(1945 - present)
Three Key Films: Alice in the Cities (1973), Paris, Texas (1984), Wings of Desire (1987)
Underrated: Lisbon Story (1994). The 1990’s were not altogether kind to Wenders. A couple of disappointing flops led some critics to argue that his best days were behind him. Compared to Until the End of the World (1991) or The End of Violence (1997), though, Lisbon Story is perhaps a slight film. It follows sound recorder Phillip Winter, who comes to Lisbon to help his friend Friedrich finish a film about the city. Once there, though, Phillip discovers that Friedrich is missing, and the movie is made up only of his search to find Friedrich while working on the sound for the film.
Lisbon Story is one of Wenders’ most explicit attempts to unravel and defend the contemporary importance of film. It features two long monologues on the topic, one by the famed Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira. Yet behind this heavy, philosophical material are also some of Wenders’ most comic moments, giving the whole film a more modest feel. And precisely because it is such an understated offering from Wenders, it deserves greater notice.
Unforgettable: The meeting between Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski in Paris, Texas. The long monologues written by Sam Sheppard are crucial here, but regardless of that fact this long scene encapsulates much of what is so distinct in Wenders’ films. Stanton’s character is perhaps the best crafted loner character that Wenders ever put to screen, and his mysterious relationship with Kinski is indicative of the strained human relations with which Wenders has always been fascinated. Wenders uses the one-way mirror that divides the two characters in the scene to great effect, at one point having the reflection of Stanton’s face in the glass superimpose over Kinski’s. Wenders often relied on great writers for the basis of his work. This scene, though, shows his mastery at making those words, and any words for that matter, come to life.
The Legend: One the most dedicated and important independent filmmakers of the past 40 years, Wim Wenders is perhaps marked most by his ambivalence toward America and American cinema. A vocal admirer of classic American cinema, Wenders has set many of his movies in the U.S. or at least had them feature explicit references to American culture. At the same time, though, Wenders has criticized and very often worked outside the country’s studio system. Paris, Texas, arguably his seminal film, was shot in the U.S. by a small, mostly foreign crew, many of whom were breaking the terms of their tourist visas by working on the film.
Wenders first gained fame for his German films of the 1970’s, one of which, Alice in the Cities, actually takes place in New York at first. The three most important of these—Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move (1975), and Kings of the Road (1976)—later became known as the road movie trilogy. The first and last in particular cemented the style that Wenders would come to be known for—slow, meditative, and occasionally improvised stories, often centered around a loner main character, shot simply in black and white.
Wenders has veered away from these trademarks often enough, never more perhaps than in Buena Vista Social Club (1999), a documentary about Cuban music that began a recent output in musically-focused works. Yet even these can be traced back to the importance that music plays in so many of Wenders’ films, the scene in Wings of Desire featuring Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds being the best example.
Yet regardless of changes in style or setting, Wenders’ films always tend to be idea-driven. The plot, characters, and events of his films become part of an overall attempt to come to terms with or gain some understanding of a broader theme: human restlessness, a country in dire political straits, the lure and possible failure of the American dream, the role of violence in America. This aspect of Wenders’ approach is the source of both his greatness as well as his relatively few missteps.
At their best, though—say in Paris, Texas or Wings of Desire—Wenders’ films gain their weight not from the stories they tell but from the weight of experience that Wenders manages to convey in the characters. And it is because of this, more so than because of how he made his films, that Wenders will always remain an important figure in world cinema. Tomas Hachard