Wim Wenders, elder statesman of film, focuses on future

Prolific German director has been recast as a cinematic elder statesman

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 March, 2015, 8:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 March, 2015, 8:30pm

Wim Wenders is having a moment - and there haven't been many occasions in recent years where you could make this claim without encountering a dissenting voice.

An undisputed icon in the European art-house tradition, the German auteur was awarded an honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival last month, which also dedicated a 10-film "Homage" section to the director. Included as well in its competition section was the world premiere of Wenders' latest film, Every Thing Will Be Fine, starring James Franco, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Rachel McAdams.

Arguably his highest-profile narrative feature since the Berlin Silver Bear-winning The Million Dollar Hotel (2000), the 3D film revolves around a novelist (Franco) struggling to deal with the guilt of having caused a fatal car accident.

After briefly attending Oscar Week in Los Angeles last month for The Salt of the Earth (2014) - the Oscar-nominated documentary on Sebastião Salgado that he co-helmed with the master photographer's son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado - Wenders is now enjoying a major career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which runs until March 17.

"I think I have a pretty good notion of myself by now," the director of such classics as Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987) says when we meet in Hotel Regent Berlin the morning after Every Thing Will Be Fine was shown to the public for the first time.

For a 69-year-old filmmaker who served as one of the faces of New German Cinema - the historically significant movement also represented by the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog - between the late 1960s and early 1980s, Wenders has proved to be a most adaptable practitioner, able to move with the times and experiment with new technology.

Although his cinematic output has met with a mixed critical reception for more than a decade - his non-fiction works have been far better reviewed than his narrative efforts (such as 2004's Land of Plenty, 2005's Don't Come Knocking, and 2008's Palermo Shooting) - his critics can't accuse Wenders of merely aping his past.

When he adopted digital filmmaking for his epic road movie Until the End of the World (1991), Wenders was among the first professional directors in the world to do so. For his Oscar-nominated concert film Buena Vista Social Club (1999), he took advantage of the digital video format's newfound maturity - and affordability - to capture the ageing Cuban musicians' rise to global stardom in more than 80 hours of footage.

A decade later, another legendary subject benefited from Wenders' first venture into 3D filmmaking. The documentary Pina (2011), also an Oscar nominee, preserved some of the classic pieces by late dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch in all their stereoscopic glory.

Remarkably, shooting on Pina started before James Cameron's Avatar hit cinemas in 2009.

In a similar vein, Every Thing Will Be Fine can be said to derive its adventurous spirit from applying 3D technology to materials that may not seem a good fit: it's an old-fashioned drama with neither eye-popping special effects nor action sequences.

It is a little bit insane how long it takes today to put a fiction film together in the independent world

Considering the stillness of its imagery, even the decision to enlist Belgian cinematographer Benoît Debie - mostly known for his swirling camerawork for Irreversible (2002), Enter the Void (2009) and Spring Breakers (2012) - seems defiant. "Once Benoît learned about what 3D could do, we did the opposite of what everybody told us how to [use] it," says Wenders.

After saying no existing 3D film could have given him an insight into the task at hand, he proceeds to mythologise the format. "Everybody knows that 3D can deliver depth, but depth is not the issue. It's more inner depth - the uncanny ability of 3D cameras to see more," he says.

"It puts the actors more in front of the camera than ever, and it includes the audience in a slightly different way: it's not only that you use another part of your brain when you watch 3D, but also you're closer, more involved, and have a different relationship with who and what is in front of you.

"We tried to use that for a story that is very much about a person who doesn't let things out," he says, referring to Franco's protagonist.

Wenders may have stayed away from cinematic references, but he cites the work of American painter Andrew Wyeth as the inspiration for his visual style. The production kept copies of Wyeth's paintings on the set. "He was the only guy who was still painting very naturalistically when everybody else was looking at Jackson Pollock; he was the antithesis to the American modernists," says Wenders, who started as a painter before moving on to photography and filmmaking.

He now lives in Berlin with his wife, Donata, a professional photographer who shot most of his recent film stills.

As a documentary maker who has committed some of the most important cultural icons to film, from Salgado and Bausch to Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto (1989's Notebook on Cities and Clothes) and film director Nicholas Ray (1980's Lightning Over Water), Wenders says he remains interested in the greater [creative] process. "It's a catalyst for looking at the world," he says. "Especially in the case of Salgado, his photography was a catalyst for looking at the second half of the 20th century. He shows us things we all know; we all have witnessed and known [them] through him. And he does this with a different sense of responsibility than most other photographers. That's why I made a film about this artist."

Recently, Wenders appears to have been busier preserving his older works than making new ones. Two years ago, he set up the Wim Wenders Stiftung, a foundation through which the director bought back the rights to his films and commissioned digital restoration work on them. With more than 50 documentaries, short films, as well as fiction and non-fiction features on his CV, Wenders has transformed from the prolific filmmaker of his early years into a veteran who has intermittently gone quiet for periods during the past couple of decades.

He says this is not by choice. " Pina took so much longer than I thought - it took years because it was pioneering. We had to discover all of it. Every Thing Will Be Fine altogether lasted five years. It is a little bit insane how long it takes today to put a fiction film together in the independent world."

With the industry affected by shrinking financial resources, independent filmmakers such as Wenders are now being forced to think outside the box. His new film ended up being a co-production with investors from five countries, including public funding, resulting in a "long and slow" journey.

"If I were a young filmmaker today, it would drive me nuts. You make your first film today when you're 30 years old - and then you're not going to make another film for three, four or five years because it takes that long [to put together a production]. Even if you make a great [first] film, it doesn't matter; it takes longer and longer.

"I had the privilege that when I was a young filmmaker - I started pretty early - I was able to make a film every year. The only one who does it [now] is Woody Allen, but he has his setup, so it's forged into a pattern. Woody is the only one who still works like that, and I admire him for that."


Paris, Texas will be screened on March 26 and April 5, and The Salt of the Earth on March 30 and April 5, as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival. For programme details, visit hkiff.org.hk


Wim Wenders: five classic feature films

Kings of the Road (1976)

Often considered the quintessential road movie, this three-hour drama was shot without a screenplay. As they travel on an old furniture truck along the border between East and West Germany, two men brought together by chance - psychologist Robert Lander (Hanns Zischler) and movie projector technician Bruno Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) - develop a brief friendship before going their separate ways.

The American Friend (1977)

Clearly valuing atmosphere over narrative clarity, the self-professed "Americanised" Wenders' take on Ripley's Game nonetheless oozes European sensitivity. With a cast of various filmmakers (such as Gérard Blain, Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray), it tells of the conflicted relationship between a terminally ill German (Bruno Ganz) and the American (Dennis Hopper) who tricks him into carrying out a murder.

Paris, Texas (1984)

A cult favourite about a drifter who doesn't speak and barely remembers anything, this Cannes Palme d'Or winner treks through the American Southwest to paint a deeply emotional portrait of a broken family. Scripted by playwright Sam Shepard and scored by Ry Cooder, the lyrical tale follows the man (Harry Dean Stanton) as he reconnects with his son and, memorably, his missing wife (Nastassja Kinski).

Wings of Desire (1987)

A guardian angel ponders what it means to be mortal in this beautiful fable about the human condition. As if the poetic switch from monochrome to colour to reflect the worldly perspective isn't enough of a masterstroke, the fantasy romance between angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin) stands because of its timely setting: on the cusp of a new era in Berlin.

Until the End of the World (1991/1994)

An epic project if ever there was one, this almost five-hour film goes on a journey - improvised over five months - through 20 cities on four continents. Nominally about a woman's (Solveig Dommartin) persistent attempt to follow a hitchhiker (William Hurt) around, just as the human race is threatened by an out-of-control nuclear satellite, it is also an ambitious meditation on technology, images and dreams.