Wim Wenders, stills from Until the End of the World, 1990/91 [© Wim Wenders; courtesy of Wim Wenders Stiftung Foundation]

Wim Wenders’ Road

In April 2015, 4 REAL & TRUE 2, an exhibition of 79 large-scale photographs taken throughout Wim Wenders’ career, opened at the Stiftung Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf. The show included invariably analogue works made without special lighting or tripod—early black-and-white pictures and monumental panoramas, looking onto Ayers Rock in Australia or a Native American cemetery in Montana—and, in the year of the filmmaker’s 70th birthday, brought them to the city in which he was born. Just one month earlier, the Museum of Modern Art in New York had staged a screening series celebrating Wenders’ vast filmography, which includes such road classics as Paris, Texas(1984) and the epic science fiction movie Until the End of the World (1991), as well as the documentaries Buena Vista Social Club (1999) and Pina (2011)—a remarkable document of the life and work of dancer, choreographer, and Wenders’ fellow Rhinelander Pina Bausch, shot entirely in 3-D. When I met Wenders during his Düsseldorf exhibition, he had just completed another 3-D film: Everything Will Be Fine, his first full-length dramatic feature in seven years (starring James Franco and Charlotte Gainsbourg, among others). Months later, in August 2015, a nationally traveling filmographic retrospective of Wenders’ work premiered at the IFC Center in New York. Titled Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road, it presents full restorations of such early works as Alice in the Cities(1974) and Kings of the Road (1976), and a director’s cut of Until the End of the World—which was shortened from Wenders’ eight hours to less than two for commercial distribution.

Thus, when 4 REAL & TRUE 2 opened, Wenders was at a heightened moment in his career, and had come full circle to where it all began: the postwar industrial Ruhr district, where Volkswagen loomed and, to Wenders, permeated the atmosphere with the promise of the open road. Wenders embarked on his first road trips in the Rhineland, where he began to realize that filming on the road allowed an ability to tell a story in real time, with what he calls, in the exhibition catalogue, “a respect for space and time.” Wenders made his first film, Summer in the City (1970), when he was only 24; after that came the German road trilogy Alice in the CitiesThe Wrong Move (1975), and Kings of the Road. He notes: “I discovered road movies without knowing this existed as a genre; I just discovered that making movies was great but making movies on the road was even better.”

Wenders has famously credited painting—not film—as his primary influence, and describes himself as a failed painter. He grew up with two framed prints of Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot paintings in his bedroom, in a city of museums. The legacy of the school of painting produced by the Düsseldorf Art Academy in the 19th century was surpassed only by its school of photography in the 20th, when photographers such as Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth emerged from the tutelage of Bernd and Hilla Becher. It was only when Wenders visited the United States for the first time that he connected these influences with a specifically American road tradition (as he wrote in the exhibition catalogue, Pittsburgh smelled exactly like Oberhausen, the rusty Düsseldorf suburb in which he grew up). One photograph included in the Kunstpalast was taken in the lobby of Stout’s Hotel in Gila Bend, AZ, in 1983. The building had already been closed for some time then, and Wenders describes the image—in which a landscape painting hangs above a red leather lounge sofa and a Coke machine—as “the perfect first shot of a dreamlike road movie.” The road is the space of life in Wenders’ film and photography of the longue durée—it is the landscape upon which the lone journeys of individual lives take place and intersect. The line on the map, which indicates the road that defines our bodies and moves us forward through an affective terrain, is also the blueprint for what Wenders calls “an architecture of time.”

Until the End of the World is Wenders’ most ambitious study of that architecture: released in 1991 but taking place in 1999, it took ten years and nearly $25 million dollars to make; its story unfolds across 15 cities, seven countries, and four continents, including Australia. India features as the spectral site of the film’s central threat: a disaster in which a nuclear satellite in space could come crashing down to earth at any moment. The director’s cut that was ultimately released runs for almost 300 minutes, following Sam Farber (alias Trevor McPhee, played by William Hurt), who absconded with a device invented by his father as a seeing-aid for the blind. Farber travels the world using the stolen prototype to collect images of families, with the intention of showing them to his blind mother. In the end, the device is used to record dreams; viewing them soon becomes an addiction for such characters as Farber’s travel companion Claire, the noir femme (played by one-time Wenders muse Solveig Dommartin) and estranged lover to Sam Neill’s Eugene Fitzpatrick—a novelist and the film’s narrator, impervious to the device’s addicting effects. Until the End of the World was intended as, and became, the director’s “ultimate road movie.”

Viewed through the lens of this work, Wenders’ oeuvre can be seen to follow a similar path. The road upon which the auteur’s relationship to his craft unfolds is navigated by a singular and prescient cinematic vision of space, time, and the possible means we might use to travel between them, which exist just outside of our present reality.

Two men sitting indian-style in a Japanese home

Wim Wenders, stills from Until the End of the World, 1990/91 [© Wim Wenders; courtesy of Wim Wenders Stiftung Foundation]

Stephanie Bailey: The road has had a constant presence in your work, acting like a specter, or a frame. Would you say it is even a space that enables you to … stretch out a passage of time, so that you might explore what it means to be human within it, or so that you might deepen or hone a narrative?

Wim Wenders: I love cars, and I have had a lot of them. I think in my movies I have composed just about every car shot humanly possible! Even as a kid, I loved to travel: I didn’t want to go on vacation; I wanted to see other places, and I wanted to travel alone. So when I was 18, I got my driver’s license and a car. I made a deal with my father that if he were to get me one, I would never go on a motorbike—a promise I have kept to this day. From then on, I was gone. I grabbed the chance to be independent and to go wherever I wanted, and I went everywhere, from Amsterdam to the south of Italy, to the northernmost tip of Africa.

SB: You have said that with your early films, which you filmed in Europe, you had to learn to become a storyteller—before you hit the road in the US and really began to understand the nature of these films.

WW: I really had no idea—I took up my first 60mm camera because I was into all these American painters who made movies and who didn’t move the camera much, which resulted in some very, very slow movies, where nothing happened. My favorite film at the time was Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967), and it was just one camera movement for [43] minutes, through a room. This was my real influence: American painters who took up cameras. I wasn’t aware of the narrative consequences of all this until I did my first edit. As soon I started, things started to happen that were unexpected, and this was my first glimpse into what narrative is. As I developed a feeling for editing, I eventually dared to bring people into my work, since my first movies were just empty cityscapes. Then, I even started giving people lines. Gradually, narrative took over: I realized that storytelling in film was more interesting than the strictly painterly approach to composition.

A woman in a fuzzy pink blouse and short blonde hair sits on a bed

Wim Wenders, still of Nastassja Kinski as Jane in Paris, Texas [© Wim Wenders; courtesy of Janus Films]

SB: This brings up the space you allow for improvisation in your filmmaking. In Paris, Texas, the script was only half written when you started the film, which left it open for development as you were making it: you were actually on the road, filming in chronological order.

WW: This is the great propensity of road movies: it forces you to shoot chronologically and is the only kind of filmmaking where you only ever know as much as your actors and your crew do—even as a director, you never know more than anyone else on the project. You can’t really go into it with the feeling that you will go left tomorrow instead of right, for instance, because glitches happen; you always end up with something else.

SB: How did the open road influence your relationship to narrative?

WW: That approach to narrative offers an incredible freedom; you can allow for improvisation and things can happen that you never dreamt of. But narrative can be a prison, forcing you sometimes to cut out your favorite things … because they don’t fit within the bigger picture. So in this sense, narrative makes you both rich and poor, and has always been a blessing and a curse for me. Each time I have made a film without a script, I longed to make a film with a script, and once I was making a film with a script again I would want to be free from that terrible burden of having to stick to something I wrote a month ago, before I started shooting.

SB: This is the perfect moment to bring in Until the End of the World, because this really was an epic narrative: something billed as the “ultimate” road movie, in terms of the length of time spent filming it, the locations involved.

WW: I started writing Until the End of the World in 1978, and when I first conceived the story—which is about what was going to happen in the year 2000—the year 2000 was still so far away. When we finally made the movie in 1990, it was only a decade in the future, but it still seemed far enough. Showing the film now, when the year 2000 has long [ago] passed, it makes me wonder if there are other films that were made as … science fiction which essentially became period movies.

SB: So you view Until the End of the World as a period movie?

WW: Making Until the End of the World was like making a period movie because we had to think about everything that appears in the film: people could not just wear what they wore the year we were making it, and the cars could not be from just anywhere. We really had to work on every aspect of the frame—the set and the wardrobe. This can take a lot of freedom away from you. For example, when shooting, you can’t just say, “I like this tree, I’m going to shoot here,” because it might not look like the future anymore.

6 blue buses with names on the front in a deserted field

Wim Wenders, “Joshua and John (behind), Odessa, Texas,” 1983, C-Print, 125 x 170 cm [courtesy of Wim Wenders and Blain I Southern]

A vintage coca cola machine placed between two vintage couches

Wim Wenders, Lounge Painting # 1, Gila Bend, Arizona, 1983, Lightjet Print, 125 x 152 cm [courtesy of Wim Wenders and Blain I Southern]

SB: You once said making a movie about the future is full of traps and risks because everybody can see in hindsight whether you were right or not. You also said the film was a total failure, at least in commercial terms, and you didn’t know if you would make a movie like this again.

WW: I never did it again.

SB: Yet the first scene feels so contemporary: Claire wakes up in this party and the Talking Heads music video for “Sax and Violins” is playing on a screen in the background. That could be happening at a party in 2000, as well as any party today, 15 years after the film takes place. The technology and its aesthetic also feel very much of the present today—even the mask that is used to visualize the dreams of the unconscious looks like Oculus Rift.

WW: This is the most amazing aspect of the film: we conceived of a device to implant an image in a blind person’s visual [cortex, a device] that now exists pretty much exactly the way we envisioned it in the film. And the first images withdrawn from the human brain look pretty much like the images we produced at the time.

SB: Looking at your photograph exhibition in Düsseldorf, I kept thinking about William Hurt’s character in Until the End of the World: a man traveling the world, collecting images.

WW: Yes, these photographs could be the collection he came home with to show to his mom! That is totally true. Except that I traveled with a camera and not with these glasses.

SB: One work at the Kunstpalast felt especially revealing: a photograph of a Native American graveyard in Montana, showing the tombstone of Traveling Wolf, who lived from 1876 to 1961. Perhaps because of the name, this image felt personal—like an instance of self-portraiture. How would you say such images relate to you?

WW: Traveling Wolf was just a little older than I am now when he died. The thing about that cemetery was that many of the graves there belong to men who died in wars, especially in Vietnam. That was quite a shock to me, and initially I didn’t want to take any pictures at all. Yet Traveling Wolf was older, and his name was so poetic, so I felt that I could show his grave. To be honest, the name “Traveling Wolf” alone is enough to write a script about. My thoughts have stuck on one thing you said: that when a photographer makes a document, he takes an invisible portrait of himself each time. When I think about it, I realize that I don’t really think about myself when I’m making films. When I do my portraits of places, I try so much not to be seen, to disappear as much as possible. But that’s probably a futile idea: you can probably see me in there anyway.

A woman laying on a rock looking at photos

Wim Wenders, stills from Until the End of the World, 1990/91 [© Wim Wenders; courtesy of Wim Wenders Stiftung Foundation]

SB: You did say once that with every photograph you see the reverse angle of the photographer. What do you see when you look at your own reverse angles? I wonder if this relates to the concept of a person’s presence in space, and how to convey that comprehensively. You have said that Pina marked a significant point in your career, in that you filmed it entirely in 3-D—a new way to deal with the problem of presence, which must be especially central in a documentary about dance.

WW: It was a real milestone for me to make a film with and about Pina Bausch, a woman I admire so much. For 25 years I desperately tried to imagine how I could grasp the beauty of her performances with my cameras. Each time I saw her perform, I was in tears, I could not handle it, and I knew my craft was not in a position to capture this; the cameras could not do it. Then, when I saw a film in 3-D for the first time—a rough, rudimentary, precursor of 3-D—I saw something on the horizon that made me realize the time was right to make a film with Pina. I didn’t know how it worked, but I knew I wanted to be in space with the dancers, and that I could finally make the film I had been longing to make more than anything. For instance, I made Wings of Desire (1987) because I encountered Pina Bausch—the film is very choreographic; it is carried by an incredible freedom. After I acquired that freedom from looking at her work, I didn’t give a shit about anything I had learned beforehand.

SB: You once said that Wings of Desire in particular really brought together narrative and documentary film—and this is one way to look at your work, as being about how conveying a landscape and storytelling meet within the same frame. With Pina, you have said that the main challenge was re-creating the physical presence you would have in a live performance. Yet it all seems to relate to how the audience experiences images as they move across the screen in front of them—which takes us back to the theme of the road, in a sense, about an overwhelming and fundamentally “moving” engagement with space and time, which your work has always sought to convey.

WW: And it all comes to fruition in Everything Will Be Fine, which is the film I just finished with James Franco. This is my one film that really is all about space and presence, and the first in which I finally felt like I had a handle on what I was doing with the notion of time. Dealing with time is always the greatest struggle; each film’s own way of approaching it is really specific. In the case of Everything Will Be Fine, the title is in the future tense, and the story covers a period of 12 years—I’ve never done anything that takes place over such a long period of time. I was challenged by this idea: how do you articulate the passage of 12 years in a movie that is also a 3-D movie, where space and spatial perception [are] so important? I realized the only way we could do it was that whenever time passes in the film, it passes as real time, but the film only shows slices of that chronology, fading to black to transition from one slice to the next. The viewer is left to fill in the missing information as the film goes on. But it’s not a riddle.

A man wearing a black suit jacket and glasses leans against metal

Wim Wenders, 2015 [photo: Peter Lindbergh]

A man with angel wings and a long coat stands on top of a tall building

Wim Wenders, still of Bruno Ganz as Damiel Wings of Desire [© Wim Wenders; courtesy of Wim Wenders Stiftung Foundation]

SB: So, you applied the spatial techniques you honed with Pina to make a narrative film in 3-D. As a result of the technology’s rich, immersive perspective, you have mentioned purposefully creating a very intimate narrative—a relatable counterbalance. The narrative in Everything Will Be Fine is about redemption in so many ways—is this another articulation of the “road,” and of the redemptive possibilities of the journey itself?

WW: It’s the hope that if you invest in the journey it will lead to certain redemption. In Paris, Texas, it’s Travis’ hope that makes him set out to find his family. Yet Travis’ tragedy is that he can only achieve what he wants in the end by excluding himself from them.

SB: It’s interesting that you say that after mentioning how much you want to exclude yourself from the films.

WW: Exactly.

SB: I’m going to pull a Chambre 666 on you: what is your vision for cinema’s future?

WW: I think cinema will recover from the present tense, in which it is strictly linked to fantasy. At this moment, 95% of cinema looks away from reality; it invents superheroes and alternate worlds to help us to deal with reality by taking us out of it. I think the future of cinema will be a big step: it will begin to relate to our real needs and to our real experiences.

SB: Do you think Until the End of the World stepped too far into fantasy in this regard?

WW: It didn’t, because at its core was the desire to find out what our future of seeing could look like, what its images could be, and what the nightmares of those images could be. I’m very happy to see that Eugene’s worst fear, that the apocalypse would be based on images, has not come true.

Stephanie Bailey is an ART PAPERS contributing editor.