“Originality now is rare in the cinema and it isn’t worth striving for because most work that does this is egocentric and pretentious,” Wim Wenders once said. “What is most enjoyable about the cinema is simply working with a language that is classical in the sense that the image is understood by everyone. I’m not at all interested in innovating film language, making it more aesthetic. I love film history, and you’re better off learning from those who preceded you.”
Despite his own protestations, Wim Wenders is a real rarity: a filmmaker who looks boldly, sometimes dangerously forward, while also keeping a close eye on the past masters in his rearview mirror. He has also plied his trade all over the world, and has diversified into all manner of media, including photography and music.
Ernst Wilhelm Wenders, the son of a surgeon, was born on August 14, 1945, in Dusseldorf, Germany, and his path towards filmmaking was never set in stone. Wenders originally intended to study medicine, but dropped that to become a painter, and in turn dropped that when he got hooked on films while working as an engraver in Paris in the mid-sixties.
Wenders returned to Germany in 1967, and entered the Graduate School Of Film And Television, which had just been founded in Munich. He spent his time at the school churning out short films, working as a movie critic for various papers, and getting involved with the radical student movement. He graduated with a feature-length film, Summer In The City, shot on the budget of the half-hour film he was expected to deliver. Wenders’ first “real” film came in 1971 with The Goalkeeper’s Fear Of The Penalty Kick.
In 1971, together with fourteen other German filmmakers, Wenders started a production and distribution cooperative which ultimately became the nucleus of the “New German Cinema”, a movement which would yield the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlondorff, Margarethe Von Trotta and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg. From 1974, Wenders released some of his most important German works: Scarlet Letter, Alice In The Cities, Wrong Move and the brilliant Kings Of The Road. This strangely affecting character study focuses on the relationship that develops between two men – movie projector repairman Bruno and the troubled Robert – as they roll along the border between East and West Germany in a banged up old truck. The film marked the dawning of Wenders’ real cinematic sensibility.
A great turning point came with 1977’s The American Friend, a dark, brooding take on Patricia Highsmith’s silky crime novel Ripley’s Game, which gave Wenders fertile ground in which to root his oft returned-to themes of mortality and male bonding, as Dennis Hopper’s amoral criminal Ripley lures a dying man (Bruno Ganz) into becoming an assassin. The much-loved crime drama kickstarted the director’s often ill-fated romance with Hollywood, with Francis Ford Coppola luring Wenders over to take the reins on the troubled Hammett, a strange, surreal non-biopic of crime writer Dashiell Hammett.
After picking up a Golden Lion at The Venice Film Festival for 1982’s charmingly odd The State Of Things, Wenders teamed with American writer/poet/actor Sam Shepard for what many consider his true masterpiece: the sprawling, narcoleptic fever dream of Paris, Texas. It is unquestionably one of the great films of the eighties, an arid but powerfully moving tale of disconnection and fractured family ties starring a masterful Harry Dean Stanton and the eye-popping Nastassja Kinski.
In a mere three years, Wenders equalled it. 1987’s Wings Of Desire is one of the most beloved of cult films, a black & white fairy tale for adults about earthed angels and impossible love set amongst the bleak industrial landscape of Berlin. Beautifully shot, emotionally evocative and deliriously strange (did you ever think you’d see Peter Falk and Nick Cave in the same film?), Wenders bends Wings Of Desire’s unconventional romance into something surprisingly real and sincerely heartfelt.
From 1991 to 1996, Wenders was the appointed Chairman of the European Film Academy and was subsequently elected as the Academy’s President, a function he still fills out today. He has also taught at his old alma mater, the Graduate School Of Film And Television, and is a professor at the Hamburg Academy of Arts. Though yet to deliver another work that scales the dizzy emotional heights of either Paris, Texas or Wings Of Desire, Wenders remains an avid investigator of the human condition.
While he has released disappointments (Faraway, So Close, an ill-conceived sequel to Wings Of Desire; his sci-fi epic Until The End Of The World, which was diluted by studio interference; the dreary Million Dollar Hotel; and the little seen Land Of Plenty and Palermo Shooting), Wenders also created one of the truly great music docos with 1999’s much loved Buena Vista Social Club. Hitching a ride with musician and music history expert Ry Cooder (who created the unforgettable score for Paris, Texas), Wenders delivered a joyous celebration of Cuba’s veteran musicians, and struck the flame for what would become a surprisingly successful musical movement.
In fact, the world of documentary has proven a successful home for Wenders of late, with the director helming strong works such as the groundbreaking 3D dance piece, Pina (“I tested 3-D abundantly,” Wenders told FilmInk upon the film’s release. “The new medium was still in its infancy then, and Avatar wasn’t even in sight”); The Salt Of The Earth (which traces life and work of photographer Sebastião Salgado, who has spent forty years documenting impoverished communities across the globe); and the recent Pope Francis: A Man Of His Word. “I was ready to make this film, if my autonomy was respected,” Wenders said at The Cannes Film Festival. “I can’t make a Vatican film. I can’t make it a commissioned film. I don’t have that in me. The Church said, ‘We never wanted that. You’re going to have to write the concept, you shoot it, you edit it…we will not interfere’.”
For such a complex filmmaker, Wenders’ approach to documentary is a surprisingly simple one. “My documentary films aim to let their subjects shine as much as possible,” Wenders said at Cannes. “I made a film about these musicians in Havana, and you don’t see me, you don’t hear my voice. I made it to share the joy and the pleasure that these men gave me, and the enthusiasm that they had for music. My impulse is to make a documentary when I love something and I want to share it. And it’s not to see it in the critical light. I want to show it in the best light possible, not to glorify but to share my pleasure and my admiration for it.”
Wenders has, however, turned out a number of fine features in the new millennium. He effectively reunited with screenwriter/actor, Sam Shepard, in 2005 for the quirkily moving father/daughter tale, Don’t Come Knocking, and wrenched a fine performance from James Franco in the grim 2015 drama, Every Thing Will Be Fine. He now delivers a typically unconventional romance with Submergence, starring James McAvoy and Alicia Vikander as two lovers separated by thousands of miles but united in their shared memories. It also takes in subjects as diverse as Islamic extremism, complex oceanography, and geopolitics.
“It was talking about things that are really urgent – both about the state of the planet and about our strange human desire to go to the stars but not know what’s down there in the oceans,” Wenders told Variety. “There’s also this burning conflict with jihad and radical Islam and how to deal with that. It was all told in a way that I thought I could handle. It was told through this love story. The love story made it doable for me. The film deals with a lot of violence and hate. I felt the only way for me to even approach it was to oppose something to that. To quote Martin Luther King: ‘You cannot defeat hate with hate. You cannot drive out darkness with darkness’.”
Rich and deeply moving, Submergence attests to Wim Wenders’ mastery of the cinematic medium. But when you factor in his books, his stunning photographic exhibitions (Wim Wenders: Pictures From The Surface Of The Earth still remains a highlight of The Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney), his television work, and his series of music clips and films (for artists such as U2, Willie Nelson, Daniel Lanois and Lou Reed), it’s clear that Wim Wenders has a lot more to offer than just films: he is a true renaissance man.
Submergence is released in cinemas on August 16, 2018