I interviewed director Wim Wenders in the mid-’90s, and a sizable part of the conversation focused on an element of filmmaking he found supremely important: the sense of place. One can’t just parachute in somewhere and shoot a film; you need to know a location and understand it.
Well … hmmm. Wenders’ new film, Submergence, travels to a terrorist encampment in Somalia and a deep-diving submarine at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Compared to Wenders’ explorations of his native Germany in Wings of Desire and The American Friend or his deep drilling of the American landscape in Paris, Texas, this is a tourist’s visit. It might explain why Submergence—though sincere and sometimes woozily affecting—feels like a skim over the surface.
[Originally published in The Weekly, December 19, 1984]
In John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, a film employed to throw a cultural frame around Wim Wenders’s Alice in the Cities, a character says to Abe, “Never saw a man look at a river the way you do.” No filmmaker has ever looked at a road the way Wim Wenders does. He sees it in all its purity and directness of line, its beauty as a brave and silent sign of man’s efforts to impose coherence and continuity on the awful indifference of landscape; sees above all, perhaps, the beauty of its effective invisibility. We don’t really look at roads, even as we rely upon them absolutely as the arterials of modern life, the reminders that, as sedentary beings who live out most of our lives in place, we never entirely shake free of the atavistic allure of being a nomadic race.
[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.
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.
The American Friend (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” Dennis Hopper’s Tom Ripley is nothing like the character that Patricia Highsmith created and explored in five novels, and while Wim Wenders’s adaptation of Ripley’s Game, the sequel to The Talented Mr. Ripley, remains more or less faithful to the plot (with additional elements appropriated from Ripley Underground), the personality and sensibility belong to Wenders.
The cool, cunning sociopath of Highsmith’s novel becomes a restless international hustler, selling art forgeries and brokering deals (some of which may actually be legal) while travelling back and forth through Germany, France, and the United States. His target, renamed Jonathan Zimmerman here (a Dylan reference? Wenders loves his American music, you know) and played with an easy (if at times arrogant) integrity by Bruno Ganz, is a German art restorer who now runs a frame shop due to the effects of a fatal blood disease. In true Highsmith fashion, the motivation is purely psychological and emotional—a small but purposeful social slight—and the reverberations are immense. Ripley concocts a medical con to convince Zimmerman he’s dying so a French associate (played by Gerard Blain) can tempt him to be his assassin, and then comes to his rescue as the French criminal extends the cruel little act of revenge to pull Zimmerman into additional murders.
[Originally published in the Oregon Daily Emerald on December 1, 1977]
After a striking opening shot—partially reversed at the end of the film—Alice In The Cities (1974) introduces a solitary figure, forlornly sitting on sand, his back against a post, self-descriptively singing, “under the boardwalk, down by the sea, on a blanket with my baby, that’s where I wanna be.” The upbeat lyrics ironically counterpoint the grim image, and the German-speaking character has slightly garbled the great Drifters’ song line, which actually ends “on a blanket with my baby, is where I’ll be.”
This sequence is one of many, here and throughout Wenders, that use the artifacts of popular culture in the films as atmospheric details and comments—often wry—on the action. Thus, the mournful character in Alice listens to a radio play the song lyrics “I feel depressed I feel so bad,” and sees a German newspaper reporting the death of John Ford. Even the television ad line, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” becomes both a piece of cultural garbage and an ironic call to action that the character answers by breaking the television screen. (In The American Friend (1977) a character played by Dennis Hopper introduces the cultural artifact, simultaneously evoking his character’s dislocation and the actor’s iconic significance and erratic career trajectory by shuffling across a grey Hamburg balcony, singing, from the Ballad of Easy Rider: “The river flows, it flows to the sea, and wherever that river flows God knows that’s where I wanna be.”)
Winner of the Palme D’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, Paris, Texas (Criterion) was not Wim Wenders’ first American film—that would be Hammett (1982), which proved to be a dispiriting experience when producer Francis Ford Coppola decided to step in and re-edit Wenders’ vision to something more commercial (so much for the creative freedom he promised filmmakers)—but it is the first American film where Wenders carved his own vision into the American landscape (both physical and cinematic). Just two years after the Hammett debacle, he returned to the U.S. on his own terms, with a story he developed with Sam Shepard and financial backing from Europe that gave him the freedom to make his own film. Paris, Texas (a name that evokes the collision of and contrast between Europe and America) is a road movie, a drama of reconciliation and redemption, a modern western and an emotional odyssey of epic simplicity and emotional integrity set against an America both mythic (the stunning vistas of the Texas border desert are as primal as John Ford’s Monument Valley landscapes) and modern (from the lonely roadside motels and neon totems to the view down on Los Angeles from the hilltop family home).
Harry Dean Stanton (in his first and, to the best of my knowledge, only leading role to date) is Travis, a man who walks out of the desert and into civilization, parched and weak and mute but driven by purpose, even if it’s beyond his understanding at that point. Dean Stockwell is his brother Walt, who flies from Los Angeles to Southern Texas and drives him back, bringing Travis out of his almost catatonic, pre-verbal state as the journey brings him out of the wilderness and back to family, notably the son (Hunter Carson) he left behind four years before. Wenders and Shepard prefer spare dialogue that suggests more than it explains, letting the performances fill in the blanks and the images frame the drama. Longtime Wenders collaborator Robby Muller films the deserts and highways of the American southwest with a reverence for the primal beauty and the spare, expansive, seemingly unending landscape. Stanton looks carved from the same wind-scoured stone and sand when he emerges from the desert and Muller and Wenders slowly soften and humanize him as he tentatively but sincerely interacts with his family and returns to society, only to leave on a quest with the son he has just reconnected with. Nastassja Kinski is Jane, the young wife and mother first seen in the home movies that Walt shows one night, and it’s like that image of the happy family captured in warm, blurry super8 footage becomes his grail: he has to repair the broken family that, we are to learn, he himself destroyed.
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
September 30, 1976
Could you tell me what Kings of the Roadis about and how you came to make it?
It’s a film about two men and they’re making a journey across, along the border of East Germany from the North to the South, which is about a thousand miles, in an old truck, and they are repairing the projection equipment in the small villages.
How did you choose the subject?
Well, that’s not an easy answer. There are different subjects in the film. It’s not only the journey of the two men, but it’s also the situation of cinema, small cinemas in Germany that are dying out. It’s a little bit about the end of cinema altogether. It’s about the situation of men who are 30 now, born after the war like me. It’s about Germany nowadays. It’s about a lot of things. It’s about music and it’s about rock’n’roll just as well as about cinema.
There’s quite a lot of rock’n’roll on the soundtrack. How did you pick what you used?
I picked some favorite things.
There’s a profound feeling of alienation in the film, emphasized by Bruno’s scream at the end. Are you trying to make any larger statement about men as a group being alienated, or do you limit this sense of alienation to these two men? .
It’s more or less Tarzan’s scream. Well, it’s not only the alienation of these two because in the film … As soon as you pick somebody as the hero of a film, it turns out to be statement, not only about him but about mankind. So it is, rather, a film about men than about these two men. In a way, it’s a film about men totally in an American tradition—the road movie tradition—but on the other hand, it’s just the opposite of all these films because it’s not dealing with men the way all these films used to deal. It’s not reassuring them. On the contrary.