The Director's Chair Interviews
An Interview with Wim Wenders
by Jayne Margetts
Wim Wenders is to German cinema what Federico Fellini was to Italian cinema; a genius with the vision of a decadent and lusty Titan. His themes are often anxiety, alienation and male wanderlust and each scene that he slices onto the celluloid canvas is a work of art in itself, a mosaic that once pieced together is like a sweeping opera of the Cistern chapel. At 52-years-of-age, Wenders is surfing on the wings of his latest cerebral and surreal picture, 'The End Of Violence' which traverses the concrete edge of life and violence in Los Angeles.
It is strange indeed to view this wunderkind as his mind's eye caresses the freeways and lurid Mecca of Hollywood as opposed to his usual European landmarks of angels, gargoyles and emotional temperament. It is a departure and yet does not lose any of its raw power despite its proximity to the superficial film industry.
"Hollywood film-making has become more and more about power and control," he muses. "It's not really not about telling stories. That's just a pretence. But ironically, the fundamental difference between making films in Europe versus America is in how the screenplay is dealt with. From my experience in Germany and France, the script is something that is constantly scrutinised by the film made from it. Americans are far more practical. For them, the screenplay is a blueprint and it must be adhered to rigidly in fear of the whole house falling down. In a sense, all of the creative energy goes into the screenplay so you could say that the film already exists before the film even begins shooting. You lose spontaneity. But in Germany and France, I think that film-making is regarded as an adventure in itself," Wenders concludes.
Since 1967 the native Dusseldofian, former medical student, philosopher, author and director has wrapped his European and Western audiences in the warm glow of his monumental and surreal twisted visions. Who could forget the scenes within Faraway So Close as his angel walked the grey sepia tinted streets in search of himself, or the intimate and desperate actions of his heroine - played by Nastassja Kinski in his road movie Paris, Texas or even the rich, mystical and symphonic visual poetry of his 1987 fantasy portrait and winner of Best Director Prize, Cannes, Wings Of Desire. Wenders has always had the ability to touch you in a way that is complex and surprising. He is a masseur of the senses, and a dialogue calligrapher of the soul. His characters are pained and restless who shift through worlds blotted by shades of grey. They seek redemption and solace in the cities they inhabit and from the people that move - sometimes fleetingly - through their lives, a fact that is re-confirmed through The End Of Violence.
Although The End Of Violence is an essay in which characters debate through their actions and thoughts what their definition of violence is, it is also the culmination of two and a half years of discussion on the topic of screen violence.
"The whole craft, art and business of film-making have been thoroughly reshaped by the extensive and explicit use of violence," Wenders interjects. "It has almost become a necessary ingredient. Movies try to top each other in goriness or killing and it is as if everybody's resistance level is constantly raised. It's something that affects my professional life a lot.
"Normally you start off with a story and inside that story a certain number of characters appear and get developed according to the needs of the plot. We did the opposite. We had a theme, violence, and we agreed that we wanted it to remain the subject on the film. How do you write a story about violence instead of using it to tell a story? So we first invented a set of characters who had nothing in common. The story slowly emerged out of their different biographies and out of the only element they shared: an encounter with violence."
Casting the likes of Bill Pullman, Andie MacDowell and Gabriel Byrne as the lead characters, Wenders chose each of the actors - very carefully - and for a number of reasons. Dragging himself into the cinema throughout the course of one week to see two films that slide in at the opposite end of the extreme spectrum, Independence Day and David Lynch's Lost Highway, Wenders knew that Pullman would slip into the role of the Hollywood producer with ease and grace.
"Talk about an actor's range, you probably can't stretch much further than Bill," he remembers. "When we met for a coffee, I knew he was right for the part as a driven, charming, arrogant, slick, hip movie producer who is transformed later on into a humble, gentle and caring gardener, somebody who is broken and fragile confronted with something entirely knew to him. He had to go from cockiness to modesty. Bill made it look easy."
And Andie MacDowell? "I have always liked Andie," Wenders responds. "The first time I saw her was in Sex, Lies And Videotapes in Cannes. I was the jury president that year and we gave the Palme d'Or to Steven Soderbergh's first feature largely on behalf of its leading lady, an unknown actress named Andie MacDowell," he pauses. "She left a big impression on me then and I have seen most of her films since. Shooting with her was like working with an old acquaintance."
Interestingly, Wenders chose to shoot The End Of Violence in Los Angeles for a number of reasons. It was a place he viewed as wrapped in the fabrication of violence. "Our entire Western culture has shifted from a written one to a visual one," he says. "The very idea of violence, for audiences over the world, is partly originated by an imagery produced in Los Angeles, in movies and in music. As far as politics are concerned, I tend to believe any story in which crime control, be it police force, CIA, FBI, etc, has perverted into crime itself, or in which crime is finally controlling the controllers. Violence is an unhealthy climate, in real life as well as in the movies."
Born in war-time Germany when Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich was quickly drawing to its close, Wenders - after completing his schooling - embarked on a career in medicine and philosophy. But in 1967 he decided to enrol in the Hochschule fur Film und Fernsehen (Film and Television Academy) in Munich. Whatever it was that catalysed such a dramatic twist in his path is not exactly known, but by the time he had completed his studies he had directed a number of short films including Schauplatze, Same Player Shoots Again, Silver City and films which focused on articles on film, the biographical and rock 'n' roll for the Suddeutsche Zeitung, Twe and Filmkritik. In 1971 he co-founded and established the Filmverlage des Autoren with Rainer Werner Fassbinder and a group of other directors, releasing a stream of films including The Goalkeeper's Fear Of The Penalty, Scarlet Letter, Alice In The Cities, Aus Der Famile Der Panzereschsen/Die Insel, a two-part television film in the Ein Haus fur Uns, Wrong Move, Kings Of The Road and the 1976 winner of International Critic's Prize, The American Friend.
Towards the late '70s he accepted Francis Ford Coppola's offer to direct a film in the U.S. based on Dashiell Hammett's biography. Still in the U.S. he shot Nick's Movie, a portrait of film-maker Nicholas Ray whom he much admired, and Paris, Texas, a haunting tale of nostalgia and the quest for lost happiness. In 1989 he immortalised Berlin with Wings Of Desire, which was followed by the equally epic Until The End Of The World and Faraway, So Close! He was also honoured by receiving the Doctor Honoris Causa of the Sorbonne University position and today is the President Of the European Film Academy and professor at the Hochschule fur Film und Fernsehen.
On the author front, Wenders has been the recipient of books written about him and dedicated to him and has published Emotions Pictures; Reflections on The Cinema, The Logic of Images: Essays and Conversations, The Act Of Seeing: Essays and Conversations, and his book of photographs Einmal: Bilder und Geschicten. Another little known fact about Wenders, that he is keen to discuss is the fact that he is, in his own words, "a failed painter: I'm a director who thinks very much in images and in frames, in the look of the scene, the light on an actor's face. So I try not to have too many preconceptions about how the film should look before I start shooting. I believe that a film finds its look in the first weeks of shooting. I'm opposed to having it all worked out beforehand and then trying to force your actors, locations and ambience into that look. I think it works better the other way around. For me, the cinematographer is the most important collaborator."
As the waves of middle age gently lap against Wenders's creative current there is a sense that there is much more to come. There is also the question of whether, throughout his tapestry of films, we have glanced into the corridors of his own soul; the wanderlust, the alienation and the sense of ambiguity that his characters seem to embody and the surreal apocalypse of a world confused about where it has been and where it is going. At a guess, The End Of Violence is the benchmark for yet another turning point, and this time it appears the auteur is preoccupied with the tide of fear, paranoia and the revelation of one single incident changing a persons life.
Wim Wenders has changed many people's lives, he's given us the courage and belief that change is always possible and that the man or woman who grasps redemption regardless of his/her loss of innocence is truly the most human of all. The wings of Wim have always been broad and existential, fragile and human, vocal and silent, and an experience, that should you miss, would be a tragedy within itself.
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