Film-Philosophy 

ISSN 1466-4615

 


Stan Jones

Wim Wenders: The Inside Story 


 

 

Robert Phillip Kolker and Peter Beicken

_The Films of Wim Wenders: Cinema as Vision and Desire_

Cambridge University Press, 1993

ISBN: 0-521-38976-3

197 pp.

 

'The excess of self-consciousness in both the characters and their creator is striking. Wenders wanders through the imaginary of film history, attempting to find cinematic fathers and re-create images that will validate and make sufficient a narrative about characters who struggle to turn their lives into pictures and stories.' (42-3)

 

Kolker and Beicken have written a sort of 'Pilgrim's Progress' about Wenders and, as their sub-title has it, the 'Vision and Desire' of his filmmaking. Their book is a mono(duo?)graph which does have its own voice. With _Wings of Desire_ and _Until the End of the World_ (they do not use the original German titles) they quit him as he 'leaves behind the road to the city of dreadful night' (166) and 'seeks the heimatization of the self' (164). The way they make an ur-German noun, Heimat, do duty as a verb in English says a lot about the style of their account. By and large it avoids the jargons of media sociology, aesthetics, cultural studies and so on, although it can copy the gesture of jargon in such coinages. It is subjective and cinephilic -- aimed at the Anglo-American cineaste market that may be receptive to auteurs like Wenders but may not have direct access through its language to the culture from which they originate. Their analysis is very different from Norbert Grob's _Wenders_ (Edition Film, 1991) which presents Wenders exclusively as a German filmmaker for a German readership. Whilst Grob's response is an equally personal monograph, he makes no reference to what Kolker and Beicken call: 'a past too frightful to remember and a present eagerly offering the means to forget' (29) and focuses more closely on the aesthetics of Wenders' work, invoking such diverse authorities as Pasolini and Balazs, to celebrate, through a sort of enthusiastic ontology, its capacity to make utopias seem credible.

 

_The Films of Wim Wenders_ ranges freely over his work and his commentaries whilst following their overall chronology. It is a study for viewers already familiar with the films and not, for example, like Reinhold Rauh's _Wim Wenders_ (Heyne, Munich, 1990), an introduction potentially useful to students for basic reference. Its seven chapters are supported by a filmography, bibliography and an index, but the nature and provenance of the authors is not revealed. They see Wenders as an auteur and are correspondingly keen to interpret the films as expressions of the creative individual: 'The films of Wim Wenders reveal a special link between the biographical and the cinematic.' (5) The necessary references to the Oberhausen Manifesto (1962) -- to Fassbinder, Herzog (including a still of the three together in Cannes in 1982 from Wenders' television documentary _Chambre 666_), Alexander Kluge, Straub and Huillet -- locate him in his historical context as a filmmaker, but there is hardly any explanation of the political economy of the public subsidies for production and exhibition, together with the support from television networks, that launched the New German Cinema. Nor is there any analysis of the way Wenders today manages to negotiate his way between the demands of the international market, which employs his contemporaries from Germany: Wolfgang Petersen (In the Line of Fire), and Roland Emmerich (Independence Day); or from France: Luc Besson (The Fifth Element); or the will to make his own films as part of the world-wide 'second cinema' that simultaneously interacts with and resists the dominance of Hollywood.

 

His background appears through a biographical approach somewhat reminiscent of a literary 'life and works'. The in-joke of 'Boy with the Movie Camera' introduces the first phase of his life in which, so we are informed: 'The desire for the imaginary, for a comfortable, internal world of images made him seek the pleasures of Chaplin, Mack Sennett and their like' (1) -- already at age 6. The same fascination then leads him to use his first film camera simply to record the everyday of the street outside. The entire book underpins this premise with the psycho-historical reference to: 'an incompleted, perhaps incompletable oedipal process' (4), to posit an auteur filmmaker seeking, above all, redemption in creating cinema, and this account co-opts Wenders' own reflections on his work figure in support of this approach. Although he is not a theorist, his willingness to explain his profession, to speculate on his own work and to publish a series of personal accounts mark him much more as a director from the New German Cinema than blanket definitions of his generation of Germans.

 

The first chapter demonstrates his well-known problems with storytelling in filmic fictions and closes with Wenders' first efforts as a student in Munich, culminating in _Summer in the City_ from 1971. On the way, the concept of the 'desiring gaze' (9) explains Wenders' relatively static style as a desire to arrest fleeting images in time and couples that with his well-known enthusiasm for rock music, which Kolker and Beicken elevate to a truly metaphysical significance: 'Rock music filled and ordered the soul' (14), but without trying to explain beyond general references to a generation's insistence on its own enjoyment and freedom precisely what it is about what forms of this music in a foreign language that carries such clout (_Summer in the City_ is, after all, dedicated to a notably subtle British band, The Kinks). They add the recurring figure of the 'uprooted, disenfranchised male' and stress the constant presence of the US in its film and its popular culture generally. The famous line from _Kings of the Road_ is there early, of course, but the writers offer the aside: 'that his responses to American film were, in fact, a bit disingenuous' (21). There are probably a couple of doctorates and/or a significant addition to our understanding of Wenders' work behind this passing remark if anyone cared to reassess its cross-cultural applications to his work to date.

 

The next chapter continues the large-scale biographical background: 'the young German intellectuals of the sixties had to re-create themselves and their history; they had to invent images to develop representations for a past and a present that resisted the very work they were undertaking' (29). Using Anton Kaes' _From Heimat to Hitler_, Kolker and Beicken expand on Wenders as a modernist filmmaker through references to his contemporaries in Germany, and to the US influences, particularly Nicholas Ray and John Ford, above all with the latter's figure of Ethan Edwards from _The Searchers_. The famous final image of John Wayne, framed in the doorway of the homestead as the psycho-cowboy-alone, wandering back to the empty desert, is juxtaposed visually with the similarly framed figure of Robert at the end of _Kings of the Road_ as he contemplates the 'desert' of the depopulated area along the intra-German border. Under the sub-heading, 'Exile and Innocence', the account shifts forward towards _Kings of the Road_ by stressing the 'men alone' of _The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick_, _Wrong Movement_, _Alice in the Cities_, and _The American Friend_. With Ethan Edwards always ghosting in the background, the chapter covers a sweep of cinematic terrain which includes the German Expressionist heritage, Wenders' main German contemporaries, and: 'The American cinematic patrimony' (41), above all of Nicholas Ray. The treatments of individual films and the thematic comparisons between them are useful and indicate that this section perhaps needed a separate chapter to do justice to _The American Friend_. The overall theme of redemption guides the analysis -- as they define it: 'an ability on the part of the character to acknowledge his emotional landscape, traverse it, and perhaps locate a route out -- go through a process of recognition, attainment, and change' (44-5). Where this process relates to the function of the viewer, then the book offers one of its most useful insights into Wenders' work as a whole: 'Wenders' films are most successful when his contemplative style offers a generosity to his characters by mediating his and the viewer's attraction to them with a certain distance in both mise en scene and narrative.' (48-9) However, at some points Kolker and Beicken tend to undermine their case by curtailing their reading of the texts. As they demonstrate at considerable length the parallels between Ray's _The Lusty Men_ and _Kings of the Road_, they offer two contrasting stills of the main characters rediscovering significant objects below their old homes. Not for nothing does Bruno fish out an old film-can with memories, whilst Jeff finds a rusty six-gun. Bruno is on an island in the Rhine and Jeff is a westerner; Jeff's past is authentic to his place, Bruno's is 'colonised', hence his despair, as against Jeff's reconciliation with the locals. The process, but not the meaning of redemption, is what Wenders quotes. The chapter closes by scanning the children in Wenders' work to show how important they are to that process. It is particularly useful in integrating the over-extended narrative of _Until the End of the World_ by interpreting the dangerous addiction to childhood offered by the brain-imaging device.

 

From the closing scene of _Kings of the Road_ where Robert begins to find his way back by trading his last possessions for a child's confidently unalienated account of his world, the next chapter returns to that film under the sub-heading 'Motion and Emotion' (59). To support their linkage with his other films, they again range widely across cinema history: 'In the tradition of Welles, Ray, Antonioni, Godard, Bertolucci, Ozu and Tarkovsky, Wenders creates a work whose intensity and emotion emerge from the construction of figures in a landscape, from the way his characters' search for self is placed, composed, and observed within images that articulate states of mind and place.' (65) Detailed reading of the main passages of the film gets support by references to Roland Barthes, no less, and his concept of memory as a 'being there' (67). However, the failure of both of the 'kings' to cope with their personal memories -- to do the mourning parallel to the historical situation of their entire generation (here the writers rightly concentrate on the grotesque and surreal 'found object ' of the Fuhrer's-head candle) -- advances the book's overall analysis by bringing in relationships between the sexes. Kolker and Beicken hasten to disavow bad faith by a coinage: 'We do not mean to monger scandal here' (83), to cover references to Wenders' own domestic arrangements. They locate his wanderers in a cultural history of the 70's and 80's which is apparently characterised by many men avoiding the emotional demands placed on them by women only to re-discover their own emotionality when it appears that, by the mid 80's, women no longer seek it. At this point, there springs to mind the excruciating scene from _Faraway, So Close_ as the gentle instruction of Cassiel in her bar by Marion on the difference between men and women suddenly disintegrates under the impact of the drunken 'Time Itself', with his American accent.

 

If the writers are willing to accept the purely cinematic closing scene of _Kings of the Road_ ('a ballad of male unease told in images of such clarity and eloquence that this unease is itself made easy' 85-6), they reject _The State of Things_: 'The redemption, unfortunately, turns out to be in bad faith.' (112), and declare it a 'rite of passage' (112) on the way to _Paris, Texas_ and _Wings of Desire_. The impulse toward this film they trace in one sense through _Tokyo-Ga_ and _Lightning over Water_ and in another through Wenders' well-known difficulties with Coppola over _Hammett_. They describe Wenders' search for one of his masters, Ozu, through Japanese locations: 'The son -- by the act of changing a lens -- becomes the father. Ozu is discovered and revived in an image. And lost again.' (89) The depiction comes, for all he world, to resemble a 'treatment' for a screenplay on a life in filmmaking. As far as Lightning goes, an account of Wenders' difficulties in editing material that includes a dying friend and colleague filmed even as he calls cut, that is sufficient comment on that entire exercise as a piece of bad faith, whether conscious or no. By contrast, they deal briefly and trenchantly with Coppola: 'an American filmmaker who was running out of creative steam and had no financial acumen' (93), and sum up the film as 'a failed attempt to capture the complexities of a writer's imagination and the despair of the creative act' (95). The overall conclusion invokes the rumble of Adorno and Horkheimer's heavy guns (109) as it claims to show Wenders embarking on: 'a cry of anger at an unresponsive industry' (95), to express in the film what 'we daresay' (101) are biographical tensions. We, readers and viewers of Wenders might hearken in vain to the thunder for an explanation of what it is about his times that brings this sort of auteur to react like this to his profession. A ready-made aesthetic and cultural category serves the turn: _The State of Things_ is, namely, an historical document and amounts to Wenders' final passage through the modernism that has dominated his self-reflexive work to date, towards melodrama and the postmodern via, as Kolker and Beicken so graphically have it, 'an agony in the desert and a journey to heaven' (113).

 

With the figure of Travis in _Paris, Texas_, Kolker and Beicken are back on the: 'quest that is informed by oedipal desire' (119). Their reading of the film generates a range of insights which in turn support the notion that this probably still is Wenders' most subtle and accomplished film so far; certainly he's publicly proud of it. Its success may well result to a great extent from the screenplay by Sam Shepard and Kit Carson. That Wenders is better at visualising someone else's texts is an issue this study canvasses only indirectly -- and one that perhaps needs the sort of special attention the full-blown PhD (with appropriate knowledge of German) might furnish. The overall background in American film melodrama comes through in references to _The Shining_, to Nicholas Ray's _Bigger than Life_, and, inevitably, to Ethan Edwards. Wenders adapts the conventions to examine questions of patriarchy, domesticity and misogyny, so that _Paris, Texas_ continues the trajectory of redemption for the 'man alone'. With the help of his brother, his brother's wife and, above all, of a child in the form of a son wise-beyond-his-years, Travis can be brought to tell his story and to know himself enough to prevent the recurrence of the disaster by removing himself from the possible future domesticity he engineers for Jane and Hunter. Kolker and Beicken, however, are dissatisfied with the closure: 'And even though Travis seems to have abdicated his violent obsessions, he -- like his namesake in _Taxi Driver_ -- drives into the night still full of threat in a culture that cultivates and supports men who are possessed by their desire to master women.' (136) They are only a step away from censuring Wenders and his film for not taking issue with that culture, for not being an allegory that censures the kind of America implied in the 'bad joke' of the film's title. In objecting to what the film does not do, they have missed some of the basic point about what it does do. They declare 'the lack of satiric or ironic drive' (143) in Wenders' work, and can't see that _Paris, Texas_ is a highly ironic film. Behind the fastidious pace of its narrative and the sometimes surreal perfection of its imagery (Travis in the carpark in the Houston evening, for instance), it thoroughly manipulates the point-of-view of its spectators. This appears above all in the 'home-movie' sequence where we, the watchers who watch the fictional watchers, are challenged to carry on believing in them and their story as a parallel to the way the old Super-8 footage challenges them about their mutual past. And in the second visit to the 'chat-house', with the much-quoted superimposition of Travis' face onto Jane's through the glass, there is no concession to the superior viewpoint of the melodrama director. How Wenders refuses this role becomes very clear if his scene is compared with the mutual reconciliation of Johnny and Vienna from early in Ray's _Johnny Guitar_. After the embittered exchange, the heroine suddenly agrees to join the hero in mutual deception about their bitterness so that we can be sure all will be alright in the end. Certainly, Kolker and Beicken see that 'Travis has thwarted his own melodrama' (136), but they do not stress the way Wenders' film leaves its viewers with the question as to how much they want to 'play the game' as audience in finding some sort of reconciliation through a satisfactory allegory. Finally, the film's refusal of the closure on all levels is, of course, a form of reckoning with the images of America it uses, and one that took Wenders' work to a wider audience in a way that is particularly European.

 

With _Wings of Desire_ we come to Europe, postmodernism, and, according to the writers, to pomposity. Wenders' dedication to Ozu, Truffaut and Tarkovsky provides the introduction. It concentrates particularly on the Russian, who apparently: 'indulges in great romantic statements' (140), a verdict which leads in turn to the blanket assessment: 'But clearly, Wenders admires the presumption of the Russian's images and probably felt sympathetic to his career problems in the USSR and his subsequent wanderings.' (140) The book's 'voice' remains subjective and speculative about a significant, if not great, filmmaker and, although it again highlights another necessary area for investigation, it becomes also irritating by implying that Tarkovsky is somehow one of the wandering males from Wenders' fictions.

 

The manipulation of point-of-view in this film does not recreate the fundamental irony of _Paris, Texas_. The angel viewpoint, with its crossing into colour as Damiel crosses into history, is a patent allegory: 'the angels are cinema' (143). Kolker and Beicken locate the motif in the nature of Hollywood's fictions: 'Concerned with the material, in all senses from economic to aesthetic, film has not known what to do with the spiritual and usually presents it as a useful tool to expedite the sexual.' (141) -- a useful premise on Wenders' film which perhaps helps to explain their reticence over Tarkovsky's work. Following their ground-theme of redemption, they interpret Damiel's transition as recreating 'the cinematic act of giving the world its image and the body its place' (150). However, they stress Wenders' relative lack of concern with social and political identity and effectively dismiss the film's myth, whilst recognising the skill of its construction: 'Finally, after the delicate balancing of Christian and earthly myths, of storytellers, seers and angels, it is as if Wenders' struggle in coming to terms with the place of second-generation post-war Germans and their culture is resolved here in a heavily mediated, mass-culture joke.' (152) They find Wenders caught in 'the traps of a postmodern pastiche' (154) where the angels are 'caring but inescapably condescending' (144), and the penultimate scene in which the destined lovers identify each other is 'pompous and operatic' (156), and 'coming dangerously close to crypto-fascist fantasies' (157). At this point, closer attention to what Marion says in her 'aria' might improve the translation of: 'Wir sind jetzt die Zeit', when she calls on Damiel for the vital commitment by rendering it as: 'We are now time' -- that is we have the possibility of a human history together. As the book has it: 'We are now the time' (158) is comparatively stilted English and hints at parody of filmic melodrama. She certainly speaks of 'eine Geschichte von Riesen' (a story of giants) who will be 'Stammeltern' (progenitors), but they will be 'unsichtbaren' (invisible), certainly not the very physical ranks filmed by Riefenstahl. And all the time, we have her viewpoint in a massive close-up of Bruno Ganz as Damiel -- scarcely a crypto-fascist mise en scene. The entire scene is operatic because it has to be to show the central characters consciously looking for a way to express their story that avoids the traps of melodrama and points to the possibility of knowing their relationship and hence their joint identity in it.

 

Where Kolker and Beicken note the film's closing image with its traditional cinematic message -- 'Fortsetzung folgt (to be continued)' (159) -- they miss 'the possibility of a saving irony' (160), essentially of the same sort that informs _Paris, Texas_. However, this conclusion misses the significance of the final image of Marion's performance on the rope held by Damiel. His initiation into sexuality provokes an amazement at knowledge no angel can possess and is profoundly humanistic, well away from the perverse utopianism in fascist fantasies of Master Races. And, above all, the image and his monologue are set in the old Esplanade Hotel -- at that time a relic on the edge of the eerie waste of the divided Potsdamer Platz, the ghosts of its past as favourite haunt of the Gestapo hierarchy have been in the course of the film thoroughly exorcised by -- what else? -- rock music.

 

As Cassiel's viewpoint, the 'cinematic' is acknowledged in the final view of the lovers -- Wenders is not challenging his audience as he did in _Paris, Texas_ but rather inviting them to 'play the game' and assent to the fact that there is more than a postmodern game in the images he creates from Berlin. Other locations around the city generate the same impulse, as where the storyteller Homer, wanders the Potsdamer Platz between the Wall and the experimental 'Magnetbahn' (magnetic railway), and not, as the book has it: 'a desolate urban space' with 'the sweeping curves of a pedestrian bridge' (151). The mise en scene here needs much closer reading -- as does the film set sequence of the massive concrete air raid shelter. This appears again behind Peter Falk, who contemplates the Anhalter Bahnhof and gives Damiel his last encouragement to become human. Similarly, the 'condescending' view point of the angels needs to be considered against the harrowing sequence of Cassiel's despairing flight through the ravages of the present-day city in a montage blended with scenes from its past -- or of his lonely early-morning vigil from the empty top deck of a bus as it follows its route once again through rundown areas of the city. Above all, Wenders' use of the Wall in Damiel's transition needs explication. Beginning with the crane shot over it (a remarkable transformation of a truly concrete symbol into surreality) the entire sequence is massively and declaredly operatic as the mutating angel gives his hopeful aria (about notably male expectations!) to his sceptical fellow and the camera tracks with massive deliberateness away and back to show him carried back through to the West. Here, a further aspect of the film ensues, which Kolker and Beicken don't consider (but which presages the exuberant, almost anarchistic figure of the initial scenes of _Faraway, So Close_), namely the comedy of Damiel's first hours as a human man. They close their account by pointing to the collapse of the Wall, which they see motivated by: 'A yearning for freedom, desire for the West and consumer goods and fatigue with oppressive standards of living' (160), a rather too rapid summation of the complex events of 1989 that are still being worked out, especially in Berlin. The film's final sequence of Homer 'monitored' by Cassiel from atop the Goddess of Victory as the old storyteller heads for the Wall needs much closer attention -- as does the fact that it is, if anyone's, the storyteller's voice and not the doleful Cassiel's (159) whom declares: 'Nous sommes embarques'.

 

_Wings of Desire_ is a film whose meditation on history has become, if only for the development of Berlin in the 10 years since it appeared, an historic document which needs revisiting by critics. Similarly, Kolker and Beicken's study, like Grob's, has in a rather shorter period suffered inevitable ageing and the danger of obsolescence (it has not invoked postmodernity in vain!). _The Films of Wim Wenders_ has been reprinted twice but it would be far more useful if it could be revised. The writers should remove the unfortunate reference to Walter Benjamin's suicide (161) where they couple it with the fiction of Ethan Edwards to imply Benjamin's fate was that of some sort of compulsive wanderer from a Wenders' film. And they should consider _Until the End of the World_ more fully and assess the subsequent films. It would be most intriguing to see how the two authors might extend their final, ironic image for _Wings of Desire_: 'The king of the road wants to mount the stairway to heaven.' (160), to show how _Faraway, So Close_ works as a sequel, extending and closing off its myth, particularly as the voice-over consciousness underpins the final image of leave-taking with a reference to 'ihm' (presumably 'Him' as in a divinity). Wenders' company 'Road Movies' is still there in Berlin and he's recently been president of the European Film Academy there. But, of course, he has also been back to LA. for another round with that city and its angels.

 

University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand

 

*********

 

Stan Jones

Wim Wenders: The Inside Story 

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 1 no. 13, December 1997

http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol1-1997/n13jones

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1997

 

 

 

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