film titled Don't Come Knocking, which Wenders has described as a family road farce. As well as being co-written by Shepard, Shepard will also star in the film. Phedon Papamichael is once again signed on to carry out DP duties, which will take place in Arizona, Nevada and Montana. (29)
© Dave Tacon, April 2003
titles are features, unless noted otherwise.
End of the World (1991)
Crossing the Frontiers, Sight and Sound, 1, 1994
in Senses of Cinema
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