[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
September 30, 1976
Could you tell me what Kings of the Road is 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.
You obviously like to work with Rüdiger Vogler [Bruno]; he was in Alice in the Cities as well. How did you discover him?
I saw him in the theatre about six years ago. He was sick and tired of the theatre because he always had to play the funny parts.
Did Vogler contribute to your conception of his part?
Not only Vogler. Also the other actor [Hanns Zischler] and the cameraman [Robbie Müller]. At least we tried to. There was no script when we started the film. There was just the itinerary and the starting point—how they both meet. From then on, the film was completely open and we wanted to invent the story—the three or four of us. But after about two weeks it was too exhausting because having four fantasies working against each other … well, it was just too exhausting, and we had to give it up. I went on writing myself.
So ultimately it’s your conception that’s on film with the exception of what the others worked on in the beginning?
You never can tell in a film. There isn’t such a thing as one man’s conception in movies, I think. There never was, even in all those films where you think there was; I’m sure of that.
The cast and crew would continue to make suggestions as you went along about how things should go?
In the morning I would produce, I mean, I would show them the lines for the day and during breakfast we would discuss it. Also during the shooting. We were in a different place every day and shooting very much depended on the actual moods and the weather and how everybody felt. Not only me; everybody else. Although it’s not at all an improvisation film, not at all.
I notice that the production credits are very similar for both this film and Alice in the Cities. Do you regard these people as sort of your “technical repertory company”?
I’ve worked with nearly all of them for several times before on different projects, and they are more than my “technical repertory company.” They are much more, for me. For instance, this film. I would not have thought of making such a film, I mean of shooting an adventure film, without any schedule, without anything, and so having the shooting itself be an adventure. I wouldn’t have had the idea without knowing there are people to realize this idea with. People who are really such good technicians and so brilliant—one of them—that you could realize such an absolutely crazy idea of shooting a fiction film without a script on the road.
Did the cinematographer contribute to your idea of the film—to your conception?
Yes. This was, in a way, his influence on the film. He knew that I didn’t want to have it look, in any way, like a documentary. He knew that he had to hold a standard concerning camera movements and the lighting and everything—a standard like all our other films, without having all the possibilities of the other films. So every day he had to invent things he’s never done before. And shoot in half an hour because the sun was already low.
And you were using available light a lot, weren’t you?
Yes, although I think only a few shots were done without any artificial light. But that’s how good he is. That’s the most difficult thing, by the way, to make a light that’s not seen.
Was In the Course of Time (Im Lauf der Zeit) retitled Kings of the Road to make the film more commercial in the United States?
In fact, it’s Richard Roud who is responsible for that because the son of a bitch [said kiddingly] wrote an article in The Guardian in London for the Cannes Festival, I think, and he just called it Kings of the Road because he liked the idea. So I had to stick to the title. Well, it’s not bad, I think. I think In the Course of Time, which would be the literal translation of my own title, is not as good in English as it sounds in German. Like “As Time Goes By,” it has such a nostalgic aspect. Really, “Kings of the Road” is quite OK. It sounds good.
How does the film reflect your political feelings?
I think the film in itself is rather political, even more than those films that have an explicit political impact or idea. During the film [the two men] start liking the idea of change. The film is very much about the need of change, not in an explicit political meaning, but more or less in a very total, very rigorous way. It reflects the pessimism and the attitude of those people who were really in it in ’68 in Germany, and in the early Seventies lost all their political energy. There was really a big movement in Germany as well as France in the late Sixties. All those people just disappeared in the sense of just vanishing, in the sense of being absorbed again. The film very much reflects this generation who had so many hopes in the late Sixties, and who didn’t find a way of living with it.
You feel they don’t have any hope for the future?
They do at the end. Their journey is not only a journey along the East German border. It’s also very much a journey into their own history or into their own background or their own childhood. The way they start thinking about changing their lives is much more radical than, for instance—I don’t know—Easy Rider. That was, to me, just a very superficial attitude towards what was going on at that time.
At the end Robert [Zischler] leaves a note: “Everything must change.” Presumably Bruno’s tearing up his schedule means that he’s about to change. What do you think a man who’s lived so much of his life alone can change to? What do you think Bruno’s future is?
Although there are practically no women in the film, it’s very much a film about women in the sense that it’s a film about the women in men’s minds. I wanted it that way. I didn’t want to show women again the way they are usually shown, especially in American cinema. I wanted to show the way they are in men’s heads.
You didn’t want to show them as sex objects.
This is already the worst. You can treat women disrespectfully without regarding them as sex objects. The film refers very much to what men want or desire from women. They start talking about that at the end of their journey. There is no use going on this way; at least that’s what they realize. The thing that has to be changed, mostly, I think, is their notion of women.
You mean they have to find a new way of relating to them?
Yes. A lot of critics, mostly in France, related to that as the two men having a sort of homosexual relationship, which is not at all in the film, I think. It does reflect their [the critics’] fear of seeing what is really happening in the film: that these two are no longer sure of themselves as men usually are towards women. The easiest way is to say Well, I’m making them homosexuals; but this is not the way out. That’s what the film is about, too.
Do you think there’s a possibility of Bruno finding another way to relate to women?
The film doesn’t show another way. I think it ends rather optimistically because it ends on the neon sign of the cinema which is called the White Screen Cinema. I found this cinema and it’s an extraordinary name for a cinema.
It has the implication of possibility; that there is hope.
You know the white screen. That’s something where you can just start anew, not only with cinema itself, I think.
However, Bruno does say that he can’t get close to women even during sex, and that he wants all women. Even though you think that there are possibilities for his future, do you think that he’s the prisoner of his own loneliness at that point in his life?
On the other hand, he loves his loneliness a lot, and he says, at one time, that if he had the choice, he would choose the loneliness. And they both don’t regard loneliness as a negative thing. They’re even proud of being lonely.
Robert talks about the need for change. When he meets the boy at the station toward the end, and takes his notebook, it implies that he might be going back to being a linguistics professor. It implies a change for him.
It implies a lot. In starting this journey together with Bruno, he’s getting back a kind of interest in other people. In the beginning he’s trying to commit suicide. You couldn’t really tell, I think, but he’s doing crazy things with his car, and he’s driving splash into the water. That’s the way they meet. The one who’s living in the truck and doesn’t want to have anything to do with anything, just keeping out of everything; and the other one who is desperately trying to kill himself. Once they’re together, he won’t try to kill himself anymore because it’s not so easy to kill yourself when you’re not alone. That’s why the film is rather funny, I think, because once they are together, both of them cannot go on the way they used to.
There’s more humor, too, earlier in the scene where they clown behind the screen before the audience.
In the beginning, when they don’t know each other very well, they try to push themselves, to provoke … just seeing what they could both do together. The scene where they’re performing a kind of slapstick behind the screen for the children who are waiting for the film to start—this is the result of both of them trying to see how far he could go and how far the other one is going to be with him.
The landscape in Alice in the Cities is barren and desolate. In Kings of the Road you don’t show the rainy roads and sadness of being on the road; there’s slightly less feeling of alienation. Do you feel your view of being on the road is becoming less gloomy because you don’t show the dreariest aspects of travel, even though the scenes are somewhat empty?
No, not at all. I’ve never known how to refer to the notion of alienation because, for me, those people on the road in all of my films may regard being on the road as being at home. Being on the road means being by and with themselves. Someone said being on the road, a journey, means looking for identity. I can’t agree because, for me, those people on the road have found their identity and are losing it as soon as they have to stop somewhere. I think that’s the way people feel who really are on the road. That’s why they are on the road because once they stay somewhere they don’t feel by themselves anymore. I wouldn’t call it lonely. They need to feel independent somehow, or they need to feel motion. For me, if I am on the road or if I’m making a journey, I used to have—and I still do have—a much intenser feeling of myself as well as of people I meet, as well as of the things I see. Being at home, at once I start feeling asleep all day long. Being on the road for those people in my films means living in a more intense way and being more aware of things and of people. You couldn’t refer to being on the road only as being alienated.
In what way do you feel that your film is in the American tradition?
When I started seeing movies, when I was twelve or seven years old, the only films I went to see were American films because they were the only films to be seen over there in Germany at that time.
About what year was that?
Late Fifties. I was born in 1945. I saw the German films of any importance very much later, the prewar films. I couldn’t see them in Germany, by the way; I saw them in France. And so the cinema I grew up with was only the American cinema.
Whose films in particular did you see? Was there any American that you especially liked?
Well, later on, of course. I liked the films of John Ford from the beginning. If I had to name an American director I owe something, it would be Anthony Mann. I don’t know how well he is known….
How do you feel he was an influence on your work?
I used to love the clear structure of his films and the way every shot was well composed, for me, even better than the images, or shots, by John Ford. For me, Anthony Mann has always been the clearest of all the American directors.
Clearest in what sense?
I think of it in a much more formal way. I don’t think of it in terms of composition and cutting, editing. When I started making movies myself, I had the idea of making films this way. The film language I knew was the language of the American film. 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. It took me three films to realize that I could try as hard as I would, I would not be able to make an American film. Of course, I’m a German director. I was born in Germany. I lived all over Europe, but the films that I made, although they used the language of the American cinema—the way the shots were composed, and the lighting, everything—the films were just very, very different.
September 27, 1977
What made you decide on Dennis Hopper for The American Friend?
I met him in Paris on the street. I wouldn’t even have thought of him. I hadn’t seen him in movies for a long time. He was not what I had in mind for Ripley, although I really didn’t know what I had in mind at all, because Ripley was such a difficult character to cast. Then I met Dennis on the street and it was Ripley from the very beginning, just for his eyes. He has the most vivid eyes I’ve ever seen. For this part of the tempter the eyes were so important.
What kind of ideas did Hopper give you as you went along?
He was much more emotional than Ripley probably ever was in the three Highsmith novels he is in. Dennis had a much more emotional approach to the part that changed it a lot.
In what other ways did the characters change as you went along?
All the main characters. Not only Ripley, but Jonathan [Bruno Ganz] the victim and his wife Marianne [played by Wenders’ own wife Lisa Kreuzer] changed as well. That’s, in a way, my method of working, of shooting a film, not to have a conception of the characters before the shooting, but try to find out something about them during the shooting, and being able to adjust according to what happens to them and to me during the shooting.
How was Hopper to work with?
He was very different from any other actor I’ve ever worked with. He was very different from Bruno Ganz, who played the other lead. Bruno had worked in the theatre for fifteen years at the very best company that there is in Germany, and he was the star at the company. He had an approach of preparing himself for weeks for the part and knowing every gesture he would make. He went to see a framer for two weeks to know everything about the job. He wanted to know how he would walk or how his gestures would be in the film before we started shooting. So he had his part in mind before we started. And he absolutely wanted to have his dialogue for the next day so he could prepare. Whereas Dennis didn’t prepare himself at all and didn’t want to, didn’t want to have his dialogue, nothing. On the other hand he had an extraordinary ability to concentrate and get emotionally involved immediately before during the shooting. He was very confident after the first two or three days. We got along very easily. So there were two completely different attitudes toward acting. They presented, in fact, a great problem between the two because Bruno was completely shattered by Dennis’s attitude. As soon as I said “Cut,” Dennis was joking again and completely out of concentration, whereas Bruno tried to stay in the mood.
Did that create any tensions?
It did. They even had a fistfight after a week and things looked rather serious, but that cleared things up and they got along very fine in the end. Both learned a lot from each other. Dennis changed his attitude a little bit. He started to prepare for the role and Bruno was more and more able to relax and adopt a little bit of Dennis’s attitude. In the end they nearly had the same method.
The other role American audiences are familiar with Bruno Ganz in is the handsome young officer in The Marquise of 0…. Jonathan is quite a sharp contrast to the Count in that film. Whose idea was Ganz’s moustache in the role of the framer?
He had a couple of photographs where he had a moustache and we thought for the Swiss framer he is in the film, for the artisan, it looked right.
Why did you cast the other parts with directors?
It wasn’t intentional in the beginning. I had already cast Dennis and Gérard Blain in two leading parts, and Samuel [Fuller] when I noticed that I had three directors already in my cast. Then there was a big problem casting all the smaller parts of gangsters and crooks, the forger; all these people I didn’t want to denounce or I didn’t want to turn into marionettes as they so often are in films and thrillers. You see from a hundred yards that they are gangsters and I didn’t want to do that. So that presented a slight problem for me and I had never had to cast crooks before. In fact, I didn’t know any. I have never seen a gangster in my life. Well, finally I had the idea that I did know some crooks and that they were all directors. They are in fact. They are the only people who force people to do things they don’t want, to make them suffer and make people die.
Are you also a tyrant like that?
Well, you do have to be, not only to actors, to the whole crew. There’s always very much pain included. I’m not as much a tyrant as a couple of other directors who are renowned by being very tyrannical. Any director making a film imposes himself on other people, so they are really gangsters.
How did you get Nicholas Ray?
I didn’t know him before, but I knew all his films and loved very much to them. I met him here in New York. The part he plays wasn’t even in the script. When I met him here, I thought I’d really love to have him in the film. We invented the whole part of the forger he plays now. We wrote it together.
You mean there wasn’t a character called Derwatt in the book, Ripley’s Game?
Not at all. This is a reference we make to the previous Ripley book, Ripley Underground, where there is a painter called Derwatt, a forger. But the idea came after having met Nick and being in New York.
How did you get Samuel Fuller?
I know Samuel Fuller for a couple of years. I met him when he was shooting his last film, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, in Cologne, Germany. He was a big help to me when I was shooting the American part of Alice in the Cities here, so he’s a good friend.
Was he working on The Big Red One in Europe when you were shooting in Europe?
He was traveling around looking for locations. When we were shooting in New York, for instance, the crew was there and everything was ready, and we were just waiting for Sam to arrive. He was in Europe somewhere; nobody really knew where; and he didn’t show up. So we started shooting. He finally arrived on our very last day here in New York, so he’s in only one shot now of the New York shooting. I really hope he’s able to do The Big Red One next year. He hopes he can do it in spring.
I noticed that Ray wore his eyepatch in one scene but not in others. Why was that?
He has no eyesight in one eye, but he prefers not to wear it because he doesn’t like the looks of it.
How were Ray and Fuller to work with?
They’re easier than anybody I ever worked with because they know what a pain in the neck it is to work with somebody who is resistant. Really, Nick especially was the easiest actor—well, he’s not an actor—person I’ve ever worked with in any film.
The American Friend is based on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game. How did you get the rights to the book?
Initially I wanted to buy the rights to another Highsmith book called Cry of the Owl, which is still my favorite book of hers. It seems strange that she’s so heavily underrated in America. Nobody really knows her books her except some mystery freaks. But she’s a very well-known and acclaimed writer in Europe, and not only as a mystery writer. Her books are regarded as contemporary literature. It’s strange that in the country she comes from, she’s not known at all. People don’t even know that she’s American. I wonder how American you can be if you’re born in Fort Worth, Texas.
That’s pretty American.
Anyway, I wanted to buy the rights to Cry of the Owl and I went to see her. We found out that it was with Paramount till 1980. I thought of another one called Tremor of Forgery and this was sold as well. They are not being turned into films now, but the rights were not available. Gradually we found out that none of the books were available anymore, at least none of those I liked. So she came up with the idea of showing me the book she had just finished writing. It was not yet printed. Nobody knew it, so I was able to buy the rights. That was Ripley’s Game and I loved it from the very beginning. It may be even more apt to cinema than most of her other books because it doesn’t happen so much in people’s heads, which her other books mostly do. There’s a much more visual plot in it.
What appeals to you in Patricia Highsmith’s works?
In a way, it’s her whole attitude toward painting a story, not around her characters, but letting the story come out of them, develop out of their fears or out of some small lies, or unimportant things that turn into catastrophes. Everybody knows that out of some small cowardice or whatever, a fatal story can develop.
Why did you change the title? [The title was variously Rule without Exception and The Frame before becoming The American Friend.]
In a way Ripley isn’t the hero of the film anymore. As it is now, the film is much more from Jonathan’s point of view, and I think Jonathan is, in another way, the center of the film. And so The American Friend includes Ripley as the American friend, but it included even more without saying’ it, the one whose friend he is. So the film is about the relationship and that’s much more important than the game itself.
How was it to go from a loosely or non-scripted film like Kings of the Road to a relatively tightly scripted film like this one?
Well, I wanted to have a tight frame after the completely free and loose structure of Kings of the Road. There was kind of a need to work in a much more disciplined way—really, in a tight structure. It wasn’t that easy for me at all. In the end, the structure wasn’t that tight after all, because again I was writing the script every night for the next day. But nevertheless there were certain limits in which I could move. There was quite a bit of freedom inside the structure of the Highsmith story. Nevertheless, it was something I always had in mind. It was a good experience after all.
How much did you change the book?
There wasn’t so much to change about the essential plot. The book is alternatively one chapter from Ripley’s point of view, one chapter from Jonathan’s point of view, and the film, as it is now, is much more Jonathan. I changed the character of Ripley, who is too emotional, more of an outcast than he is in the Highsmith novel, and I did change the ending a lot, which is more brutal and violent. It’s more complicated in the Highsmith novel. I think it’s more honest the way it is now. In the end she just somehow lost control of the story. I tried to leave this completely violent and bloody end, and especially have Jonathan free himself of Ripley before he dies in the end.
There are several references to popular culture: the Beatles, Easy Rider and Bob Dylan, for instance. They seem to mean something to you, although the film is not about pop culture.
I could add that Jonathan is called Zimmerman.
Of course. Bob Dylan’s real name is Zimmerman.
He’s not called Zimmerman in the novel. It was a little bit my way of putting things I was interested in into the story. It gives them another kind of background.
Like being on the road, the presence of water—rivers, seas—recurs in your movies. What is its significance for you?
The sea seemed to be rather important for me [the North Sea that Jonathan and Ripley drive to at the end]. In the book the city is not a harbor city. I felt it was necessary to turn it into Hamburg. There’s a certain feeling of openness.
The American Friend is also about films—the praxinoscope, the gel picture Ganz gives Hopper …
The film is a little bit about the love of film. It refers to Ganz’s history, to Hitchcock films, to the history of film by showing where cinema came from. It came from machines like the praxinoscope or some of the other things you see in it.
You refer to Henri Langlois’s death by putting it on the front page of a newspaper.
He died during the shooting.
Is Nicholas Ray supposed to be a wiser, older man commenting on the follies of youth, or is he just as confused as Hopper says he is?
That’s what he says. On the other hand, the very last shot of the film is Nicholas Ray closing a notebook and the film opens with him as well, so he’s a little bit of an observer, watching it all.
Hopper talks about his confusion. The film seems to be about people’s search for identity. Hopper says he knows less and less about himself and Nicholas Ray is a “dead” painter, the ultimate in lost identities.
The whole story arises from these pictures done by somebody who is thought to be dead. Identity is, in a way, the main concern of all the three or four last pictures—people no longer in touch with something that holds them together.
Because they’ve lost their national boundaries or because they’ve lost themselves in some way?
It does have something to do with national identity. And I could say it’s a feeling I know from people in America or in France or in England, just as well. For me, it has something to do with being born in postwar 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 to American culture. That does have and did have an effect on people born after the war.
For example, Hopper takes Polaroids of himself as though he can’t see his face enough; if he doesn’t have a picture of himself, he doesn’t know who he is.
He is a completely rootless character. The way he’s living in Hamburg in that completely obscure house—you really couldn’t say that this is a home. It’s full of relics, but none are very useful. The tape recorder is useful, but it’s not a real thing, it’s just a substitute.
Then he makes contact with Jonathan and enters his life.
But that contact is rather fatal. Jonathan dies from that contact. Even Ripley is in big difficulties in the end. We don’t know what happens to him. He’s abandoned and his career is gone.
The films seems to be about being threatened. To be left alone is to be threatened: Jonathan is threatened by his blood disease; Blain is a threat to Daniel Schmid.
Being threatened is what all Highsmith’s novels are about, in a way. They are thrillers, but not in the essential meaning of “thriller.” They deal with threat, not with concrete threats like being shot or whatever, but the threat of losing control of yourself or of one’s life.
You were in the United States to film Alice in the Cities. How did you find New York as a location to film in?
It’s extremely easy. I think it’s because people just don’t care. In other cities like Paris it’s so embarrassing to shoot because once you were on the street with a camera you had hundreds of people around you. In New York it just seems as if nobody cared. It was a very strange experience.
Was it good that people didn’t get in your way?
All the official things you have to do are so easy in New York, so simple. It was easier than in any of the other cities we’ve shot in.
It’s extraordinary what Robbie Müller has done. The color is just marvelous. How were those very striking effects with the color, especially of the sky, achieved?
That was manipulation. It was done with filters, cutting a mask according to the skyline. It’s a new film stock that came out last year, modified Eastman. We were the first European production to use it. When we were making tests we found out that the red, especially the red, came out incredibly, so we tried to use the effect.
What’s the most important thing to you about The American Friend?
I think it’s the friendship between Jonathan and Ripley that turned out to be the most important thing, and the most powerful thing in the film. It emerged as the film went along. In the beginning it was more Jonathan’s fear of death that seemed to me the center of the film, but as the shooting went along, it was much more the friendship. It was an effect of the shooting also that Jonathan doesn’t seem to be so afraid as the film progresses. He accepts what happens.
How well do your films do in Germany?
The American Friend is the first commercially successful film of my films. All of the others were shown and Kings of the Road did quite well. It was even a kind of cult film. But, being three hours long, it had its limits. It’s still being shown all over Germany and maybe after three or five years it will be a successful film financially. The American Friend in its first three months of theatrical exhibition in Germany has already had three times more spectators than Kings of the Road. And Kings of the Road had three times more than Alice.
So you’re acquiring an audience for your films.
Yes. And that’s the same with Werner Herzog’s film, for instance. Stroszek is doing very well, much better than Heart of Glass. They appear in New York in a different order: Stroszek is out now and Heart of Glass will be out later. We had to wait for that rather long in Germany, for the audience following us. I don’t think this was due to the films, because Aguirre is doing well now after five years. It’s due to the fact that audiences were no longer used to the idea of seeing German films, because they hadn’t seen any decent German films for thirty years.
Do you still qualify for state aid to make your films, which are after all “commercial” films?
Yes. In The American Friend there is a certain percentage of subsidies—two percent of it.
Do you have to pay that back?
Yes and no. I have to pay that back after the complete expenses for the film are deducted. Until now, this is not going to happen, because I still have a lot of debts. I’m counting very much on the release here in New York and in France to get these debts back.
What is your next film?
It’s going to be an unusual script, which I haven’t started yet. I’ll start now after the New York release because I was still very much involved with The American Friend and I didn’t want to start anything else before really being through with it, and I think I’m through now. It’s going to be kind of a love story—a very long journey by a man and a woman following each other without really knowing who is following whom. It’s going to be much more loosely constructed [than The American Friend] and it’s going to take place all over the world. That’s why I’m making this journey after the film festival. I’m going to Nashville first, then Memphis, then I’m going to New Mexico. From there I’m going to car to San Francisco. The film might start somewhere in New Mexico or Texas.
Why are you choosing America to film in more and more?
The next film is going to be in America and Europe and Australia and wherever. Indonesia and Japan. I don’t have the cast and I don’t even have any idea where I should get the money from.
Copyright © 1978 Judith M. Kass