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Talking Sci-Fi, VHS and Hollywood with Wim Wenders, King of the Road Movie

We met the famed German auteur to discuss his changing motivations as a director and his thoughts on the Hollywood remake of "Wings of Desire."

af Aaron Hillis
15 september 2015, 5:10am

Dennis Hopper as Tom Ripley in 'The American Friend.' Courtesy of the IFC Center

Not even considering his work as a painter, playwright, or photographer, it's challenging to classify the rich, eclectic filmmaking career of Wim Wenders, which spans over four decades and is in no danger of slowing down. Early on, the glorious West German landscapes in his "road movie" trilogy of features (1974's Alice in the Cities, 1975's The Wrong Move, and 1976's Kings of the Road) cemented him as a pillar of the then-emerging New German Cinema movement. In 1984, a dehydrated Harry Dean Stanton walked out of the desert to a jangly Ry Cooder guitar score in Paris, Texas—an austere, lyrical drama that earned Wenders that year's Palme d'Or at Cannes. Ever see that U2 music video in which Bono hangs out on the shoulder of a giant statue in Berlin? That would be a reference to the eternal angels invisibly comforting all of humanity in Wenders's 1987 masterpiece Wings of Desire (and its 1993 sequel Faraway, So Close!), though the German auteur directed that video, too.

In more recent years, Wenders (with whom VICE collaborated on the Recreate Berlin project in 2012) has had his biggest commercial successes in nonfiction, including three Academy Award nominations for portraits of beloved artists: the 1999 Cuban-music hit Buena Vista Social Club, 2011's innovative 3D dance-choreography showcase Pina, and this past year's The Salt of the Earth—a testament to Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. And somewhere between these two eras lies a magnum opus, 1991's Until the End of the World, a globetrotting science-fiction odyssey about "the fear of the future, or the desire for the future," as Wenders tells VICE, costarring William Hurt, Solveig Dommartin, Sam Neill, and an uncredited Tom Waits. Over a decade in the works, the film's initial cut was over eight hours but contractually chopped to an inscrutable 158 minutes, a version that unsurprisingly received mixed reviews in its original theatrical run.

Wenders on set

Thankfully, the infrequently seen and much-improved director's cut of said pre-apocalyptic epic—still a formidable five hours—has been beautifully remastered for a new traveling retrospective called Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road, which screens through September 24 at the IFC Center in New York. This robust program, which ultimately includes 22 features and six shorts (many screened in brand new digital restorations, some for the first time ever), is a rare and vital opportunity to experience the oeuvre of a bona fide master of international cinema.

Not long after his 70th birthday, VICE sat down with Wenders at the offices of the prestigious Criterion Collection to talk about his retrospective, including his changing motivations as a director, how Until the End of the World accidentally wound up prophetic, and his thoughts on that horrid 90s Hollywood remake of Wings of Desire.

VICE: The retrospective is called Portraits Along the Road, in part because many of your films explore the iconography and mythology of the road movie. Maybe it's different for me as an American, but what does the concept of the open road mean to you, and do you feel similarly about it now as you did while making those films?
Wim Wenders: The feelings and the appeal are still the same, but having been on so many roads, and having done every possible shot in a car and other means of transportation, there is another element to it now, which is a challenge. How would you shoot a road movie? Traveling was much more of a privilege when I started my road trilogy. At the time, it was still a state of grace. Today? I don't know. It looks like everybody's traveling. When I came to New York to present my first film here, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, in January of 1972 [at the Museum of Modern Art], I was the first of all my friends, family, and neighborhood to ever go to America. Today, it would be the other way around: Who has not been there?

It's also the identification of the audience. Travel being commonplace today, the attraction of a road movie would be very different. There's nothing special about it anymore. In Alice in the Cities, or in Paris, Texas, there was still a discovery, a certain amount of the unknown, and a hint of the pioneer. All of that is lost. Today, you would have to journey into the mind, or something, in order to have that excitement. It would be hard to travel anywhere where not everybody else has been already.

"It's a very strange thing to make a science-fiction film that, in your own lifetime, turns into a period movie."
—Wim Wenders

Do you truly believe there are no places left unexplored, except within?
That was the journey in Until the End of the World. We travelled around the globe in order to then travel into the mind. We ended up in Western Australia, in a landscape called the Bungle Bungles. At the time we shot that, nobody I knew, even in Australia, knew that existed. There was no road to drive there. On the flight yesterday from Berlin to New York, I went through a magazine that offered the Bungle Bungles as a holiday experience. The place where I once had gotten lost, and that didn't exist on a map, was now common. That was only 25 years ago.

It's been almost that much time since I last saw Until the End of the Worldwhich, in the 90s, was only available to me as an abridged, two-VHS set.
I felt ashamed that people actually watched my movies on VHS. I always thought they should get their money reimbursed.

Well, I cannot wait to see it restored to its full, epic length. The film came out in 1991 but takes place in the then-near future, around the millennium. Did anything in the film end up becoming prescient?
There was a lot that became reality. A scary amount of stuff became our everyday life that, at the time, was science fiction. Nobody knew that eventually we'd all be running around, staring at these things [he grabs a nearby iPhone] in traffic. At the time, nobody even had mobile phones, let alone to see ourselves. The film predicted the selfie culture, the internet, and Google Glass. Not because we wanted to predict the future. I wanted a film that caught a glimpse of what our visual culture could become. With some of what we imagined, we were right on the money. Little did we know at the time. But I cannot recommend the format to anybody because it's a very strange thing to make a science-fiction film that, in your own lifetime, turns into a period movie.

Your new 3D drama Every Thing Will Be Fine, starring James Franco and Charlotte Gainsbourg, premieres at this month's Toronto Film Festival before screening in the IFC Center retrospective. Thanks to your Oscar nominations, you might be best-known for your docs. What gives you that fire in your belly to return to narrative films?
I wouldn't want to become a documentary filmmaker, period. It's the healthiest possible switch for both documentarian and the fictional storyteller to go the other route. It's fantastic to be in the street alone with a camera, with only two people around you, after you've had trucks occupy the entire block. If you only have trucks, it's a dangerous thing for your own state of mind and perception, because it gives you a strange amount of power. The documentary filmmaker doesn't have that; it's a modest position. If you're not willing to accept that, I don't think you can make a decent documentary, where everybody in front of the camera is more important than yourself. The feature film director, by definition, will get noticed, because he or she imposes himself or herself. So it's healthy to go from one to the other.

It looks like I have become a documentarian because Every Thing Will Be Fine took five years, and I made Pina and The Salt of the Earth in the breaks. All through the 70s, I made a movie every year. The only living person who can say that is Woody Allen. I don't know how he does it. Every Thing Will Be Fine, which takes place in four seasons over 14 years... Boy, that takes a long time. That's why you're under the impression that Wenders is a documentary filmmaker.

I didn't say that. But it seems like your motivations changed, as they sometimes can.
These things do change, and in my heart, the love for reality-driven films has grown, and the shyness towards fiction has also grown. Even a film like Wings of Desire—which is outrageous fiction, following these guardian angels—if you look at it today, it's almost a documentary of a city that no longer exists. The differentiation between reality and fiction is slightly blurred, more and more so.

Erika Pluhar as Gloria T. in 'The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick.' Courtesy of the IFC Center

Has anything changed as far as why you make films, as you yourself have changed? You just turned 70—happy birthday.
Thank you! I still try to make movies that I feel are useful, where there is a need for it. I know that's maybe romantic, but I always have a way to interact with life that is, for some people, very useful. I love movies that have changed my life, and there are a number of them that I have seen over and over again, and they will still do the same to me: Tokyo Story, L'Avventura, The Seventh Seal, Stranger Than Paradise. There is still a need for movies that interact with life, and I'm trying to keep that idea up.

I hate the question "what's your favorite movie?" For years, I would answer with Wings of Desire, which is near and dear to my heart, and I've probably re-watched it more than any other film in my adult lifetime. So, I've long wanted to know: How the hell did that Hollywood remake City of Angels happen? It breaks my heart that such a cinematic disgrace exists.
You shouldn't feel bad. I mean, City of Angels was probably seen by ten times more people on the planet than Wings of Desire. Think about it this way: I made Wings of Desire basically without a written script, like you do a poem—from one day to another, with a lot of improvisation, good luck, and help from my friends and the angels the film was about. The film stood for itself.

Then, not quite seven years later, I was working on an ambitious film that I was really in trouble with: Faraway, So Close! It was over my head with financing; it took much longer. I was scared it was going to go down the drain, when I got a letter in the mail asking me for the remake rights of Wings of Desire. Wow! Have you ever heard of the remake rights for a movie that you didn't even write? How good is that? It was enough [money] to finish the other one, I immediately said yes, and I saved Faraway, So Close! I don't know how else I could have finished it.

I didn't hear from them for the longest time. Shortly before the option ran out, I got a script in the mail saying, "We're now ready to do something, and the young director would like you to know the script, and also for Nicolas Cage, who's going to play the lead. It's important for them to know that you approve." So I read it carefully, and it was quite grown-up for a Hollywood script, and I felt the young director knew what he was doing. Two years later, they invited me to a preview, somewhere in the boondocks. They still were testing movies at the time in little towns, like 50 kilometers out of Los Angeles, in the Valley somewhere.

"Playing in Peoria," as the expression goes?
Yes. So I drove out there to a big theater, [with an audience of] 1,000 people. Everybody got these boards with questions. I sat in the last row, and didn't want to be recognized. Nobody recognized me in the first place, and I saw the film. It was the strangest feeling I ever had because there were scenes that were one-to-one with Wings of Desire, and then other scenes were completely different. This film of mine was so devoid of any plot—really, it had the simplest plot in the world. All of a sudden, I recognized all the elements, but it was completely plot-driven. It was, from A to Z, driven by a mighty plot of a heart searching.

I felt like I was the father, or the grandfather to it, but at the same time utterly remote from it. For the first half of the film, I disappeared in my seat. I felt strange about it. At the end, I sat upright and enjoyed it, and I thought, "Well, it will not take anything away from my film, it will have a good life of its own, and I can walk out of here with my head high because it really is a whole different thing." I'm the grandfather, but then again, it's an illegal child.

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Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road continues through September 24 at the IFC Center in New York.

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Aaron Hillis