Road Movie to the Soul: The Cinematic Journeys of Wim Wenders

[Throughout the month of March, 2016, SIFF Cinema and NWFF are teaming up to present the retrospective ‘Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road.” [Details here] To celebrate, we revive this piece, an extended version of an essay originally published in the Scarecrow Video “A Tribute to Wim Wenders” program in 1996.]

“A lot of my films start off with road maps instead of scripts.” – Wim Wenders

In Wenders’ student short Alabama (2000 Light Years) we first see what will become a hallmark in feature after feature: the world as viewed through the windshield of a moving car. We’ve seen many variations of this image (through a car side window, through the window of a train or a plane) but it’s this first image that is key to Wenders’ works, which puts us in the drivers seat, so to speak.

The view from the driver’s seat of “Paris, Texas”

Wenders makes films about travelers, people on the move, and he continually returns to the road film: Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move, Kings of the Road, Paris Texas, and Until the End of the World. In other films, travel becomes a central element of the narrative: The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, The American Friend, The State of Things, Lisbon Story, and of course the journeys from heaven to earth in Wings of Desire and Faraway, So Close! His world is a landscape of winding country roads through fields and forests, city streets and urban cityscapes, railroad tracks and speeding trains, coffee shops, hotels, jukeboxes, photo booths and other roadside attractions. The road serves as both an escape and a way back, the route for escape from responsibility, the winding path back to self. From the self exiled wanderer to the determined traveler, the road ultimately becomes a pathway to (or the possibility of) grace.

“It took me three films to realize that it was not the form that was the essential thing in an American film, but that it was an attitude toward things and actors and people that was American in the films I admired, and this attitude had simply nothing to do with my attitude toward things and people.” – Wim Wenders

Born in Düsseldorf just months after Germany’s surrender to the Allies in WWII, Wenders grew up in a society gripped by historical and cultural amnesia. Living in a succession of small towns, his entertainment outlets consisted of listening to rock ‘n’ roll music on American Forces Radio and playing pinball at the local ice cafes. He discovered the cinema while attending art school in Paris, watching as many as five features a day at Cinemateque Française. As in the case of rock ‘n’ roll, a foreign cinema captured Wenders’ interest and prompted his desire to make films. As Werner Herzog observed, the German filmmakers of his generation had no fathers to turn to, only grandfathers – the directors of the pre-Nazi era. Wenders found in Fritz Lang a German voice he could embrace, but just as Lang had to leave Germany to continue speaking through his cinema, Wenders found his primary influences outside of Germany.

John Ford showed Wenders a strong sense of character and landscape, a sureness of composition, and (in The Searchers) the archetypal wanderer, a mythic figure Wenders recreated in a contemporary German landscape. In Nicholas Ray’s stories of disconnected and alienated characters he found a kindred spirit, and in personal relationship with the director a sort of cinematic father the German cinema was unable to provide. Other influences Wenders cites include Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann (“To me he’s truly a classic, much more than John Ford.”), and Sam Fuller.

Perhaps his most important mentor is Yasujiro Ozu: “The only influence. Or at least the only master.” The lessons of Ozu can be found in the simple, uncluttered images of Wenders’ most personal works. Wenders, like Ozu, creates his cinematic world from the easy rhythms of performances, the quiet moments between the lines, the suggestion of emotion beneath the reserved faces of his characters. In Ozu, Wenders found an alternative to the Hollywood style that still allowed him to tell his stories, and he paid tribute to his master with the diary film/documentary Tokyo-Ga.

Wenders takes these influences and subsumes them into his own sensibility, which he has been able to consistently bring to the screen with a minimum of compromises. (The exceptions, The Scarlet Letter and Hammett, were made under restrictive conditions and both unhappy, unfulfilling experiences.) Part of this consistency must be due to his cadre of collaborators: editor Peter Przygodda, cinematographer Robbie Müller, composer Jürgen Knieper, and (in his later films) producer Chris Sievernich return in production after production. Actor Rüdiger Vogler appears in a majority of his films, becoming in many of them Wenders’ alter-ego, a wanderer through and an observer of the cinematic landscape.

Another factor is his practice of shooting in sequence whenever possible, especially in the road films, making changes as developments suggest themselves along the way (Kings of the Road was only partially sketched out when shooting began and scripted on a day to day basis during production). Wenders initiates most of his own projects, entering into productions with some sort of guarantee of autonomy (the two above exceptions appear to prove the rule), and balances the compromises of big budget films by continually returning to intimate, low budget productions where his control is near complete.

Hanns Zischler in “Kings of the Road”

Throughout his career Wenders has celebrated his love of cinema through homages, cinematic quotes, and the casting of such influences as American directors Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray, and Ozu’s favorite actor Chishu Ryu. In Kings of the Road, Bruno teaches a young projectionist about the maltese cross and intermittent motion; in The American Friend (a film full of cinema-like and pre-cinema toys) Jonathon’s son plays with a toy crank built on the same principle. Other films feature zoetropes, magic lantern shows and shadow plays. Wenders centers The State of Things and Lisbon Story around the act and art of filmmaking itself, while it becomes a side story in Wings of Desire and a playful element of Faraway, So Close! Finally, in Trick of the Light, Wenders takes himself back to the source to create a film with the same tools as the early cinema pioneers.

“Films are the art of seeing,” observes an elderly theater owner in Kings of the Road, but Wenders constantly challenges the modern visual culture. Snapshots, photo-booth portraits, even super 8 home movies figure throughout his films, attempting to preserve moments or jog memories. Ultimately his characters find the objectification of their experiences lacking: “It never shows what you really see,” observes photographer Philip in Alice in the Cities. This reaches its apex in Until the End of the World, where the quest to bring sight to blind creates instead an addictive device that records dreams and delivers them back as narcotic. Wenders responds to the “disease of images” by continually returning to the simplest, most direct images: the lessons of Ozu live on.

The soundtrack for Wenders’ road trips is rock ‘n’ roll: “For me, rock ‘n’ roll always used to be a pure form.” From his first shorts to his latest features you can hear rock songs on jukeboxes, on radios, incorporated into his soundtrack. Characters sing snatches of lyrics, quote lines from songs, sing along with records. Contemporary rockers like Lou Reed, Bono and Nick Cave regularly compose songs for Wenders’ films and often appear in them. Rock ‘n’ roll may be the only aspect of American culture untainted by cultural imperialism in Wenders’ view, the voice of a generation rather than a nationality and a key element in Wenders’ own identity.

Like Truffaut, Wenders has a special relationship with children in his films. In many ways, his protagonists reach back for childhood: the rootless road trips appear in some ways to be a denial of adulthood, and recurring toys and games suggest a playfulness akin to children. But the children in Wenders’ films are innocents, with a direct, immediate connection to the world, an openness in their relationships, a sincerity in everything they do. From Alice (Alice in the Cities) to Hunter (Paris, Texas) to the wide-eyed kids who can see the angels hidden from adult sight in Wings of Desire and Faraway, So Close!, the unconditional love and directness of children provide the faith and hope for disconnected souls.

“… it has something to do with being born in post-war Germany in a land that tried to forget about its own history, tried to forget about its own myths, that tried to adapt to anything, especially American culture.” – Wim Wenders

Alice in the Cities

The first decade of Wenders’ films deal primarily with Germany and German identity in a culture where American influences have filled in the gaps left by the country’s historical denial. Like most of his contemporaries, Wenders has avoided dealing directly with Germany’s fascist past, instead making tentative references in such films as Wrong Move, Kings of the Road and Faraway, So Close!, to name but a few. But the specter of Germany’s past, and the culture’s denial of that painful history, hangs over many of his films in the form of the rootless, dislocated individuals that populate them. This drifter, this wanderer, this searcher is at the heart of the Wenders’ films.

The difference between these three is key: the searcher seeks, the wanderer travels, the drifter merely… drifts. The arc of Wenders’ career can be seen as a development from paralyzing passivity of the drifter to the driven, motivated action of the searcher, and beyond. The characters of his early films (Summer in the City, Goalie’s Anxiety, Wrong Move) never break out of their passivity, drifting arbitrarily, prodded to action only by pursuers, insulating themselves from the people and places around them: the road becomes a vehicle for isolation rather than discovery.

In Alice in the Cities and Kings of the Road, Wenders’ protagonists (both played, like Wilhelm in Wrong Move, by Rüdiger Vogler) take the first steps from aimless wandering to focused action and direction. Initially disconnected characters make moves to friendship, to responsibility, to a sense of self and find hope and a future on the road. And in this movement we see the general thread of Wenders’ films begin in earnest.

Until Wings of Desire, these wanderers are male, their most important relationships with other men (or with children). The identity crisis that sends the characters of Goalie’s Anxiety, Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move, Kings of the Road and Paris, Texas out of society and onto the road has left these men unable to commit to a relationship, put down roots, take on personal responsibility. Without a cultural identity of their own these people have no grounding, no real sense of self. As if to underscore this idea, the names of characters remain unspoken in many of these films for twenty minutes or more.

Without a sense of identity, these characters prove unable (or unwilling) communicate, meaningfully or otherwise. In Kings, when Robert reveals that his wife left him, Bruno replies “I didn’t ask you that,” shutting down any important communication… at least for a while. In Paris, Texas, Travis is mute for days, unable or unwilling to speak. In Wings, the angels are unable to communicate with humans, only stand mutely by and observe. It’s this desire to connect, to share, to communicate that brings Damiel to Earth. “I believed in the magic and healing power of words and stories,” confesses Eugene near the conclusion of Until the End of the World, as he uses the gift of communication to save the woman he loves from a paralyzing disconnection from her environment.

These concerns come clearly into focus in Kings of the Road, where two wanderers fall in together. Beginning as simply traveling companions, Bruno and Robert (they introduce themselves on the second day of traveling together) become healing influences on one another as they slowly open up and talk to one another about their pasts, their fears, their needs. Near the end of Kings they, like Josef in Goalie’s Anxiety, reach the pre-reunification border and can go no further. But where Josef surrenders to inertia, Bruno and Robert understand that “Everything must change,” and turn back with a purpose.

Having successfully met the challenge of themselves, no other Wenders character remains trapped within the borders of Germany. The American Friend becomes Wenders’ first genuinely international film, with Germany at its core but now defined as part of the larger European community. Paris, Texas takes Wenders’ themes of dislocation and identity crisis across the Atlantic to America in his most direct response to John Ford’s The Searchers.

Earthbound angel Solveig Dommartin in "Wings of Desire"
Earthbound angel Solveig Dommartin in “Wings of Desire”

Wings of Desire completes this progression from national to international concerns with a celebration of the human condition, a state envied by the angels themselves. Wenders discovers the healing powers of love, and finally breaks through the male centered focus of his cinematic universe to explore the same yearnings, the same questions, the same need for grounding in the life of a woman. Up to Wings, women had been supporting players in the dramas of men; even Marianne, the wife of Jonathan in The American Friend, becomes merely a supporting character in the story of Jonathan and Ripley’s growing friendship. Now the dislocation of the angel Damiel finds a counterpart in Marion, a wanderer in her own right searching for meaning and connection.

Until the End of the World crosses boundaries the world over to explore the global community, and Faraway, So Close! examines the new Germany in the wake of reunification and a modern Europe. National identity is no longer as important as global identity: what does it mean to be a part of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, of Europe after the collapse of the communist state, of the world in the time of global communications and modern travel. Cultural barriers fall away like state borders and the films speak in a polyglot mix of languages. Identity has transformed from a national question to a spiritual quest, a reach for the redemptive power of love, a search for the path to grace.

The value of the journey is not in its destination but in the journey itself: the discovery of other places, of other people, of self. Characters find home and/or family at the end of the road (Alice in Alice of the Cities, Robert in Kings of the Road, Hunter and Jane in Paris, Texas, Eugene in Until the End of the World) but their traveling companions, the protagonists of the those stories, return to the road. No longer drifters, and having concluded their quests, they find their identity on the road as wanderers—travelers—their action in movement, their joy in the journey. Wenders’ films, like all great road films, take its characters on two quests: on a trip to self—an inward journey to the soul—and a trip to limitless possibility with each new turn of the road—an external journey to the world. The films may come to an end and the lights come up, but neither journey ever truly ends.

“… there is something very powerful in stories, something that gives you security and a sense of identity and meaning. And it seems to me that this sort of storytelling is disappearing a little bit.” – Wim Wenders

Postscript: 2010 – I wrote this in 1996, before my trial by fire as a daily reviewer with the Seattle Weekly and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. I’d write this differently now but resisted the temptation to rewrite. This is the essay (slightly expanded with elements that had been edited for space) that was published and hangs on my wall with Wim Wenders’ autograph (complete with his signature angel’s wing) across it with a “thanks.” I still await the release of many of Wenders’ great movies on DVD here in the U.S., including Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road and The State of Things.

Copyright © 1996 Sean Axmaker


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