April 2, 2006|It was my great honour to speak with Wim Wenders, one the three principal architects of the German New Wave (along with the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the bulletproof Werner Herzog) on his recent swing through Denver. Sitting at a large, round, glass table (he at two o'clock, me at four), he reached over by way of introduction and examined my decrepit tape recorder, made sure it was on, and turned the built-in microphone towards his voice before folding his hands and looking at me expectantly. I took it as tacit approval of either my poverty or my Ludditism from a man whose mature work has consistently addressed the idea of spectatorship--leaving his late-American films (like The End of Violence and Million Dollar Hotel) essays on Modernism in the Eliot mold: the poet stranded between Rat's Alley and the riverbank. His Dennis Hopper-as-Tom-Ripley The American Friend still the finest screen adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel (with work like Purple Noon, Strangers on a Train, and Ripley's Game, versions of the same story, all hot on its heels), it is, like his best-known Paris, Texas and best-loved Wings of Desire, a transcendental odyssey through an existential wasteland, its blasted psychic landscape manifesting itself in the empty American dreaming Wenders has made his milieu.
With a soft German accent and thick-rimmed glasses, Wenders twitched his leg manically as he spoke, using it as something like a conductor's baton, marking off the meter of his thoughts. We talked about his muse Edward Hopper, of course (and what other artist can you think of who has so dominated critical examination of a director's work?), his time spent learning his craft at the height of the Cinémathèque française, and the persistence of his movie-love even after years into the breach and in amongst the trenches.
WIM WENDERS: It's running, the tape is turning, the light is on, there is nothing to keep us from recording this meeting.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: I've never been able to bring myself to upgrade to a digital recorder.
No, why would you? Tape is cool.
Let's discuss still art in general and its relationship to moving pictures.
In a strange way, I can say that I was always more influenced by static art than I ever was by movies--it was my obsession. All my life as I grew up all I ever wanted to be was a painter: the Romanticism of Casper David Friedrich inspired my youth. And one day, in New York, I went into a museum and stood for the first time in front of a painting by Edward Hopper and it blew my mind.
It was an exhibit of his work and this was in the Seventies so it was before he became the postcard artist of the twentieth century. I had never heard of him before I saw these paintings at the Whitney and I just couldn't believe it. I just knew that I felt that there was something real here between the feeling that I get from painting, and the feeling that I got from the movies that I loved.
There's no question. It wasn't until twenty years later that I learned that Hopper would go to the movies all day--would immerse himself in them, see a movie every night. The movies influenced his paintings.
And now they influence your movies.
It's true. To this day, it's true.
You've mentioned Anthony Mann's Man from the West in particular.
All of Mann.
A Dark Romanticism.
And lyrical. I learned how to make movies from Anthony Mann: why the shots, how the shots, traveling shots, location shots, strategies and techniques in editing--he was my sense of movement. My sense of framing and placement, I get from painting.
And Butte, MT, the setting for most of Don't Come Knocking--right out of a Hopper painting.
Yeah, unbelievable, it was an unbelievable little town, stuck in the '20s and '30s and you've noticed that in Hopper there are no windows and so we played with lighting and filters so that we took out the transparency of all of these old buildings so I got as close as I possibly could to those cityscapes that I so admired. It's like a big open-air studio and Hopper could have painted all his stuff there. The empty hotel rooms, the big avenues, it's sort of a ghost town in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. Once the biggest city west of the Mississippi and now completely abandoned.
A strong sense of melancholia.
Yes, that connection to Hopper, you didn't have to invent it there, it was just there embodied in the spirit of the place. The film is a tribute to my favourite painter. But all of my films have been driven first by my love for painting before anything else.
You said that Monument Valley had lost its soul when you went there to shoot--what did you mean?
We wrote it into the script because I had this glorious image of Monument Valley. I'd been there in the early-Seventies, took lots of photographs, walked around there and it was the best place in the world for me. When I took Franz [Lustig], my DP there who had never been there to show it to him and we were both kind of horrified. First, you can't get in on yourself. I would have had to squeeze Franz and me into this little trolley like at Disneyland to drive around in there, and we realized that all these thousands of films and commercials and video clips that have been shot of it--and it was gone. The sacredness had been lifted off of it by its mass reproduction.
Like with Hopper's postcard popularity.
I think so, I think so.
Is part of your dedication to Hopper an attempt to treasure the moment of its initial magic on your sensibilities?
Yes, I want it to be an emotional experience when you see my images like Hopper was for me--and to reconstitute those images into another medium.
|The Hopper Effect: Edward Hopper's seminal "Nighthawks" (above); Wenders's The End of Violence (below)|
My favourite is when you re-create Hopper's "Nighthawks" as a movie set within a movie set for The End of Violence.
Yes--there's an idea there of a point-of-view that becomes twice removed that I hope honours Hopper's sense of dualistic isolation.
How do you reconstitute Monument Valley?
We left Monument Valley in horror, you know, and we talked about it afterwards and realized that you'd have to forbid eyes from looking on Monument Valley for a thousand years to rescue its holiness. It's very sad. I don't remember who said it, but "I've seen the future, and it's a theme park."
What happened with The End of Violence? It was received rather poorly.
You can say that again. Some movies come at the wrong time--but start with the title. I knew in my heart that the title would paint the film into an ideological corner. We showed it at Cannes and it immediately got pushed into this stupid conversation about violence, when the film isn't about violence at all. It failed expectations just because of that title. After it was too late, Nicholas [Klein] and I came upon the right title: We should have called it "Invisible Crimes" but we didn't--and I'm convinced that the film would have had a different life from the start if we had. Stay away from titles that are too programmatic.
Is that what inspired you to re-edit it for North American release?
No, I did that with Paris, Texas, too, took out ten minutes from the Cannes cut--same with Faraway, So Close, except that with that one, the American distributor begged that I put the excised footage back. It might be the first time in history that an American distributor asked for a longer movie. But somewhere I realized that something was off. With Don't Come Knocking, too, I felt like the Cannes cut took too long to get to Butte, so I trimmed it. But like End of Violence, I did it myself without any kind of outside influence.
Do I take that you're against the practice of endless DVD Director's Cuts?
I've only done one and that was for Until the End of the World, and only because it was absolutely necessary because the film really got mutilated. The Reader's Digest version, the two-and-a-half hour cut that they released here, is really a far cry from what my intention was. I spent four years remastering all of my films into new high-standard digital masters: remixing some of the sound that was done in mono into DD 5.1--and still I refrained from editing anything, cutting anything. Kings of the Road, which I love very much, I was tempted to cut half-an-hour out of it for a contemporary audience, but you know, I'm not the same person so it's not really my film anymore in a way, and in the end, I just really didn't have a right to fuck with it.
Can you compare for me the artistic climate in post-WWII Germany with that of post-9/11 America--is there a comparison?
It's difficult to compare--both are so close to me. Germany was flattened. I grew up in a city, Dusseldorf, that was 80% obliterated, flattened. The river was there, but the bridges were gone. The buildings were rubble and chimneys, most of the streets were empty and you had these streetcars driving from nowhere to nothing. As a boy, of course, you think that this is the way that the world looks because you don't know any better. Then it begins to dawn on you through magazines and newspapers and newsreels at the movies and the movies themselves--there is another world out there with peace and beauty and tranquility. There are different horizons out there and of course I was attracted to that Promised Land. Everything I associated with pleasure in this dire country was America.
You have a large comic strip collection, I know.
That was part of it. Comic strips, my god. Walt Disney strips. There were German strips, but they stank. And then there were the movies. Some German ones, but I didn't like them, I liked Westerns. There were books, but I liked Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. And then there was music but it bored me to death. One day I heard a spiritual by the Golden Gate Quartet and it totally electrified me--"You're telling me that there's more?" I was hooked.
On the more worldly music of the period, too.
Yes, from the spiritual to the more worldly--I learned about Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley and that was it for me. From that moment, I knew that America was the place for me.
You started, in a way, your life in movies as a film critic.
Yes, I never dreamed I could be a filmmaker. But Godard was a critic and Truffaut and Chabrol. I wrote a lot about films for years--strictly, exclusively about films that I liked because I thought it was a waste of time to bash something. I never found any pleasure in writing a bad review, I just liked to describe what I liked. But now it's a different beast--people don't talk about the experience much anymore, it's so much opinion-based. In a way, it's the last thing I want to read as a reader and when I wrote about movies, I wrote about what created pleasure for me. What I saw that I had never seen before: what I saw to be amazing or beautiful. A huge amount of film criticism now bathes in tearing things apart, and I just couldn't care less.
Then there's the whoredom of it all.
That's inevitable, isn't it? Look at the news on television, it's entertainment. There's little that's pure anymore--it almost doesn't exist as a concept. The film critics are in bed with the production machinery just as everything else is mixed up in commercial interests anymore. Film critics are worse than publicists nowadays--it's all they know is what they learned from junk. You can't have anything without a sponsor. How do you balance this somehow? How do you live with the idea that the most amazing concert has a sponsor of it--how does it change it? It's not surprising that film criticism in the major papers is mostly now just another arm of the publicity company.
Sam Shepard in Don't Come Knocking (top); Bruno Ganz in Wings of Desire
|"I do think we had some influence over young filmmakers in Germany and I like to think that we influenced early American independent cinema."|
The strongest criticism against you is that you're a weak narrative storyteller.
Yes, I've heard this, and I think that it's true that this is my weakest point. You have to be a storyteller in film, first. Without it, the images are only of any interest if they serve the story. Sometimes I've learned painfully that you have to leave your favourite shots behind to serve the story--it's a difficult thing to do.
There's almost no narrative at all to American Friend. It's almost a literalization of the atmospheric description embedded in the label of "film noir."
Yes, and noir at it's core is such a pessimistic, desperate thing--it grows from war and depression and I'm not, I guess, a pessimistic kind of guy. I like those movies, but deep in my soul, I'm an optimist, I guess--a romantic. Deep in my soul I couldn't subscribe completely to those notions. You look at a dark story like the Highsmith story that film is based on and the challenge is to make something that is different than its source while trying to honour it. Not everyone thought that film was a success. Wings of Desire, for instance, in terms of the lighting and imagery owes a lot to noir, but the message is...friendly? Spiritual you might say, and that was always the other side of my filmmaking.
It feels as though you're describing a divide in your art and your nature: being drawn to the stark and retreating into the sublime.
The American cinema--the cinema of Ray and Fuller is very much about the physical world and my films try to deal with the invisible world. You can't separate the two.
Tell me about isolation and how it relates to travel and the painfulness of self-discovery.
I'd say that it's not always painful--that this journey that you take alone to yourself can be an act of great joy. The British Romanticists knew this: that alienation and loneliness, there is no need to attach those ideas to something miserable because loneliness, often, can be a state of grace. Being able to be lonely is a vital condition of being with other people. People who can't be alone, can't be with other people, either. Alienation isn't pitiful, it's maybe the natural state of the thoughtful man.
We're driven to alienation by our culture?
I think that's so. I think our civilization forces us towards alienation, to not belonging or being at ease with our surroundings. Everybody goes through that loneliness and alienation, that introspection: it's essential to our evolution. It's enlightened. Some of those lonely figures in Hopper or Casper Friedriech, they're not sad figures, they're in an emotional state, really, of wonder or amazement. There's nothing more transformative than to be in an incredibly beautiful environment by yourself and stand there and feel how small you are. You see infinity before you--landscapes millions of years old--and you feel yourself to be nothing, a speck, and there's something great about that perspective. To know how small and unimportant we are.
You talk about Mann, and you've worked with Sam Fuller, and Nicholas Ray--and then there's your affinity for Romanticism and Transcendentalism in Ozu--reconcile the tabloid with the sublime in your work for me.
I consider Ozu my all time grand master, but I didn't know him until after my fourth or fifth film. When I dedicated Wings of Desire to my archangels, I dedicated it to Ozu, Tarkovsky, and Truffaut--but in terms of practical knowledge, I still look back to Mann and Fuller and Ray. I was lucky enough with Fuller and Ray to befriend them, and to start film at a time when I could still get in touch with people who worked in the silents. The possibility of that is dwindling now, if it's even possible anymore, to have that connection to the very beginning of cinema. I'm sixty now, born in '45, when I did Wings of Desire [Henri Alekan], he started his career in 1924 as an assistant to the most famous cameraman of the silent era, Eugen Schufftan.
You feel yourself at a junction?
In a way I do. The tabloid and the romantic.
Painting and film...
Yes--and the very beginning of cinema with the digital future of it, it's an exciting stretch to be able to have worked in and I feel very lucky. I learned a lot from my collaborators.
I'd like to hear about your collaboration with Antonioni.
You have to describe the shape that Michelangelo was in when we collaborated on Beyond the Clouds to understand what that collaboration was like. I first met Michelangelo in 1982 when he was in full shape and had just made Identification of a Woman and I loved this film--and when I was in film school, the big film was Blow-Up, of course--and I was in awe of this master. He's an architect and his films are very architectural. He's rigorous, yet had a great way with women. Monica Vitti in films is as beautiful as any director can direct a woman in cinema. So I met him as a young filmmaker but only reverently.
Sam Shepard wrote Zabriskie Point for him, didn't he?
Exactly. Well, one day, I read that Antonioni had a stroke and lost his voice and over the years, though he was desperate to make a film, he couldn't find financing because producers were afraid of a director who literally could not speak. So one day I got a letter from him that said that he had this movie that he wanted to do, that nobody would let him do it, but that if he had a stand-by director who could step in should he not be able to continue, they would let him go ahead and if I would be that stand-by. Well, yes, of course I would. I was involved in the pre-production: the writing and the scouting and the casting, but when it came time to roll the camera, I was just the voice. The voice of Antonioni. And that's all I ever did. I was more like a First Assistant who spoke for the director, and it was a great experience. I never shot a frame, he got everything that he wanted in exactly the way that he wanted. The deal with the producers was that if Michelangelo had finished, that I would frame the four stories together: create a bond. But Michelangelo's four, twenty-minute shorts, he didn't need me.
You had quite the First Assistant, as well: Claire Denis.
You can say that again.
She's one of the most accomplished directors in the world today.
Claire was my assistant on Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire and she was the best assistant that I've ever had and she helped me immensely on both films. Neither would be the films that they are without Claire. She did more than organize--in the American vocabulary, the First Assistant is sort of the person who organizes the set, but Claire was helping with content, story, plot, she was just extraordinary. I like to think that she learned a lot from these two films working with me, but she had the fire before she came to me. She's made how many now? About a dozen? Really astounding movies and you're totally right, one of the greatest directors of our time.
Thing you remember the most about her?
Her total dedication. She would work eighteen, twenty hours a day and devote herself 100%. Totally selfless. What mattered to her was the work, only the work, if it took another hour for the work it was another hour--a great lady, a great artist. I regretted letting her go but I saw that there was no way to hold her.
You've had a few other great assistants.
Yes, Alison Anders, she was the third assistant on Paris, Texas and worked her way up through production to be an important contributor to the project. She made Gas, Food, and Lodging right after. Jim Jarmusch, assistant to Nicholas Ray and myself in Lightning Over Water, and he's made something of a place for himself. (laughs) I've been very lucky.
Your new film has been compared unfavourably to Jarmusch's Broken Flowers.
(laughs) Jim made a beautiful, brilliant film.
Was Jarmusch still in his band at the time he worked for you?
Yes, that's right. It was called The Del-Byzanteens.
Music--you and he have that in common.
Year of the Horse: amazing. As much as I loved Jonathan Demme's Heart of Gold--and I loved it a lot--the one that really speaks to me is Year of the Horse. It's as dirty as the sound that Neil had with Crazy Horse, the movie speaks exactly that language. Heart of Gold was a little too perfect for my taste, almost antiseptic. But Jim's movie is dangerous.
Denis, speaking of dangerous and musical, has said that many of the scenes in Trouble Every Day evolved from the Tindersticks score.
Exactly--maybe I'm attracted, or them to me, to musical people. Anders is doing a festival of rock-and-roll movies right now, too.
Out of curiosity, because it reminded me a little of the films that you make, what'd you think of The New World?
It towers so high above everything else that I've seen in so long, that I can only talk about this one film. It's one of the great movies of all time and it's been completely neglected. It should have been nominated for everything, but people and critics just don't get it for some reason. Masterpieces don't come often and here it is and it's been overlooked. Just by looking at the poster, it didn't look like anything that I wanted to see.
|Poster art for The New World and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers|
My editor remarked that it was essentially identical to the art for The Two Towers.
Ah, that explains it. It's hideously mishandled: probably they didn't get the movie. I've seen this movie four times--the first real masterpiece of the twenty-first century. In ten years, nobody will remember the Oscar winners this year, but everyone will point to this as the year that The New World came out--something so pure and transcendental, the movie is very dear to me. In Germany, it was released in 200 prints, and 20,000 people came in its only week: it was a disaster. The German poster was even worse, like the fantasy movie you didn't want to see--something about pirates and Indians. It's a tragedy.
Assess yourself and your movement now in retrospect.
"The German Old Wave." (laughs) I do think we had some influence over young filmmakers in Germany and I like to think that we influenced early American independent cinema. I think some of Werner's, some of Rainer's, some of mine like American Friend.
Is it possible to draw a line from Kings of the Road to Stranger than Paradise?
Eh, Jim had something of his own. He reinvented the static shot, how things happen in the frame. He really found something quite important on his own.
Well... Maybe it was a movie he had to have seen.
When do we finally get to see a DVD of it?
It's out but you need a multi-region player to watch it. I don't know what happened over here. In America, for some reason, Anchor Bay only came out with the first of three collections that we worked on several years ago: American Friend and Lightning Over Water, and one other one that I forget...
Notebook on Cities and Clothes.
Yes, yes that's right, but then Anchor Bay got bought or something and they're all, all the masters we prepared, are in limbo. They could come out at any time, they're all done, but I don't know their fate. High quality, smart, but for some reason, nothing.
Same wealth of supplementary materials?
Commentaries for every single one.
Tell me a Herzog story.
(laughs) You've probably heard the old ones, I can tell that you have. Let me tell you a new one. I called him the other day and this is a conversation that you can only have with Werner, he tells me that he was sitting in his house and heard this screech of tires and a big bang. So [he] ran out and helped this guy get out of a turned-over car and all he wanted was to smoke a cigarette. So [he] give[s] him a light and ask[s] him if he's in shock and he says, "No, I just want to smoke in peace." And it was Joaquin Phoenix. But then [Herzog] says that he was still trembling because he did an interview with the BBC and suddenly he felt a shot in his leg.
He'd been shot by an air rifle, right?
Yes! Only Werner--I mean, it could happen to anybody, but only Werner would say, "Okay, I've been shot, but let's finish this interview because, look, this wound is not very deep." He's obsessed. He's exactly the man who could have made all those movies.