Wim Wenders – Catcher of the Spirit of Times

Wim Wenders, one of the central figures of modern European cinema, is a director who, like many of his great German and European colleagues, partly developed himself as an author through sort of a love-hate relationship towards American culture and American genre film

“It is very hard to stay within the borders of genre film; I admire authors who manage it. I am simply not that disciplined. What I like about genres is that you can play with expectations and that there are certain rules you can either follow or work against. In any case, genres are silly “creatures”, heaven and hell at the same time. They help you to channel your ideas but they do not allow you to tell more than one story or to step outside their borders”, said Wim Wenders, one of the central figures of modern European cinema. He is a director who, like many of his great German and European colleagues, partly developed himself as an author through sort of a love-hate relationship towards American culture and American genre film. So, when Dean Stanton in the film Paris, Texas (1984) roams the Texan landscape suffering from amnesia, literally searching for his identity, and just when the viewer cannot take his eyes off the screen, that is when Wim Wenders manages to transform a road movie into a philosophical poem in the smartest and most touching manner. By the film’s end, Nastassja Kinski appears almost as a mythical creature, simultaneously becoming the object of desire and the actress of the 1980s. It is truly a spectacular directorial exit from the genre borders but with much love and respect for the film roots from which the author emerged and which he has never forgotten.

Wenders was born just a few months after WW II, on August 14, 1945, in Düsseldorf. His father was a surgeon and his got his name, Wim, from his mother’s Dutch family. Before he fell in love with film, Wenders’ youth was dominated by an obsession with British and American pop culture, comic books and rock’n’roll, which was to become evident in his films.

Upon graduating from high school, Wenders briefly studied medicine in Freiburg and then transferred to philosophy. Soon, he decided to become a painter and in 1966, at the age of twenty, moved to Paris where, in spite of his efforts, he failed to gain entrance in his desired university. He had to get a job as an engraver in the American artist Johnny Friedlander’s atelier in Montparnasse. According to the hagiography, due to the fact that his rundown apartment had no heating, he became a steady client of the French cinematheque, where he would watch five films a day. Soon, the youngish Wenders had become a film addict who wanted to turn his obsession into a calling, a serious job. He returned to Germany and in 1967 enrolled in the University of Television and Film (Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film) and at the same time wrote film reviews for different German magazines such as FilmKritik. During that time he directed seven films and in 1968, he took part in a student mutiny, was arrested during the protest and sentenced to six months of probation. International audiences know him as the most successful representative of the New German Film movement, the only one who not only graduated from college in the ‘70s but also was one was most Americanized, according to some of his critics. Such a remark is surprising since Wenders’ film Kings of the Road (1976) contains the classic European skeptical critical thesis that “Americans colonized the unconscious”.

He graduated from film school with the 16mm black and white film Summer in the City, but his career really began in 1971 when he directed the film The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty based on his good friend and eventual long-time collaborator Peter Handke’s novel. In that same year, with fourteen other colleagues, he founded the film production and distribution house Filmverlag der Autoren that became the core of the new German cinema. This is where Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff, Margarethe von Trotta, Hans Jürgen Syberberg and other famous German directors made their best films. Production houses became a must for him and in 1974 he founded Wim Wenders Produktion, and in 1976 Road Movies Filmproduktion Inc. “I will always produce my films and thus avoid putting myself at the producers’ mercy. If you want to be a master of your work and have control over its destiny, you simply have to become a producer. Otherwise, some other person will take credit for your work and do with it whatever he pleases. I had one such experience and I do not wish to repeat it.”

From his earliest films, he has nurtured a special visual style, which has clearly been influenced by his interest in visual arts. With utmost care he builds the composition of each shot and color i.e. black and white film is his strong author characteristics. Watching Wenders’ films the viewer sometimes has the impression that he is watching moving photographs while landscapes are always dramatic and remind us of the vast (American) open spaces. Almost as a boy in love with the moving pictures, the author often adorns his long sequences with additional movement, such as passing trains, or cars of passersby. As early as his film Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Stadten, 1974) he presented some of his basic thematic and genre focuses: the quest for feelings, roaming in space, road movies…. In fact, his characters almost always physically travel, and so in Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit, 1976), we follow a film projector mechanic who works in towns throughout East and West Germany. On his travels he meets a depressive young man whose marriage has just ended, and they decide to continue traveling together. The impressive and recognizable photography in Wenders’ films is a result of his continuous collaboration with the Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller. Some of his most successful films, and most acclaimed by critics, such as Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire (Himmel über Berlin, 1987), are a result of the fruitful collaboration with avant-garde writers such as Peter Handke and Sam Shepard. Handke co-wrote the screenplay for Wings of Desire and To The End of the Earth (Bis ans Ende der Welt, 1991), starring the great, now unfortunately deceased, actress Solveig Dommartin.

It would be very hard to find a more important figure in modern European film than Wim Wenders. He is not just the key director of the German New Wave from the 1970’s, but also an author who has been making films all over the world for more than forty years and now chairs the European Film Academy. Nevertheless, it took a few years before he got back into the game with his excellent 3D documentary about Pina Bausch, which received acclaim all over the world. For several years his reputation has weakened and in 2008 his last feature Palermo Shooting received very bad reviews even though it was part of the official program in Cannes. Apart from the short-term excitement generated by his documentary Buena Vista Social Club (1999), devoted to Havana and Cuban music, he has slowly become viewed as a once important director who has lost his edge, courage and relevance as an author.

Nevertheless, even such a faded and disrupted reputation cannot erase the memory of what Wenders really was and still is – an important author of films that successfully captured the “spirit of their time”, especially for rock’n’roll fans, since his musical taste ranged from The Kinks and Ry Cooder, to Elvis Costello and U2. His films such as The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, Alice in the Cities, The American Friend (Der amerikanische Freund, 1978), The State of Things (Der Stand der Dinge, 1982) Hammett (1982), Paris,Texas are an excellent example of collected cultural fascinations from the 1970s and ‘80s during which time Europe admired America and delivered its best even while raging against its own object of admiration.

Today at a mature age, Wenders cannot avoid a bit of bitterness when he states: “Originality in film is rare these days and it does not pay to strive towards it because most such films in the end seem egocentric and pretentious. What one should take pleasure in is the fact that film is an encounter with a classic language, because everybody understands pictures. I am not interested in innovating the film language because I adore film history and it suffices for to me to learn from my predecessors.”

Common use of meditative linear narration inspired the critics to associate Wenders’ philosophical education and preoccupations with the director. Wenders himself divided his work very clearly according to the shooting method: those black and white films he described as “Group A” and those in color as “Group B”. Apparently, black and white films are a product of Wenders’ dreams, ideas and inspirations in development, while films in color follow a set script. “From being a creator of pictures I transformed into a story-teller. Only a story can give meaning and morals to a picture. In the beginning, I wanted to make films but with the passage of time it ceased to be my goal, and today I am interested in what awaits me at the end of the road. Now, I make films to learn what I did not know before, almost as if I am on a mission as a detective.”

American Friend, based on the great crime novel by Patricia Highsmith, starring Bruno Ganz Dennis Hopper, is a brilliantly directed story and Wenders’ first international co-production that ensured him the status of an intercontinental star as well as a meeting with Francis Ford Coppola, who invited him to New York where, after many challenges and interruptions, made his film Hammett. The first of the prestigious awards he received was the Golden Lion in Venice (1982) for The State of Things (Der Stand der Dinge), a story about a film crew who ran out of film tape while shooting in Portugal and lost its producer so the director (once again) sets off on a quest for help to finish their film. In the following year, his film Paris, Texas, based on the collection of stories and poems by the actor Sam Shepard and with a Ry Cooder soundtrack, won the Golden Palm in Cannes.

The 1980s loved Wenders. He was definitely the director who became an intellectual icon. The poetic and dream-like and above all very personal film, The Sky Over Berlin (1987), is considered to be a classic, which was confirmed by another Palm in Cannes. In that same year he published his first book of photographs, Written in the West. Monographs, collections and photography exhibitions became regular accompaniments to his films, showing his fascination with constant learning and traveling.

Probably his most ambitious film To the End of the Earth (1991) is a combination of a road movie and science fiction. In its original form it lasted 270 minutes, but the director shortened it to 179 minutes. As often happens with grandiose projects, it was received relatively half-heartedly, even though it starred William Hurt, at the time one of the biggest stars. In the 1990s, Wenders experimented a lot: he made a short film for children Arisha, the Bear and the Stone Ring, then a documentary Tokyo-Ga about his favorite director and idol Yasujiro Ozu, and even a film about the ingenius Japanese fashion designer Yoshiro Yamamoto, Notebook on Cities and Clothes. Wenders’ entire career could be described as a series of hommages to artists he admired almost like an eager, thrilled boy at least the same way as he built his own esthetics.

Such an hommage is his newest 3D documentary Pina (2011), initially planned as a collaboration between the director and Pina Bausch, the great German, European and international dancer and choreographer. However, since the artists died in 2009, the film became a documentary hommage that brilliantly made use of 3D technology. In Hollywood, only bad boys such as Scorsese, Jonathan Demme or Oliver Stone get the chance or have the tendency to make both features and documentaries. In Europe, it is more common - with Goddard it is hard to find the difference, Herzog is constantly between the two genres and in the last two decades Wenders has been more interested in reality than manipulation with fiction.

If Fassbinder adored American film melodrama, especially Douglas Sirk, then Wenders adores American music, about which he once said that “it is all made from feelings, more than sounds.” One of the keys to Wenders’ work – when he is at his best and worst – is feelings. They are the key to his author pictures because his films are emotional quests, no matter whether they take place in Berlin, Tokyo, Texas, Lisbon, Havana, Los Angeles, Palermo or Butte, Montana. He said himself that what he likes most about his favorite directors, Nicholas Ray, Ozu and Antonioni, are their feelings and opinions, their answers to the world, rather than their author signature or the achieved stylistic and formal beauty. And it is exactly in this way, to Wenders the most important way, that the director reached as high as his idols – his film travels always remain in a viewer’s memory as a feeling and an image. (Alemka Lisinski)