Wim Wenders: Merging the Infinite Via the Enigma of Cinema

For director Wim Wenders, life is film. It permeates every aspect of his being, becoming the medium which best reflects his conscious and unconscious connections to the world. He has worked in all phases of it: fiction and fact, documentary and drama. He has even gone so far as to befriend famous names from the art form’s past, hoping said links will channel a greater understanding of the way in which film can be manipulated and managed, all in an effort to expose some of the universe’s deepest, darkest secrets. Perhaps this is why his works meet with more indifference than popularity. This is not a director out to entertain. This is a man attempting to merge with the infinite via the enigma of cinema.

This is certainly clear after watching the eight offerings presented as part of Anchor Bay’s eight disc DVD career overview, The Wim Wenders Collection. Second in a series focusing on the iconoclastic moviemaker, it’s a compendium made up of three works of fiction (The Scarlet Letter, Wrong Move, and The American Friend) as well as five freehand “celluloid journals” (Lightning Over Water, Room 666, Tokyo-Ga, A Trick of the Light and Notebooks on Cities and Clothes).

As part of the German New Wave that evolved out of the foreign film scene in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Wenders has always been a motion picture rebel. To him, film is more than just a means of expression. It’s an ends unto itself, a reflection of life that can be deconstructed to say more about a subject than a simple straightforward narrative. The challenge becomes capturing the mood and the meaning of a subject, not its ‘easy to see’ entertainment value.

Such an approach has flummoxed many a film fan, making Wenders a less celebrated figure than his fellow countryman Werner Herzog. The differences between the two directors are drastic, but they highlight the reason behind Wenders’ continued marginalization. With his work, from the operatic Fitzcarraldo to the inspired Grizzly Man, Herzog has made his movies reflect an obvious and potent personal passion. For him, the subject matter and the storytelling are key to creating the proper reaction in the audience. Wenders, on the other hand, sees such cinematic basics as boundaries that hinder his ability to create. Thanks to a collection of audio commentaries included with each film in this set (the only significant bonus feature offered), we get to hear this critical mantra over and over again. He doesn’t care if the material is mediocre, or even meaningless. His job is to serve the medium’s visual aesthetic. It’s up to the audience to find the possible worth.

Indeed, it is hard to figure out many of his motives. Take, for example his 1989 documentary Notebooks on Cities and Clothes. Admittedly, Wenders is out to profile famed Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto, following him as he prepares a new fall line and opens a high end clothing store. It’s an inherently interesting subject, especially when Yamamoto is so open about his fears and failures – at least, in his own mind. In the hands of your typical talent, our star would be forced into an editorially created dramatic arc, following his triumphs and trepidations as the show deadline draws near. Then, we’d be witness to this one man as his talent trumps or betrays him. But this is not the point of Wenders’ film. Instead, he uses various technological advances – the handheld digital camera, the portable professional laptop “studio” — to turn any exposition into experimentation.

It’s a literal examination of style over substance, with Wenders applying the same ‘shoot from the hip’ approach that Yamamoto brings to his creations, to suggest filmmaking is the same as fashion. What Wenders wants to say is that, with just the barebones elements of expression – a couple of cameras and access to an idea — something artful and apparent can be crafted. For him, Notebooks on Cities and Clothes is an attempt to drop the artifice out of the documentary form, to take cinema vérité to almost ludicrous levels. It’s a movie that doesn’t want to tell its story. Instead, it wants to present it, piecemeal, in one of the most arcane ways possible. Then, once all the facets have been featured, Wenders will sit back and let you decide if it works – reminiscent of the latest collection of couture.

Wim Wenders

It’s this mind-bending modus that infects all the factual works in the collection. Tokyo-Ga (1985), his supposed “tribute” to filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu (who, in the commentary and narration, Wenders calls “a sacred treasure of cinema”) also suffers from such a surreal stratagem. Instead of a standard biography, however, a movie that truly tries to explain the enigmatic Japanese director to the common Western cinephile, the director again takes a tangential approach. In this case, Wenders contrasts the modern Tokyo with the mythical city suggested in Ozu’s work. Here, technology is the enemy, as Wenders champions tradition, and the way in which film helps capture and preserve the past. While we are treated to interviews with those who worked closely with the man, Ozu is merely a catalyst to other ideas that Wenders finds more important. In fact, the entire exercise occasionally feels like a meditation on reality vs. cinematic realism, truth vs. a ‘touched up” version of same.

It’s a creative conceit that creates its own walls and bridges, especially when the area under discussion is close to Wenders heart. In the case of his work with Hollywood legend Nicholas Ray (Lightning Over Water, ’80), said personal obsession renders his perspective overbearing and obtuse. Ray, who made the noted Tinsel Town treasures Rebel Without a Cause and Johnny Guitar, was dying of cancer when Wenders came to visit him, the old friends having met originally on the set of the young guns 1977 effort The American Friend. There ostensibly to help Ray make one last film – and watch as he tries to get his lost epic We Can’t Go Home Again into shape — what we see is nothing more than a heartfelt home movie. Such a view is crucial to understanding the dynamic going on between the two directors. Since we learn very little about Ray, his life, or his losing battle with mortality, the minor moments are all we have.

Throughout Lightning Over Water, Ray is constantly fidgeting – via an assistant – with the “final cut” of We Can’t Go Home Again, which in and of itself seems antithetical to the film’s basic concept. Starting out as a kind of “performance art” piece, Ray really doesn’t know what he wants. Yet he sits in the dark, eyes focused on the latest version unreeling before him, and in these moments, we understand the attraction. Ray is seeking something elusive, a kind of cosmic moment where film transcends its celluloid drudgery to become an expression of something other than basic narrative drive and devices. Wenders, an obvious student of said aesthetic, drives the point home by doing the same thing with Lightning Over Water. He lets Ray ramble on, the pain of his illness causing him to occasionally appear mad or incoherent. At other times, he lets members of the man’s family perform a kind of existential elegy. Like the movie he can’t seem to finish, Ray is supposed to symbolize a life still viable, but somehow still incomplete.

Yet, as with much of Wenders’ output, the approach betrays the message. Even the most ardent fan of the filmmaker will view Ray not with appreciation but with apathy (or, God forbid, contempt). His old friend can only find grace in his final days, pointing to a particular moment when Ray speaks to a group of young filmmakers and comments on how “fatherly” he appears — this, as the dying man’s remarks make little or no sense. Wenders obviously enjoys these jarring juxtapositions. He is constantly framing the spiritual within the pragmatic (and visa versa), placing the insightful right next to the insane. Indeed, many critics have complained that his fiction films are more exercises in dualism than cohesive creative statements. Take his adaptation of The Scarlet Letter (1972), his second major feature film. Desperate to deconstruct the moralistic underpinning of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, Wenders went for a more historic, and less dramatic, interpretation for his version.

This troubled production, universally despised upon its initial release, really does dress up the fledgling feminist movement of the era in some cloying colony conceits. For those familiar with the book, Wenders avoids most of the romantic overtones for a more ‘one against many’ mannerism. Having already given birth to her child, the narrative now centers on Hester Prynne’s refusal to disclose the name of its father. He reduces the soap opera-ish elements to a battle of wills, much in the way that his 1977 revamp of Ripley’s Game (retitled The American Friend) contrasted purity with disease to establish the dramatic dynamic between an insignificant everyman with a rare blood ailment (played by Wenders’ favorite Bruno Ganz) and a criminally corrupt art dealer (essayed by Dennis Hopper). As in The Scarlet Letter, the main point of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley yarn is sidelined so Wenders can work on finding the art house inside the suspenseful story.

The American Friend remains an interesting film, a clear case of visuals over viscera. Often called “high brow Hitchcock”, Wenders strands its subject matter in favor of insightful character conversations between the two leads. For him, the everyday entering the realm of evil has a particular potency. Like many directors of his generation, he loves to see how the ghosts of history come back to haunt those forced to face them in the present. Here, Hopper wants to ‘poison’ his prospect with the siren song of easy capitalism. Ganz, on the other hand, is just looking to get by in a country that’s been corrupted and carved out thanks to decades of war and internal strife. It’s a theme that would color Wrong Move, Wenders’ quintessential ‘road movie’ (a favored genre that would eventually become the name of his production company).

Desperate to discuss some of the political and social hardships facing Germany in the mid-’70s (the movie was made in ’75), Wenders again took a novel — this time by Johann Wolfgang Goethe — and streamlined the story. A typical coming of age examination, this symbolic journey of self-discovery was peppered with elements from the nation’s notorious history as it hinted at the international unrest that faced a world gone cold over communism. Even with all its individualized facets (looking for a job, establishing relationships) it’s the agenda-based ideas that overrun the film, making the inherent drama seem distant and underdone. It’s as if Wenders purposely provokes this kind of creative artifice, hoping (as he does in his documentaries) that audiences will pay attention and fill in the blanks when necessary.

It’s important to note that, in between all these oddball productions, Wenders was establishing his credentials as a first rate filmmaker. Movies like Hammett (1982), Paris, Texas (1984) and the masterful Wings of Desire (1987) defined the second phase of his career as a man of profound professional vision. In fact, it may be said that every other film he made prior to the ’80s was an attempt to work out his inner creative demons before tackling the facets of true cinema. It is during this wandering in the artistic wilderness that Wenders sought support, and insight, from his creative colleagues. Taking a break from Hammett‘s problematic shoot, Wenders went to Cannes, brought along a camera, and set it up in his hotel suite. There, he interviewed dozens of famous names (Steven Spielberg, Jean Luc Godard, etc.) asking them specific questions about the industry. Thus Room 666 (1982) was born.

From Room 666

One assumes the purpose behind Room 666 was information, but leave it to Wenders to reduce insight to instigation. Part of the problem is the way the film is presented. Some foreign speaking participants are not subtitled. Others use badly broken English to make some generalized guesses. In general, to the stuffy Europeans, cinema is dead. It has been reduced to marketing, money, and the need to meet certain audience-mandated expectations, less your efforts fail to find studio support. Sure enough, the Americans see this as signs of a booming business. Mr. ET even argues that such blockbuster attributes bring the art form closer to the people who will appreciate it. Failing to preach to the already anti-commerce converted, it’s these moments that have a kind of demented defiance. You know Wenders wants to hear about the death of his beloved medium. For him, and many foreign filmmakers, optimism is not an option.

With age, however, Wenders appears to have mellowed. He’s embraced the notion of stars (working with A-list Hollywood types in Until the End of the World and The Million Dollar Hotel) and made peace within the recognizable formats to create some expert examples of film craft. He even found himself nominated for an Oscar, thanks to his look at the Cuban musicians who made up the Buena Vista Social Club. Still, his desire to circumvent form couldn’t be completely quelled, and in 1995, he again merged fact with fantasy to create the delightful A Trick of the Light. Centering on the story of early German film pioneers the Skladanowsky Brothers and their invention of the ‘bioskop’ (predecessor to the Lumiere Brothers ‘Cinematographe’), Wenders used fictional recreations and an interview with the 90-plus year old daughter of one of the men to illustrate the importance of film as an invention.

From A Trick of the Light

By far the most successful film in the box set, A Trick of the Light tells us of the long held legend of the Lumieres “creation” of moving pictures, and how Max Skladanowsky found a similar way of using stills to “suggest” onscreen movement years before. It’s this clever contrasting of myth with meaning that feels like Wenders’ closing statement on the subject. In the eyes of his character we see the wonder of film’s initial novelty – and the power it retains even to this day. In the voice of the aged Lucie Hürtgen-Skladanowsky, we see how business and bad timing destroyed one man’s dreams of magic. Wenders obviously sympathizes with his unheralded countryman. Here was someone who sought to redefine the visual medium, to make pictures and images mean more than they usually do. If that’s not a companion and compatriot for a director determined to explore all avenues of the art form, it’s hard to define what is.

Unfortunately, only the bravest and most flexible of film lovers will find the tolerance to take on Wenders outer fringe works. These films are not so much entertaining as explanatory, allowing us to see inside the filmmaker’s frequently unfathomable world and garner some hard fought perspective. Like an abstractionist who refuses to discuss his inspiration, or an avant-garde artist who renders his icons through a vague and untouchable design, Wim Wenders can be both fascinating and frustrating. While never dull, he can defy the norm so overwhelming that his is the only voice he’s listening to. Since taking his place among the important moviemakers of the last three decades, something like The Win Wenders Collection, Volume 2 should act as a career defining celebration. Instead, it ends up a baroque doorway into a creative world many are probably not prepared to visit.