Wenders, Canonized

The acclaimed German filmmaker Wim Wenders was born in Dusseldorf in August 1945. These two biographical facts set the trajectory of his career. Along with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta, among others, Wenders became a key figure of the New German Cinema, a movement forged by that first postwar generation born into the ruins of the Third Reich. ‘I don’t think any country has had such a loss of faith in its own images, stories and myths as we have’, he reflected in 1977. ‘We, the directors of the New Cinema have felt this loss most keenly: in ourselves as the absence of a tradition of our own, as a generation without fathers; and in our audiences as confusion and apprehension.’ A society determined to forget its recent past and embarrassed by its cultural touchstones; with its own imagined community unavailable, another would have to do.

For Wenders, that would be America – or at least the version of America seen at the movies. This meant, especially, the endless highway, Coca-Cola, and rock music (starting with Little Richard and Chuck Berry, then continuing through the 1960s and long beyond). Like the woman in the Velvet Underground song whose ‘life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll’, Wenders observed ‘that was undoubtedly true in my case as well’. As well as, one imagines, the three years he spent at the University of Television and Film in Munich. Wenders had initially studied medicine, before switching to philosophy and then abandoning college and decamping to Paris to pursue a career in painting. But there, like the nouvelle vague directors before him he haunted the Cinémathèque Française – taking in as many as five films a day – and was nurtured by the influence of its legendary co-founder and director Henri Langlois, to whom he would later dedicate The American Friend (1977). Wenders too started out as a film critic, writing for the journal Filmkritik when he returned to Germany in 1967 (many of these essays are collected in Emotion Pictures: Reflections on Cinema) – and as a filmmaker, he was also eager to interrogate the form, reluctant to separate ‘the movies’ from ‘real life’, and saw a thin, nebulous line between documentary and drama.

Curzon Film (working with the Wim Wenders foundation which supervised meticulous restorations) has produced an impressive twenty-two-disc collection of his films. Each comes loaded with extras, including attendant interviews, featurettes and commentaries, with some supplemented by short films. Despite its imposing breadth, the set is, understandably, not ‘complete’ – but two early omissions are disappointing as each, notably, established many of the motifs that would characterize Wenders’s career. The short Alabama, 2000 Light Years (1969), was the first of his dozen collaborations with cinematographer Robby Müller. It’s not much, really, and the ‘plot’ needs to be intuited, but it’s all there: driving, smoking, jukeboxes, and, especially, music (including The Stones with ‘No Expectations’, Hendrix’s ‘The Wind Cries Mary’, and Dylan from John Wesley Harding). Summer in the City (1970), Wenders’s debut feature, also shot by Müller and edited by Peter Przygodda (the first of twenty collaborations) has its limitations too, but it is surely better than The Scarlet Letter (1973), a dreary film included in the set that was such an unhappy shoot it nearly chased Wenders from the business.

Like Alabama, Summer in the City was probably excluded due to the impossibility of securing music rights that were originally disregarded. Dedicated to the Kinks (and featuring five songs by that band), the movie, which sports some eye-catching night-for-night shooting, can be described as a bizarre cross between Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s (1969) and Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1957). But it anticipates what would follow, with its lament for the shuttering of old movie houses, a visit to a photo booth, a prominently placed jukebox, a screening of Godard’s Alphaville and endless driving. In short order Wenders would do all of this again, often spectacularly.

Wenders’s bid for the pantheon ultimately rests on a quartet of brilliant, diverse, signature films: Alice in the Cities (1974), The American Friend (1977), Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987). Alice in the Cities, one of the cinematic achievements of the 1970s, remains his most intimate and personal. Journalist Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler, who often served as Wenders’s alter-ego) has wandered across America in search of a story he fails to write. Limping home to Europe by way of New York, circumstances leave him briefly responsible for young Alice (Yella Rottländer); a missed flight complicates efforts to reunite Alice with her mother, and, stranded, a search begins for her grandmother, which takes this odd couple on a road trip through Holland and Germany. One suggestion of this textured, subtle film is that America is far more alluring as an idea than as an actual place. Inspired by Wenders’s first two trips there, he would later write that the American dream is ‘a dream OF a country, IN a different country, that is located where the dream takes place.’ Describing experiences that parallel the journey of Philip Winter, he recalls ‘My second visit to America I just didn’t dare to leave New York . . . west of the Hudson, I knew now, lay wilderness’. Wenders would, however, subsequently develop an appreciation for ‘Arizona, Utah or New Mexico’ – that is, the West as seen in the films of John Ford, a figure that looms large in Alice in the Cities – and in Wenders’s filmmaking more generally. Shot by Robby Müller in impeccable black and white, two scenes stand out beyond the special sequences documenting mid-seventies New York City: an interlude where Philip takes in a Chuck Berry concert (all the more meaningful in that the song, ‘Memphis, Tennessee’, about a father attempting to reconnect with his young daughter, was an important inspiration for the film); and a poignant, pivotal confession in a café, a location that also features an unmotivated shot of a boy, leaning against a jukebox, sipping a coke, which is undoubtedly an evocation of the filmmaker himself.

The American Friend, a loose adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, is Wenders’s most visually ambitious film, displaying an exquisite facility for shooting in colour, orchestrating a sophisticated palette that recalls Wenders’s one-time aspiration to be a painter. Music is, once again, an essential ingredient (and presumably the well-deployed songs by the Kinks and others were paid for this time around). The production also marked Wenders’s first collaboration with Bruno Ganz, an uncommonly gifted actor whose understated performance grounds the film, which is elliptical (especially on a first viewing) and distinguished by several bravura, suspenseful set pieces, many involving railways. Dennis Hopper fills the shoes of Tom Ripley, and though the performance is somewhat imbued with the actor’s own persona, it nevertheless works. American Friend is also distinguished by numerous cameo appearances, including nouvelle vague legend Jean Eustache and two directors from Wenders’s personal pantheon, Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller. Of Ray, Wenders wrote, ‘There’s one thing wrong with Godard’s famous line that if there hadn’t been cinema, Nicholas Ray would have invented it . . . Ray did invent cinema, not many do’. Fuller, who appeared in several of Wenders’s films, was an important mentor (he helped rework the screenplay for Alice in the Cities). In Wenders’s estimation, he was not only ‘the greatest storyteller I ever met’, but ‘one of the great directors of the twentieth century’.

Paris, Texas won the grand prize at Cannes, among other accolades, yet it endures principally as a cult favourite. This is perhaps not surprising – Dirk Bogarde, the jury president that year, recalls in his memoir some dismay from the festival overlords: ‘We were to choose films which would please a family audience, not ones which would appeal to “a few students and a handful of faux intellectuals”’. Starring Harry Dean Stanton as a drifter reconnecting with his former life, the film loses a bit of its magic as it becomes more literal in its final third, and there is a structural wobble with the discarding of two key characters. Nevertheless, as often, the artists were right and the suits obtuse – this is a special film. Every frame is filled with purpose, and the ‘through the looking glass’ scenes between Stanton and his estranged wife (Nastassja Kinski) achieve rare heights. Ry Cooder’s score, featuring Blind Willie Johnson’s haunting blues instrumental from 1927, ‘Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground’, is inseparable from the performances, especially in the first half of the picture, where dialogue is sparse. Paris, Texas was co-written by Sam Shepard, who also wrote (and starred in, opposite Jessica Lange) the very fine Don’t Come Knocking (2005), another regrettable omission from the Curzon collection. Both films are very Fordian in their locations, visual disposition and as character studies of men who withdraw from society to re-emerge years later in search of some form of salvation.

Wings of Desire, Wenders’s best-known film, has also been justly lauded. Jonathan Rosenbaum describes a film that presents ‘an astonishing poetic documentary’ of its host city. It features Bruno Ganz (Daniel) and Otto Sander (Cassiel) as angels who hover over a divided Berlin. As witnesses to and chroniclers of history as it unfolds, they are unable to participate in human affairs (or prevent its horrors, epic or intimate); they can only observe, and in some cases (but, tragically, not all) provide a comforting presence to those in distress. The narrative swivels as Daniel decides he’s had his fill of immortality – so curious about the human condition that he wishes to experience it. Crashing to earth, he courts a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) and encounters the music of Nick Cave. Peter Falk, whose affable celebrity has at times overshadowed his prodigious talent, excels playing a version of himself. His internal monologues feature some of the best writing (and line reads) to be found in Wenders’s oeuvre. The film was the third collaboration between Wenders and the Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke. Handke co-wrote Wenders’s The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty (1972), an early landmark of the New German Cinema, based on his novel (Müller and Przygodda are also on hand, as are nods to Hitchcock, Americana, and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Long as I Can See the Light’). Handke also wrote Wrong Move (1975), a wistful road film in which Germany’s dark past weighs more oppressively than in any other Wenders film.

It is fair to say, however ­– and this is reflected in the Curzon collection – that Wenders’s oeuvre, especially following the glory days of the seventies and eighties, is uneven. In the late 1990s, Roger Ebert would astutely describe ‘a gifted and poetic’ filmmaker ‘whose reach sometimes exceeds his grasp’. Faraway, So Close! (1993), a post-reunification follow up to Wings of Desire, has some things to say, but is inconsistent and never quite works; The End of Violence (1997), though beautifully shot and well-cast, is an unfulfilling, ultimately incoherent affair (and a welcome omission from the set); The Million Dollar Hotel (2000), co-written by Bono, sees another fine cast wasted. These critiques can be taken too far, however, with commentators, perhaps understandably, grading on a curve – the way minor mid-career Dylan albums were often initially vilified, only to grow in esteem with the passage of time. In that spirit, Everything Will be Fine (2015), for example, widely dismissed upon release, is a welcome rediscovery. Had this small, thoughtful film been made by a young unknown, likely it would have been lauded as heralding the arrival of a promising new talent.     

Beyond Wenders’s four masterpieces, there is much to praise in the collection. Consider, most notably, two additional films that have the road as their theme (not surprisingly, Wenders’s production company is called ‘Road Movies’). Kings of the Road (1976), dedicated to Fritz Lang and running to three hours (plenty of time to touch base with the director’s familiar motifs, here adding an often-fraught homosocial relationship into the mix), follows its protagonists as they drive along the inter-German border, stopping at local, decaying cinema-houses. Until the End of the World (1991), at nearly five hours, is the ultimate expression of Wenders’s peripatetic urgency, traversing five continents and boasting an enormous, star-studded global cast (Max Von Sydow, Jeanne Moreau and Chishû Ryû among them). Perhaps less than the sum of its astonishing parts, the film nevertheless asks big questions, and presciently anticipated the worst aspects of twenty-first-century selfie culture. 

Arguably, all Wenders movies are in some sense road movies. Just as important as the road, however, is his fascination with the uneasy relationship between drama and documentary. Lightning over Water (1980), made with a dying Nicholas Ray, explores these themes most overtly. In the opening sequence, Wenders arrives at Ray’s SoHo apartment – in scenes handled so deftly the audience gets the impression that it is indeed privy to something very ‘real’ (though in retrospect there are multiple camera set ups). Soon enough, however, Wenders pulls back the curtain; the image shifts from pristine 35mm film to grainy video – and in the latter suddenly Ray’s lonely apartment is crowded with a film crew, harshly lit, and on a dime it’s that which seems real (though obviously, even that footage was shot and edited). But there are some inescapable realities here; Ray was indeed dying, and does not survive the shoot.

The State of Things (1982), which took home the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival, is another meta-movie. Inspired by Wenders’s unhappy Hollywood interlude directing Hammett (1982), The State of Things, which opens with a movie-within-a-movie, follows a film crew stranded in Lisbon because the money has run dry while its director travels to Los Angeles to track down his furtive producer. Sam Fuller is a welcome presence, but the film really comes to life towards the end, when preternaturally intense seventies character actor Allen Garfield shows up as the missing money man on the run, monologuing in an R.V. A dozen years later, Lisbon Story (1994) explored similar themes in an informal sequel. An attractively shot trifle featuring Rüdiger Vogler, it is distinguished only by a pleasant musical interlude and welcome cameo from Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira.   

Finally, and increasingly in late career, are excursions into straight non-fiction (as far as that goes), which showcase Wenders’s interests in and engagement with a panoply of the arts. These include cinema and music (of course), but also dance, architecture, fashion, and photography, a ubiquitous presence in Wenders’s life and in his films as well – photography plays an integral part not only in Alice in the Cities and The American Friend, but numerous later works, including, most explicitly, Palermo Shooting (2008). Of these productions, well represented in the set, two in particular stand out: Tokyo Ga (1985), Wenders’s moving homage to Japanese filmmaker Yasujirô Ozu (another important influence), and, irresistibly, Buena Vista Social Club (1999), which follows Ry Cooder, who travelled to Havana to lure long-forgotten Cuban musicians out of retirement. Wenders, now approaching his eightieth year, released two well received films last year, Perfect Days, a rumination on the experiences of a janitor in Tokyo, and Anselm, a documentary about the artist Anselm Kiefer. With Nick Ray and Sam Fuller present in the pantheon, as Curzon’s impressive box set makes clear, surely there is a seat at that table for Wim Wenders as well.

Read on: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, ‘Six Films by Douglas Sirk’, NLR I/91.