Where to begin with Wim Wenders

A beginner’s path through the work of German maverick and king of the road movie, Wim Wenders

14 August 2018

By Matthew Thrift

Wings of Desire (1987)

Why this might not seem so easy

Along with Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders is one of the biggest names to emerge as part of the New German Cinema movement of the 70s. And, like Herzog, he remains incredibly prolific all these years later, a fixture at film festivals who has amounted a huge body of work across both fiction and documentary.

Born in Dusseldorf in 1945, Wenders had his international breakthrough with The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick in 1972, now newly available on Blu-ray. This adaptation of a Peter Handke novel was just his second film, following the release of his feature-length graduate project, Summer in the City, in 1970.

In thrall to the pop-cultural iconography of Americana, it didn’t take long for Wenders to make it Stateside, setting much of his fourth film, Alice in the Cities (1974), in New York City. That picture would form the first part of what became known as the ‘road trilogy,’ a trio of films that helped established travel as the predominant theme of his fiction filmmaking career.

Alice in the Cities (1974)

Following nearly 50 years in the business, he shows little sign of slowing down, with his latest film, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, due in cinemas this August. With 60-odd credits to his name, and his fair share of clunkers, it’s a career that’s best navigated with a road sign or two to help plot your route.

The best place to start – Paris, Texas

Long before the red baseball cap came to symbolise a different set of American anxieties, Wim Wenders set one iconically atop the head of Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis Henderson for his most heartbreaking study in displacement and broken dreams: the Palme d’Or-winning masterpiece Paris, Texas.

Paris, Texas (1984)

We first see Travis wandering through the desert, his memory lost, at once seemingly of the landscape and entirely alien to it. We never learn the cause of this amnesia, even as the life he abandoned becomes clear. When he finally breaks his silence, in this film of halting, cross-purpose communications, he does so with one of the great monologues in cinema.

It’s a film written by an American, the late playwright Sam Shepard, and scored with slide-guitar – that most American of sounds – by Ry Cooder. Yet its brilliance seems to come from an intangible foreignness; an off-kilter, subtly subversive eye for the cultural iconography of the American west – captured by Wenders’ longtime, master cinematographer Robby Müller – that’s simultaneously yearning and mournful. 

What to watch next

Three years after Paris, Texas, Wenders won big at Cannes again, this time taking home the best director prize for his mournful fantasy Wings of Desire. It went on to become one of the defining arthouse successes of its decade. Following a pair of angels as they wander Berlin eavesdropping on the lives of the mortals that cross their path, it’s ravishingly shot by the veteran Henri Alekan (who’d done La Belle et la Bête for Jean Cocteau in 1946) and features a tremendous, largely improvised turn from Peter Falk, playing himself.

Kings of the Road (1976)

Wenders would return to the material for a sequel with Faraway, So Close! (1993) to lethargic, diminishing returns, but the next pitstop on your trip through the director’s career should really be the road trilogy. All starring longtime collaborator Rüdiger Vogler, Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move (1975) and Kings of the Road (1976) represent ground zero for Wenders’ themes and preoccupations. Kings of the Road is the best of the three, a long, improvised, cross-country meditation on identity, cinema and the German condition, charged with American rock’n’roll.

Cinema and filmmaking became abiding concerns in Wenders’ world. When funding fell through during the production of Hammett (1982) – his first studio picture for Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope – the director disappeared to Portugal to make The State of Things (1982), art imitating life in its story of a film crew that halts production when their budget dries up.

The State of Things (1982)

1994’s Lisbon Story similarly follows a director unable to finish his film, while his 1980 documentary Lightning over Water charts the final year of the great Hollywood filmmaker Nicholas Ray as he attempts to complete one last picture before his death from cancer.

Ray wasn’t the only major director Wenders coaxed back into action. Maverick filmmaker Sam Fuller plays the cinematographer in The State of Things, and both Fuller and Ray show up in The American Friend (1977). This is one of Wenders’ very best films, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel Ripley’s Game and starring Dennis Hopper as the art-smuggling moral vacuum Tom Ripley. If Wenders’ films to this point were charged with an existential romanticism, The American Friend proved him just as capable of serving up a coolly detached slug of cynical sangfroid.

The American Friend (1977)

Where not to start

As far as the fiction features are concerned, you’re best off sticking with 20th-century Wenders. The fall off in quality since the millennium has been dramatic, best exemplified by a vanity project conceived with Bono. The Million Dollar Hotel (2000) was all set to star the U2 frontman, in a role that finally went to Mel Gibson, as a neck-braced FBI agent investigating a murder in an LA flophouse. Gibson would go on to describe the film as “boring as a dog’s ass”.

An attempt to recapture some of that Paris, Texas magic saw Wenders reteam with Sam Shepard for Don’t Come Knocking in 2005, this time with the writer taking the lead as a movie star whose better days are behind him. While the expected concerns of both director and author are present and correct, it’s a tired rehashing of ideas and cultural clichés.

The Salt of the Earth (2014)

Yet, during this same period, his documentary work has gone from strength to strength, earning him (also counting 1999’s Buena Vista Social Club) three Oscar nominations in the process. The Salt of the Earth (2014) is an exquisite portrait of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, while 2011’s Pina earned him some of the best reviews of his career for its immersive recreations of the work of choreographer Pina Bausch. Vividly cinematic, it’s still one of the strongest arguments for the value of 3D cinema.

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