Wim Wenders: Looking back on the road ahead
“If at a certain point you were into arthouse movies when you’re young, Wim Wenders was your best friend,” my friend Bilge Ebiri tells me the other day, and I can put it no better way. The German filmmaker secured a legendary reputation early on for the successive one-two hit of his widely regarded masterpieces Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire. Even now, having just celebrated his 70th birthday, he was recently Oscar-nominated for his documentaries Pina and Salt of the Earth, and continues to take photographs & write essays about art and film, with a new volume yet to be translated into English.
Having begun his career as a painter and photographer, but realizing he was movie-obsessed, Wenders became part of the loosely affiliated and hard-to-define New German Cinema of the 60s, along with Werner Herzog. Yet he is much more than an accomplished filmmaker: he’s someone who cares and thinks deeply about the meaning of images throughout our entire “audiovisual culture”, as he calls it, and has reached out and experimented in every medium to understand and share that with us.
This fall sees the release of Portraits Along The Road, a touring retrospective headed to major cities of restored versions of Wim’s entire career, to be followed by Criterion editions. The restorations include early films that have been unavailable for decades.
Of special interest is a long-lost masterpiece: the 5-hour director’s cut of Until the End of the World. Released in 1991 in a compromised shortened version, Wenders hid the film negative at his own expense, and, after a handful of legendary screenings over the years, we are finally getting to see it a quarter of a century later. I've written of my 25 year quest to see it here.
Inarguably one of the most ambitious movies ever made, the epic scifi road movie Until the End of the World was shot for real in 15 cities on 4 continents. It also features the first sequences ever used in a movie of HD and digital video. While it is definitely an artifact of the last millennium’s end, the film is eye-openingly prophetic today: after traveling the entire world, the plot hinges upon a camera that can record images for blind people to see, which leads to addiction to tiny digital handheld monitors. Wenders wanted to make a movie about “where visual culture will take us” and we’re finally arriving at what he glimpsed.
This winter he will also release his new movie Everything Will Be Fine, an intimate character drama photographed in 3D, a seemingly low key but ambitious exploration of using the new photographic medium to portray emotion. He has quite a lot to say about 3D and its misuse, which is hard to ignore as he’s thus far made the only 3D documentary considered a masterwork.
We began talking in NYC at Criterion’s headquarters about how Until the End of the World came to be, and the constant nexus between filmmaking technology and storytelling. That led us to his other work and how it has been at the vanguard of questioning and exploring the radically transformative new terrain of digital images, and what meaning we can find in those images today.
Let’s start with Until The End of the World. So what came first, the idea of doing a science fiction movie, a road movie set all over the world, or did it come all at once?
It was the same idea from the beginning. The idea came up in 1978 when I first came to Australia. Without even knowing where I was going, because I was in Bali, on an endless vacation after The American Friend (his 1977 movie with Dennis Hopper). And in Bali, I realized I was pretty close to Australia.
And I realized from Denpasar you could take a little plane to Darwin. I took the plane, I went to Darwin, and it was my first time in Australia. I rented a car, started driving, and I met these Aboriginals. I didn’t know anything Australia, about their culture, but I was very eager to learn and I spent several months in Australia zigzagging.
I was so taken by the Aboriginal culture and by the idea of dreamlines and songlines that I started to write a science fiction film about the end of the world, where the images of the world were saved, in a remote place in the Australian desert.
And I was in Australia writing that story, when a friend of mine forwarded a telegram, a friend who lived in Sydney and who knew how I could be reached in the Outback. He forwarded a telegram that he had gotten from my office because they didn’t know how to reach me, a telegram from San Francisco, from Francis Ford Coppola, if I would be willing to talk about a movie called Hammet.
And I thought ok, that’s too good to be true, but I’ll be back in a year to continue this science fiction idea, not knowing that it was going take me a little over five years, and when I came back to the same idea, the Australian outback, that was then in the mid 80s and then it took me another five years to get the movie done. So all together we worked on it for twelve years before we could finally shoot it. And it was from the beginning very much a science fiction film inspired by the Aboriginal culture of dreaming, and of caring for the land, and how images for them were important to survive.
But the images were verbalized? It’s an oral culture.
Yes, only verbalized. They had just started to do some paintings. Because they had only until then sand paintings that disappeared. At that time, I met some of the very first aboriginal painters who had started to work on canvas. Some of the people I met are now in the Museum of Modern Art. I met Emily [Kame Kngwarreye] - I only knew her first name and she’s now represented in MOMA. And at the time Emily was an old woman sitting in the sand.
At what point then did you decide to graft onto the story a chase around the world?
That came up later. And the two ideas married only when I came back to the project after Paris, Texas. And then I spent a year trying to get it off the ground, realized it was way too early and it was so expensive. I did Wings of Desire and then I came back to it, the third time I came back to Until the End of the World was in 1988 and this time we got it off the ground. With the help of Peter Carey, and first with the help of a young filmmaker from here in NYC named Michael Almeryeda who wrote the first draft with me and then gave up and then I finished the script.
Solveig [Dommartin, the lead actress] has a story credit…
Solvieg has a story credit because the two of us made that journey in 1985. We made the entire journey, which then led to the realization it was too early and we couldn’t get it off the ground and then instead we made Wings of Desire.
So you weren’t even making a film on that trip…
No, we did the journey… I had told her about my science fiction idea and we made the journey and continued developing it and that added the world trip to it.
Until then it had been a science fiction movie only to be done in Australia, and then it became sort of a long journey, that was followed by a journey into the interior.
Which is really blowing me away because something extraordinary about the structure of the film’s story hit me last night. I’ve always been fascinated by how the history of film runs parallel with commercial air travel… The very nature of travel has changed hand in hand with filmmaking.
Given that, the film goes to the absolute end of travel… We end up in the Australian Outback with hand cranked petrol engines, and the only place to go beyond that is into the interior of the human mind. How did you even begin to conceive that this was going to be the future of travel? Why did you foresee that this impulse would lead us to wanting to go inside ourselves, that would be the new frontier?
It was part of the very initial science fiction idea that it would be about the future of an audiovisual culture, but in the time from when i first conceived it until we finally finished the writing in 1989, so much happened. And in 1989 at the horizon stood for the very first time the world of “digital images”.
It wasn’t anything that you would already be able to apply in movies, but I saw for the first time prototypes of HD machines that Sony developed with NHK in Tokyo and talking to them in 1989 they said well its way too early, but maybe in a year we’ll have the first operational studio. It’ll be strictly prototypes, but maybe in a year we could possibly be talking about producing something with it.
I had gone there because in the preparation of Until the End of the World and the idea that there was going to be dream sequences and dreams extracted from the brain, I realized that we couldn’t do this with film. In a long research about all dream sequences that had been done in the history of movies, and I really think I collected each and every one of them, the striking fact was that it never looked different than film. Even some famous dream sequences, Hitchcock and stuff, were basically not that different from the language that the films used for their stories.
I realized we needed a whole different language to somehow remotely even be able to enter into the brain or enter the realm of dreams. So I went to Tokyo with the hope that this new digital technology that I didn’t know much about could possibly be the way and they said well maybe in a year. Then we started shooting Until The End of The World and in the film we left out all the monitors. Cause they weren’t ready yet, so all the monitors were green-screen because we didn’t have anything to put on them.
And after the end of the shoot I spent three months with my digital editor who worked on commercials in London and who was the first person I had met who was able to compose digital imagery but not on HD, in PAL. Together we went to NHK and we were allowed access to their prototype editing suite and we were the very first people in there, we were the very first people to produce something in there, and they had not done anything themselves. They had produced the machines and most of the equipment was digital although some of the links were still analog. All of it prototype machines and Sony and NHK had decided together they would give us access for three weeks. And all of the developers and engineers of these machines were there all the time watching what we were doing because they had never done anything on it. We didn’t know how to produce the dreams and we basically discovered the amazing propensity of digital high definition images to take each image apart to its atoms, so to speak. And we realized what we could do with it by destroying the images and by fucking up the images, fucking them up basically, and for the first weeks all the engineers were horrified because we didn’t use the machinery for what they thought was their beauty: high definition representation. We destroyed images.
You’re like the first in and you’re already abstracting everything…
We found ways to speed up images or to slow them down and the strange phenomenon you see when you speed up digital equipment, that it sort of dissolves. I saw that when they played it fast forward. And I thought… I couldn’t believe what i saw. How the images dissolved and wooosh were gone and we found ways to record that and to play it back and slow it down in order to really have the effect that each image was dissolving into its own atoms.
Then we had to find imagery we could use. And I used my own super 8mm footage from my own childhood and that’s basically the material of the dreams, is my own parents and my brother and it’s basically what I shot as a kid on Super 8mm. It’s the bulk of the dream footage. We shot a little bit with the actors, with Solveig and with William Hurt and Max Von Sydow, but not much. Most of what you see on the screens is my family movies, my home movies, in super 8mm when I was a kid.
The engineers were horrified. In the end, Sean the editor and me, we lived in that suite and after 3 weeks we had not finished. We slept in there and we didn’t see the light of day any more. We actually lived in that one editing suite in Tokyo for three months. Sometimes we would walk out in the middle of the night to go to 7-11 store and buy something, but we lived in there for three months and when we had finished we had everything we were going to put on the monitors full frame in the film. And actually Sean, my editor, he married our interpreter.
You introduced the director’s cut of the movie at a rare MOMA screening last Spring, and you said, “It’s funny to make a scifi film that becomes a period piece”.
And I’m of the belief that scifi is, actually, for the most part about the present.
Yep. I second that. Yeah.
But it’s pretty uncanny… Another moment that got a huge reaction from the audience for the director’s cut was when the characters become addicted to these little portable devices. I remember seeing the movie in 1991 and some people laughed. And watching the movie now in 2015, the audience gasped, because they recognized it.
The way you’ve always written and discussed technology in relation to art is never skeptical or reactionary. Like you seem to be in a good mood about the current state of filmmaking. But what was it that made you think we were going to become addicted to little handheld devices, obsessed, self obsessed?
This film Until the End of the World owes a lot to a tiny little film I made before - I don’t know if you’ve seen it, it’s called Notebook on Cities & Clothes.
Yeah, the Yohji Yamamoto documentary.
The Yohji Yamamoto film. And in that film I use a lot these first generation of little tiny hand monitors that were basically gadgets. And that was the first time you could have an image in your hand, like today with an iPhone. They were still not as flat, they were clumsy, it was not digital, it was high 8 and it was the first time you could have an image in your hand. And then you could produce imagery on tiny little screens. We used it extensively in the film because I was so fascinated by that new possibility, of making notes. And having imagery no longer on screens but really holding them in your hand. That little film I made as a one man crew, I shot on my own and I shot a lot of it on high 8, and I used a lot of these little monitors to reshoot material off of them. I think that tiny little film that cost three times nothing opened up the way for me to be interested in this digital technology that didn’t exist yet, but I had heard about.
So it was just you, even more stripped down than a production like Alice in the Cities, making films directly from yourself.
The modern state of filmmaking. You are feeling good about it. The technological change is something you’re optimistic about.
I thought so. And now I witness something that I live as something really painful. It is the fact that I so much believe in 3D and embraced it in such a big way, and now I realize it’s going down the drain. I realize it’s going to disappear without ever being discovered. And I realize people already don’t want to see a movie cause it’s 3D because they say, “It’s not for me”. So the language, that beautiful language that has just showed up, is already in danger of disappearing because it’s not being used properly and It’s being abused instead. And that is a shock for me. And then… I’m not sure if 3D will be relevant in another few years because I think it’s being aborted.
You don’t think there’s space for art filmmakers such as yourself?
Yes! I think so, but when I started Everything Will Be Fine which was while we were doing Pina, I thought, when this film is gonna come out in a few years, it will be one of many in a landscape where it’s universally accepted that it’s a beautiful language that applies to reality just as well as fantasy and that you can do documentaries and intimate movies and auteur driven movies and arthouse movies. It’s a language that should & can be used in all genres.
And now i make this new movie and it’s a monolith and it’s one out of one. And I’m shocked because already with my film I’m reading a lot of rejection. People say no I don't want to see it because I have made a resolution in my life I’m not seeing any more 3D movies. Cause I’m sick and tired of it. And I feel the language is meeting a lot of resistance because its present use makes people think its useless for anything serious.
And I think James Cameron feels the same way. I think he rightfully says “I invented something so beautiful, and what the fuck are you doing with it?”
This is going to get heavy but I have to ask you about where we’ve arrived at today in our visual culture. I’m not sure what you’re seeing in Europe, but do you know of the Eric Garner video?
I don’t think I’ve seen it.
Only a few miles from here, a Black man was murdered on camera by police, and it was recorded on a cellphone and uploaded to the Internet. And it has been one of many such incidences that has caused a political uprising here, mass demonstrations which haven’t been seen in decades.
Yes, I haven’t seen the video, but I’ve heard about it.
I believe it’s a horrible thing to watch, that there is a responsibility on anyone who sees it. It’s amazing that before it became news it was just online, an entire murder by police, ruled so by our city coroner. And there is new space online where we are confronted with images like this…
In Europe, the videos of beheadings.
This being a retrospective, and going over so many of your films, I’m fascinated by… Even though you love genre, and you’ve made some movies in transgressive genres like thrillers, and you love filmmakers like Scorsese and Hitchcock, in every single one of your films you have never fetishized violence.
The closest I got was a film with the problematic title of The End of Violence.
Yeah, it seems so willfully rebellious to me, the way you portray violence, your refusal to ever enjoy it cinematically. Does that come out of some life experience, out of the years you grew up in Germany, or ideas you had about cinema?
…I don’t know. It might sound pretty blunt, if I say the same applies to sex. And the same aversion or fear or avoidance applies to sex as well. I just think there’s realms that… Images have no right to enter. And of course that’s a very old fashioned and now completely obsolete idea. But it’s difficult to wrap your mind around the fact it’s so obsolete now.
The images of Eric Garner, the images coming out of Ferguson, the images of people streaming video directly to the Internet… Something that’s come out of it is: why do we have a culture of these images but no political change?
You have stated that you don’t believe images can lead to political change. You have said that images can only change our perception about the world, the narrative we create.
I think that was all based on an old idea that images are produced and distributed by somebody in power. When I said these things I had no idea that eventually these things (he picks up my phone) could be seen by millions of people without any power involved. That changes everything. I had no idea that by now people would be able to film something and reach a world audience without any institution, any political power, any television station being involved. I didn’t think of that. And that changes the entire ballgame, and that actually questions if these things will not have political impact, after all. I think they have to. They have to have a political impact. Because the elimination of political powers in between will have impact on these political powers. I think so.
Are you finding in your daily, day to day life that you’re using online video, livestreaming, all these new ways to watch?
Oh yes, I watch a lot of stuff. And I watch a lot of stuff I wish I had a delete button for.
The Wim Wenders retrospective begins screening in Los Angeles at the Nuart theater on 10/23 http://www.landmarktheatres.com/los-angeles/nuart-theatre#upcoming with more cities to follow.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
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