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Wim Wenders: "I Never Learned Anything from the History of Cinema"

Courtesy of Wim Wenders Foundation

To study Wim Wender’s filmography is to witness an artist steadily expanding his art and understanding of life. A leading figure of the New German Cinema movement, he began his career making “road movies" that explored social alienation, post-war German angst, and the growing ubiquity of American culture. It is these films that give “Portraits Along The Road,” his month-long retrospective at the IFC Center, its name.

2015 has been a big year for Wenders, who turned 70 last month. In February, he won a lifetime achievement award at the Berlin International Film Festival; in March, the MoMA held a 20-film showcase of his work; and now, IFC Center is running a retrospective featuring new restorations of his early films and screenings of movies never before released in the United States.

I met Wenders last week at his hotel in Lower Manhattan. In matching striped suspenders, and a rather flamboyant ring, he looked like a genial and eccentric uncle from afar. But in person, Wenders had the magnetism of a compulsive artist, and the charm of a much younger man. He found the hotel lobby too noisy and instead decided that we should speak on the roof. Perhaps our location promoted this, but Wenders tended to speak while looking into the horizon. Then, just when I thought he was lost in his own narrative, he’d turn and ask me a question about my life. Indeed, for a man who has to navigate interviews wherever he goes, Wenders maintained a remarkable humility during our conversation. “How old are you?” he asked, once the interview was over. “Twenty-one,” I said. “Good,” he replied, “That’s how old I was when I began writing about films.” 

Ratik Asokan: You grew up in a Dusseldorf that had been flattened into emptiness by allied bombing in World War II. You have spoken about how art provided you with an escape from this emptiness. But what’s interesting is that your characters—especially in the early films—are in fact attracted to America’s empty landscapes.

Wim Wenders: If you know about something—and I certainly knew about devastation, and emptiness—it influences your aesthetic.

You see, aesthetics is a very strange thing. I never learned anything from the history of cinema or photography. I didn’t know any movies, and we didn’t have television. Photography was something you saw in newspapers, but it wasn’t an art. So, the only counter-image of the world I knew was the world of paintings. And even if the cities around me were flattened, and quite brutally empty in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, there was art and in art there was a whole different world to be seen—different cities and different landscapes, and there was a different kind of beauty. I was the only kid I knew who had to drag his parents to the museum, because I couldn’t get enough of it.

RA: Painting is one influence. The other influence seems to be writing.

WW: I didn’t know I was going to be a filmmaker. I didn’t even know that film director was a profession. I wanted to be a painter, and I did write. I wrote a lot about music, about movies. I was a critic. I loved writing, I loved drawing, and I loved music.

And eventually when I got older, I realized that there was a job called filmmaker, and that it was everything I loved rolled into one. It could deal with music and photography and painting and architecture, and writing—especially. I’ve never written any fiction, only essays. But I love to write. Some of my best friends are writers: like Peter Handke, Paul Auster, Peter Carey, and Sam Shepherd. And I’m very much in awe of them, because that profession of sitting in front a typewriter and computer and writing for months and months seems very scary to me. I think its one of the loneliest and one of the most oppressive things a man can do. Writing informs so much of filmmaking. But when you film you’re out in the world. Of course, its still important what people think and what people say, and this is writing. But the rest is unwritten. The landscape, the sky, and the colors: they are all unwritten and un-writable. That is the beauty of filmmaking.

RA: There’s an arc in your filmography that leads from alienation to reconciliation. In Goalkeeper’s Fear Of The Penalty(1972), Joseph Bloch has no hope of reconciliation with society, and no one to form a relationship with. In Paris, Texas (1984), Travis reunites his wife and son, but remains estranged from the family. Then, in Wings of Desire (1987), there is a real reconciliation—between an angel and human. Looking back, do you understand how that arc developed?

WW: I’m very fortunate because I actually made movies that I learned from. I don’t know what I would have become if I hadn’t made movies. I might have remained the alienated, estranged kid I was in the beginning. My early films were very much about alienation. And if these characters slowly learnt to form relationships, it is because I was slowly learning to relate to people.

My films—by definition, and by necessity—have always been processes of learning. I always insisted that I would learn myself through film. And that’s why most of my films were open-ended, and for a lot of them, even the ending wasn’t written. I don’t like movies that give me the sense that the people who made them didn’t go through any experience, that they were just executing something that had been figured out before. I insist that I can have an experience with my actors and as a filmmaker, and that we learn something. If I am the man I am now, I owe a large part of that to the experiences my films have allowed me to travel through.

RA: So your filmmaking experience taught you about films, and also about life?

WW: About living, yes. I learned about relating with others. I learned how to stop remaining isolated. I learnt about approaching other people, about trusting people. In Paris Texas, I learned about trusting a story. I never trusted any story before that. I learnt to trust in that longing that Travis has in the beginning. He doesn’t know where he is going, only that he desperately wants to find his family again. So I learned to trust these feelings through my films. And eventually love, not just longing, became my biggest subject, and the biggest part of my life as well. 

RA: When you mean trust in the story, are you referring to a narrative in which—

WW: In narrative, period! Story structures are mostly quite artificial. They start with a certain situation, and eventually lead to a conclusion. And in my own life, I had a lot of things happening to me, but nothing ever concluded or had an arc. So in movies I usually feel cheated if there is a conclusion. Where does that conclusion come from? Does it come from the characters? Or is it superimposed? And I mainly felt it was superimposed. The first time I felt it wasn’t superimposed was in Paris, Texas. That was the first time I ever believed in a conclusion.

RA: America, American culture, and the Americanization of Germany are big themes in your films, especially those from the ‘70s. How has your relationship with the U.S. changed over time?

WW: Growing up, my idea of America was based on comic strips, rock and roll, movies, and novels. These books, movies, and music revealed to me an alternative culture that I embraced and preferred to my German culture. But of course that didn’t amount to a great knowledge of America.

And then I eventually travelled here for my first film, Goalies Anxiety At The Penalty Kick that was shot here in New York in ‘72. I lived in the U.S. for altogether 15 years. American counter-culture became a culture I lived in and experienced. I got to know its drawbacks, its eventual failure, but its beauties as well. It became my everyday reality.

But times changed. The Vietnam War made me look at America more critically, then Reaganomics and the Bush eras. I still love America for what its ideas are about, but I’m also very weary of it. It has nothing to do with what I dreamt of when I was a kid.

RA: That’s interesting what you say about America’s realities versus its ideals. In Alice In The Cities, Phillip Winters says, “When you drive through America, something happens to you. The images you see change you.” Do you understand, today, what happens?

WW: Well he spoke my mind. I remember my first journeys out of New York into the Midwest, into the endless plains where everything is the same, and you can no longer tell which city you are in, because they all look the same. You drove, you entered the same no-descript area, the same motels and gas stations and chain food. After the beauty of New York, it became scary for me that America was so non-descript. Phillip Winters spoke my mind then. 

Later, of course, I got to know another cities well. I lived in San Francisco and Los Angeles. I came to like Chicago. But still, rural America has a scary aspect—it’s all governed by a lack of individuality, by a lack of local culture, and that chain culture is overwhelmingly present.

RA: Do you find there to be any major differences between American and European audiences?

WW: Well slowly, I’m afraid, these audiences are becoming more and more the same. But they weren’t to begin with. An audience is shaped by learning, by what it’s feeding on, and a contemporary audience today is feeding on the same things worldwide, more or less. Still, there is a little bit of a different expectation in Europe. Cinema, from the beginning, in European culture, has been more an art of expression, a language of culture, rather than an entertainment or an industry. In America it was regarded much more as an industry from the beginning. It was only when I came to America did I realize that European movies had this big aura. Americans associated European movies with angst, with philosophy, with deep thinking. Bergman and Antonioni and other European filmmakers were considered deep.

Maybe European cinema, from the beginning, has been about the question of how to live. And Americans, from the beginning, have been concentrating on how to enjoy. Maybe that dichotomy is true.

RA: We know you love classic filmmakers like Ozu, Tarkovsky and Truffaut. Who are the contemporary filmmakers you most admire?

WW: Ah…there are a lot of them. In America, I admire Jim Jarmusch. I like the French filmmaker Gaspar Noe.

A lot of my favorite filmmakers are actually into documentaries. And my respect for documentaries is gaining more and more. Nonfiction, today, seems to me a more courageous and more adventurous genre than fiction. Fiction, I’m afraid to say, is more and more based on formulas. So if I have a choice—say, I go over to the Angelika not knowing what’s running, I’ll definitely see a documentary if one is on. I have more hope that a documentary will tell me something I don’t know yet.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.