Wenders, Wim: Auteur for the New Millennium

Two foreign movies currently on display, Kieslowsky’s “The Double Life of Veronique” and Wim Wenders’ “Until the End of the World,” exemplify a new kind of contemporary European film. On the surface, there is nothing common between the two films. Yet, both are products of societies that recently underwent major social and political upheaval and as such demonstrate the problems faced by European filmmakers at present.

For Wim Wenders, a leading representative of the young German cinema of the 1970s, anxiety, alienation, and male wanderlust are frequent themes. The most visually oriented of the younger German directors, Wenders brings to his work a painter’s eye for composition and unusually telling details. Some view his recurrent themes as quintessentially German, and he’s widely praised for his haunting visual representation of the aimlessness and superficiality of contemporary urban life.

Wenders is one of the first filmmakers of his generation to address the question of what it means to be German in a postWWII society dominated by American culture. His preoccupation with the impact of American culture on the German psyche stems from his childhood during the Allied Occupation. “The need to forget twenty years created a hole,” he said in l976, and the German people tried to cover this by assimilating American culture. The fact that U.S. imperialism was so effective over here was highly favored by the Germans’ own difficulties with their past. One way of forgetting it, and one way of regression, was to accept the American imperialism. We covered it with chewing gum and Polaroid pictures.”

“Alice in the Cities” (l974, but released in the U.S. in l977) was the first feature in Wenders’ trilogy of road movies, the other tow being “Wrong Move” and “Kings of the Road.” They reflected his perspective on American life, manifest in images of Florida beaches, empty hotel rooms, superhighways, all taken by winter.

For Wender’s characters, hitting the road is more than a way to escape from a dreary routine; it is an entirely phenomenological experience. Everyone’s senses are more aware when they’re traveling and in a new situation “The emotion in my film,” he said comes only from the motion; it’s not created by the characters.

Wenders’ biggest success in the U.S. to date was “The American Friend” (l977), a slick, existential thriller, based on Patricia Highsmith’s suspense novels. The film centers on the relationship between Jonathan Zimmermann, a small businessman dying of lukemia and his American friend, Tom Ripley, a smooth-talking con artist who persuades him to kill a professional rival.

The tangled (and for some incomprehensible) plot is less important than its stunning visual images, Wenders’ ability to transform each image into an immediate emotional statement. Even when the words are not clear you are captured by the power of the nuance.
Wenders’ other films also manifest a conflict between narrative and cinematic image. His atmospheric and multi-layered “Hammett” was not a detective story; rather, it was a biography of this man’s imagination–how he invented his characters and stories.

The loose structure of his narratives is based on what Wenders calls the “distilled improvisation” method of filmmaking–a method that “allows you to take a character as the center of your film, not the story.

Interpersonal relationships, especially between men, have long been a favorite subject of Wenders. In “Paris, Texas,” which won the top prize at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, he explored for the first time a woman’s development. Many critics admired his evocative depictions of the vast expanses of the American Southwest and the neon-lit enclaves of motels and truck-stop diners that dot America’s highways.

His new film, “Until the End of the World,” is set in l999. As the film opens, the narrator informs us that an Indian nuclear satellite has swung out of orbit and threatens to crash to earth, to destroy all life. “The rest of the world is in a panic,” the narrator goes on, “but Claire couldn’t care less.” After driving back to Paris, Claire (Solveig Dommartin), becomes the willing accomplice for a pair of loutish thieves who have just robbed a bank in Nice. She agrees to transport the loot to Paris in exchange for one-third of the cut. Along the way, Claire picks up Sam Farber (William Hurt), an American on the run.

Globetrotting, the trail leads from Paris to Lisbon, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, and San Francisco. It finally ends in Australia, where another story, a family melodrama, begins, revolving around Sam’s father, Henry (Max von Sydow), a brilliant scientist, and Sam’s blind mother Edith (Jeanne Moreau). For some critics, “Until the End” represents the ultimate road movie, shifting from the sinking Palazzos of Venice to the crowded confusion of Tokyo, through the streets of San Francisco and into the vast, empty reaches of the Australian outback, challenging viewers to journey to a place that is the end of the worldand perhaps the beginning of a new one. The movie begins as a search for love, evolves into a quest to understand dreams and the nature of the human soul, until, finally, it becomes a metaphor for mankind’s search for salvation.

Wenders’ work has always been more appreciated by the cognoscenti than the general public; most of his pictures have fared poorly at the box office. However, there is no denying the relevancy of Wenders’ thematic concern, specifically the effect of biculturalism on interpersonal communicationand the creative process itself. This is my first review in l992, the year people speculate about the prospects of a European Union. It’s still too early to tell what a cinema of unification would look like, or whether it would become a pattern of filmmaking in the new European Community.