Wim Wenders on Film, Depression and Rock'n'Roll
Over the past 25 years, director Wim Wenders has become one of the world's most celebrated and respected filmmakers. A critical survey of why he is an important artist would require more space than is available here, but his films (like Wings of Desire, Paris Texas, and Until the End of the World) are filled with moments of extreme beauty, lyricism, and conscience. We spoke in a small room at the University of Washington, where he was waiting to introduce a screening of his as-yet-unreleased 1994 movie Lisbon Story. For such a burly-looking man, he was remarkably shy, speaking slowly, in excellent English, and often staring down at his plate of cookie crumbs. Sean Nelson:What's the source of your fascination with the road and with the American experience?Wim Wenders: For me, filmmaking, from the beginning was totally connected with travelling and leaving my own country. In fact, it was identical. It seemed to me I could never write or shoot a movie in a place I knew too well, like at home. The only time I ever shot at home, so to speak, was the two films I made in Berlin, Wings of Desire and Faraway So Close. All other films of mine are happening on the road. Either really on the road or at least in a place somewhere else. For me the very urge of filmmaking is linked to being in a place I don't know and wanting to discover it and learn about it. SN: America is dominant in a lot of your movies.WW: For a long time, yeah. I only made it to America after I shot my first two films, Summer In the City and Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty [The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick]. And I was invited to show Goalkeeper at the New Directors Season in New York. And out of that first visit to America resulted Alice In the Cities. And of course that fascination with America and the attraction America had on me was due to the fact that my very love for movies had been nurtured by American films when I was growing up. The only films I'd grown up with were American films. The first films I really studied seriously when I got interested in movies were American films, and the one retrospective, in hindsight, that really was crucial for my desire to become a film critic and then afterwards to make movies was a retrospective of Anthony Mann at the Cinematheque in Paris, where I saw each and every one of his films in two weeks. He was really the first craftsman and the first auteur and the first director I really learned from.SN: Still, your movies about America -- I'm thinking mostly of American Friend, Paris, Texas, and The State of Things -- have a distilled, very foreign perspective, and as a result, are almost super-American; details like a ketchup bottle in a hotel room (in Paris, Texas) take on a strong significance in most every shot. Is that intentional or is it just a matter of you being an outsider? WW: It's always the same case if someone shoots in a foreign country: They do see other things than the people who live there. I mean when Hitchcock came to Berlin to shoot Torn Curtain, he saw a very different place than any of the people who lived there. And of course I made Paris Texas not with American eyes, but with my European eyes. I was under the impression, though that I was making a film like classic American storytelling. And for me, especially as it was written by such a very American writer like Sam Shepard, whose whole kingdom is the American West, I felt I had great help, exploring the West. It was, in a way, a true Western for me. It felt like I was going west, and I wasn't such a young man anymore.SN: Is it safe to say that cinema dominates your life -- not just directing, but criticizing, watching, studying?WW: I never fancied myself a film director, even after I shot my first three or even four movies. I always figured I'd been extremely lucky and that eventually I'd go back to painting or writing about movies. I always wanted to be a painter. Actually, I'm a totally failed painter. It was only after Alice in the Cities that I realized I was doing something that I'd like to do for the rest of my life and that I might even be able to have the privilege of doing for the rest of my life. 'Cause it was only in that fourth film that I felt I really had something specific and something that I could really tell on my own. That there was a language I was able to speak on my own and not just imitate. SN: You've written a lot about your passion for rock music; you dedicated your first film to the Kinks. What do rock 'n' roll and movies have in common as evocative art forms?WW: They have a quality that is very much alike because, more than other forms of expression, they both have at least the potential to be contemporary. Both movies and rock 'n' roll can show the exact temperature of the times that they're made in. Or sometimes be a little ahead, even. I feel that they share something that is very spontaneous and truly... I don't know any better word than 'contemporary.' The way people feel about the times they live in. Theater and literature seem more removed. WW: Also, because perception of rock 'n' roll and of movies is so immediate, so much more linked also to just pleasure and fun than other things. I don't think it's a coincidence that this tie between rock 'n' roll and films has become tighter and tighter. I mean, if you look at the '50s or '60s, this is where it started. When Elvis Presley started to make movies. And ever since then it's become an even closer relationship. And still, only a handful of films have been able to capture live rock 'n' roll decently. I mean, rock 'n' roll and movies are the definition of a popular culture. Nothing else is; well, television, of course but that's the subversion of it all. SN: In many of your later movies, especially Until The End of the World, images have a hypnotic but damaging quality, like an addiction that must be overcome in order to truly live. Do you think the reality is that severe?WW: As the world of images is really my profession or my craft, I'm really maybe overly sensitive about the development of the visual landscape inside which I'm working and inside which we're all growing up. I feel that this visual culture around us has changed so enormously over these last 10-20-25 years that I felt compelled every now and then to treat this subject in a movie. And to reflect, like in Until The End of the World on the future of this visual landscape and culture; that was the aspect I was most interested in in a science-fiction film: What's going to happen? How are we going to cope with all these images and what's going to happen to our attachment to images? How is it going to influence, for instance, our attachment to words? Will there be generations who don't even read anymore, and what is that going to mean? SN: You often present movies -- or the elements of watching -- as a metaphor for movies. It's not hard to see the angels in Wings of Desire and Faraway So Close as symbolic viewers of the film of life who risk all to join the real thing. Do you perceive so strong a conflict between observing and experiencing? Between film and life?WW: I mean, film by nature is so much observing and as a filmmaker you are by nature such an observer, that it's almost like the in-built danger that you rely too much on the position and that you forget to experience. On the other hand, if you have no experience to rely on, and no experience you can incorporate into your own imagination, then you fall into the trap of making movies that are generated by other movies. That, I think is a sad development. It can happen to a filmmaker -- it happened to me, too. I've also made films which in hindsight I thought were too self-involved. SN: Like what?WW: Oh, Scarlet Letter or Wrong Move. Maybe Faraway So Close. Things like that. SN: Do you think, as a rule, that contemporary films are too self-reflexive; too much about themselves?WW: I don't mind so much self-reflexivity. I mean, painting went through this, literature went through this, and theater went through this; the novel went through this period of self-reflexivity... What disturbs me more is this other development whereby you realize that so many more films are now not nourished anymore in any experience, but in the experience of other movies. Not as reflection, but as a basis for what they're all about. They're about stories that happen in other movies. And they're about experiences that are from other movies. They're not even second-hand anymore; they're third- or fourth-hand, movie-related experiences. That troubles me a lot, when I see a film whose whole recipe, and everything it's about is no genuine experience that's relatable to anything else than other movies. And that bores me shitless. But that is maybe even a necessary development of this growing over-importance of this visual culture. Nothing is going to stop it. There's no institution, no authority. This is strictly self-regulated and as it's successful, it's not self-regulated, so we'll see more and more of this. SN: Still, there are those who say the true story doesn't even exist anymore. You see what you're talking about more and more, with the rise of people like Quentin Tarantino or even the Coen Brothers -- people whose films are brazenly about films and still hailed as innovative. Is it possible that the language of film has been used so thoroughly that everything is recapitulation?WW: I don't think that. If you look at rock 'n' roll, it was like the same feeling. Sometime in the '80s I realized I wasn't buying anything anymore. I felt nothing was happening, so it was better to listen to records I'd already had for 10 years because they seemed more original. Then all of a sudden it was like rock 'n' roll reinvented itself, and all of a sudden there was no more need to listen to old music, because it was all like new again. I think movies went through this, and at this moment I feel there is something exciting happening. A lot of films that really find the territory from scratch. I think it's not over, it's just that the industry has become so lazy because their recipes worked for such a long time that I guess they just overdid it. And the reason why some of these big blockbuster movies fail so miserably is because they just rely too heavily on the recipes. And some of these independent films that were made with peanuts, but who really went out to start from scratch, like Trainspotting or Secrets and Lies, movies like this, but also American movies. It's not anymore like the early times when the inventive movies were from Europe, and America was the land of strictly studio movies. It's almost the opposite. There are a lot of American movies that really bring fresh air into filmmaking. Like Smoke, which was a huge hit in Europe. So, I do think movies have the capacity of reinventing all their conditions. I'm not pessimistic at all.SN: The State of Things (1980) is a pretty pessimistic movie, and more-or-less entirely about movies, but it nicely illustrates the conflict between European "artistic" sensibilities and American economic ones. Following the collapse of production in Lisbon of a science fiction movie, the director, a German, travels to the U.S. to track down the producer -- very clearly modeled on Francis Ford Coppola -- and find out what happened. What he finds is a brief, existential wasteland in the back of a Winnebago.WW: Seeing it now, I see the whole impetus for making this film came from quite a depression. At the time I made State of Things, I would not have imagined that 15 or 16 years later, today, that film would even still be existing. I would not have imagined that it's now thriving and bigger and more full of life than ever before. It was sort of a bad time. It seemed like everything was down the drain and it couldn't re-invent itself. Little did I know. We shot the film in Lisbon, and I returned to Lisbon to shoot Lisbon Story (1994), because I didn't think I was fair to the city. I was too self-involved. It's really a remarkable city, quite unique in the world.SN:In the film, the American producer is obsessed and literally raving about what people want to see. On the other hand, there exists the kind of art-house perception that to make a "pure" movie, you shouldn't think of the audience at all. Where does the audience figure into your creative process?WW: There's two ways of considering the audience. There's the way that most of the studios and a lot of producers in America and in Europe do, which is to think of the audience as someone they want to cater to and, so to speak, "hit their taste," which in my mind is mostly an expression of low estimation of who the audience is and what they want. That attitude to the audience is mainly condescending. There's another way of thinking of the audience, which is including them in the process of filmmaking, and thinking of your writer and your cameraman and your actors as an expression of the audience. Not think of the audience as an anonymous mass you have to please, but think of them as all these friends and people you work with and that have to be treated right and that have to be able to express themselves and that have to feel that you're working on something that rings true. So if you think of your key grip as the audience; if you convince people like this that the film is a worthwhile thing to be doing, then I think you have a chance that the audience will think that as well.The one time in the process of filmmaking when you're most connected to the audience is undoubtedly editing, cause this is the moment where the reception comes into play the most. But even there, you're surrounded by the audience -- you have your editor, you have your assistants, you have your composer. The process of filmmaking, more than any other art or craft, is really privileged insofar as you're never alone. The painter is always alone. Maybe his gallerist comes every now and has a look if he's lucky. But as a filmmaker you're always surrounded by other people and the film goes through so many different eyes and brains and perceptions. So in a way the audience is always present.