MASTERS: WIM WENDERS
Calgary Cinematheque is pleased to bring a restored six film retrospective from one of the leading masters of the New German Cinema movement, Wim Wenders. We will focus on key touch points in his career-- stemming from the seventies aimlessness, through the auteur’s uneasy embrace of Americana, and finishing with his worldwide arthouse acceptance in the late eighties.
The roots of Wenders, and fellow German directors Herzog and Fassbinder, are in post-war Germany. They are the first filmmaking generation set into the unenviable predicament of recovering identity, and setting a course for the future and shaping a new German soul. It might be better to describe their lack of roots than any direct connection to their homeland. Each director’s creative path shares little common tissue. Their expressions are each gutsy, raw, and distinctly personal. The low financial resources of their early cinema fabricated a spontaneous, minimal, and unglamourized cinema. Wenders in particular carved an aesthetic for himself that, unlike the romantic grandeur of Herzog or melodramatic pain of Fassbinder, had a focus on non-events: the banal, the irrelevant, and the empty. His cinema channels the modern world’s spiritual confusion.
The austerity and poignancy of his cinema, rich with desolate imagery, is an early signpost for what is now known commonly in critical circles as observational or “slow” cinema. With themes of memory, loss, time, nostalgia, and restless movement, Wenders embodied a new sensibility. Looking back, it seems boldly modern and visionary to watch this cinema again as a concrete exercise in self-discovery. It is filmmaking in a primal and empty state; one might argue existential: phenomena as phenomena. The gaze is itself the aesthetic. It’s no surprise that the alternate title for his masterful Kings of the Road is “As Time Goes By”. That could be a fitting summary for his entire ouvre covered in this retrospective. Time and space are the core building materials for this filmmaker, and the long unbroken take is the only logical style to reflect that. For Wenders, one imagines him trying to guarantee something ontological. He longs to make it cinematically real, even if the end discovery is a meaningless plasticity to everything. Though the experience feels at times ambiguous, void, or arbitrary, it develops into the core form of Wenders’ approach. How else could one capture the emptiness of things?
His protagonists are frequently locked in inner states, unable to articulate or engage with the world around them. There is much reliance on the senses, not words. It is a non-verbal world. Dialogue is often past each character rather than responding back and forth. The hero’s alienation and dislocation in films like Alice In The Cities, Wrong Move, or The Goalie’s Anxiety At The Penalty Kick feeds the filmmaker’s approach. Relying on spatial metaphor, simply watching, and not cutting away in the edit are all keystones to the pursuit of truth, if not baffled sincerity. These men wander in painful fogs, directionless, and drifting without purpose. No stronger portrait encapsulates this than Harry Dean Stanton’s “Travis Henderson” in the flawless Paris, Texas. He has literally lost his memory, and wanders the desert in a impenetrable fugue state. Even Wenders’ image of angels (Wings Of Desire) are complicated, tortured and desire meaning. No one has the answers. None are spared the anxiety.
Americana and its cultural footprint itself plays an ambivalent role in Wenders’ universe too. It is a mix of idolization and national displacement. American pop culture filled the post-war void for German cinephiles (filmmakers like Fuller, Ray, Hawks were heroes), and the echo of that music, imagery, and storytelling leaks through this German’s viewpoint. Dennis Hopper in The American Friend, or Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas, are both projections of a distant troubled image of America in Wenders’ psyche. Ry Cooder’s slide guitar soundtrack for Paris, Texas marked the beginning of a long collaboration, and underpinned the painful bluesy heartache of that film, and others to follow.
To see Wenders continue to travel the world, listening, staring, and spurning a career concurrently in photography and film comes as no surprise. One of his long-running art series is entitled “Pictures From The Surface Of The Earth”. It could just as easily be the title of our series. He began his career on the road, restless, wandering with displaced Germans, and through the act of framing beautiful empty landscapes of lost souls, he continues to seek meaning through his observational narratives of modern detachment. The masterful collection Calgary Cinematheque has packaged for this season is a sampling of this enigmatic filmmaker’s controlled and longing gaze. Join us in the act of seeing this restored catalogue with renewed critical vigour.
“The more opinions you have, the less you see”—Wim Wenders