Light the way
Wim Wenders recalls the day two years ago when he wandered into Palermo's Palazzo Abatellis, the late 15th-century edifice that houses Sicily's Regional Museum. He was then starting a brief sojourn in the city, developing a screenplay for a film to be shot there. He was, he remembers, still unsure about what to write.
'I was just immersing myself in the city, and trying to understand it,' Wenders says.
'And then there was this big fresco. Standing in front of it, I really couldn't believe my eyes. Here was my entire script, it was like a big storyboard. The characters and the story were all there.'
Looming before the German director that afternoon in Palermo was The Triumph of Death, the 15th-century mural that depicts Death - as a skeletal spectre - rampaging through a garden party on horseback, discharging deadly arrows at the self-indulgent aristocrats present. A king, noblemen and clergymen lie slain, while the poor and weak huddle in a corner, observing the carnage.
Wenders says the painting was the inspiration for his recent movie titled Palermo Shooting, a film which - according to a promotional tagline in the filmmaker's native Germany - is about 'life and death'.
Just as in The Triumph of Death, Death appears as a character in the film. After surviving a serious traffic accident, the lead character, a frivolous fashion photographer called Finn (played by rock singer Campino), travels to Palermo where he is stalked by a pallid version of the Grim Reaper (Dennis Hopper) hell-bent on bringing him down with his bow and arrows.
The Triumph of Death - and Wenders' chance encounter with it - appears in the film too: Finn is seen wandering into the Abatellis, where he watches the angelic Flavia (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) hard at work restoring the painting.
'Fear of death is something very common. I don't know anyone who's not afraid of death,' Wenders says. 'But when you talk to people who have been face to face with death, they talk about a feeling of peace, beauty and light.
'I encountered death once when I was a young man. During one half of an hour I thought I was dying, and I remember in those 30 minutes feeling not a single second of fear. The absence of fear is my greatest memory of that moment.
'It's more our own projection [of death] that scares us. Maybe to overcome that prejudice would be a great way to improve our lives.'
Palermo Shooting shares with The Triumph of Death a common loathing of superficial worldly excesses. Finn slowly realises the shallowness of his life in Dusseldorf, where he lives in a designer house, drives a fancy car, and takes pictures that are high on style and low on substance, including a photo shoot of a heavily pregnant Milla Jovovich (playing herself). He confronts his own repressed inner demons in Palermo during his conversations with Flavia, and finally with the Grim Reaper - whose name is Frank.
'When [Finn] first photographs Milla, he's not even paying respect to the unborn life she carries - to him it's just a gimmick, another fashion shoot,' says Wenders.
'Finn, in a way, is a superficial man. He knows his techniques, he knows how to sell things, but it takes the entire length of the story for him to get to the essence of things. He's at the forefront of what's happening to our culture today: the loss of memory, and the loss of mortality. I think a lot of Finn's experience is my own or that of any photographer's.'
This is not the first time that Wenders has made a film with a photographer at its centre. His 1974 work, Alice in the Cities, stars Rudigler Vogler as Phil Winter, a frustrated photojournalist who is shaken out of his professional ennui when he is forced to travel around Germany with a young girl, looking for her grandmother's house while armed with just a Polaroid of the woman's front door.
Wenders is a well-known photographer, having published several collections of pictures he took while on set in the US of films such as 1984's Paris, Texas and 2005's Don't Come Knocking.
In an interesting turn of events, one of his recent projects involved taking pictures for the Carl Zeiss 2009 calendar. The photo shoot, set in the ruins of the Palace of the Republic in eastern Berlin, and starring Willem Defoe and Amber Valletta, is a glamorous affair involving a sizeable production crew - an assignment that closely resembles Finn's Jovovich shoot in Palermo Shooting.
Wenders says modern photography and human existence have become intertwined with the advent of digital technology. It allows for the easy alteration and erasure of visual records; something that Finn does for a living as he manipulates photographs with computer programs and deletes them as he pleases.
'If I look at the photographs I took when I was a very little boy - I still have my contact sheets and negatives from the early 1950s - I can see that I went to the zoo and my mum was with me,' says Wenders, who was born in Dusseldorf in 1945.
'I can see the clothes people wore, and it's very concrete proof of what it was like then.
'Today, pictures are taken with digital cameras but people don't have the time to look at their pictures anymore. You get a new mobile phone and the photographs disappear with it. And when you erase [pictures] you erase part of your existence, and the act [in the pictures] did not take place. The idea of mortality somehow disappears.'
While Wenders is doubtful of the effects of digital tools on visual art, his new film contains 200 shots of computer-generated special effects.
This contradiction did not sit well with critics. The film was booed at press screenings at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Critics took aim at the film's flimsy premise - ironic, given it is an attack on the superficiality permeating contemporary art and modern life.
And the anguish shows: Wenders - who has never really replicated the quality of his films made in the 1970s and 80s, such as Kings of the Road and Wings of Desire - is distracted when we meet, apparently uneasy about the reaction to his film.
'I have no regrets about the film,' he says. 'I'm very happy about the music in it and my actors. I had brought out what I wanted to say in this film, to improve the quality of our lifestyle by facing mortality in a different way. In our times when mortality is erased more and more, we all pretend we are eternal. Our cultures induce us to believe that we're eternal.'
And that's probably what many hope Wenders' films will be - but Palermo Shooting is unlikely to pull off this trick.
Palermo Shooting screens at 7pm, Fri, Oct 23, HK Science Museum, TST, and 9.50pm, Sun, Nov 1, Broadway Cinematheque, Yau Ma Tei as part of Kino/09, Goethe-Institut Hongkong's annual German-language film showcase, HK$60 Urbtix. For more details, go to goethe.de/hongkong