Sax and violins
The first UK retrospective of New Wave German filmmaker Wim Wenders starts this fortnight. Paul Dale celebrates his enduring appeal
Exactly what it is about the films of Wim Wenders that tends to appeal to film lovers of all ages is difficult to pinpoint. Like his countryman Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wenders was born into the bankrupted GI Joe-colonised Germany at the end of WWII. Indeed, it is youthful angst, alienation and America that informs all Wenders’ early films from Alice in the Cities to The American Friend. All these films are revisionist road movies powered by the idea that cultural American imperialism is essentially regressive. Wenders has always been about trying to find a way out of this cultural impasse for Germany’s postwar hippies. The protagonist of his Cannes Critics Prize-winning road flick Kings of the Road puts it best when he yells: ‘The Yanks have colonised our subconscious.’
There are some key truths we know about Wenders. There’s his love of the great US filmmaker Nicholas Ray. Wenders lifted a whole scene from Ray’s 1952 western The Lusty Men for Kings of the Road and the title of his bizarre 1991 futuristic epic Until the End of the World are the last words spoken in Ray’s life of Christ biopic King of Kings. While in preproduction for his flop 1981 US film noir Hammett, Wenders even made a film with Ray called Lightening Over Water about the older filmmaker’s last days as he died of cancer. Also an illness in childhood left Wenders infertile and this could be seen to account for his prolific output and his animistic fascination with natural and unnatural objects in many of his films. Then there’s his relationship with Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller on over a dozen great films including The Goalkeeper’s Fear of Penalty and of course Paris, Texas. Together they created a look and a feel for European and US independent cinema that permeates to this day in the cinema of Jim Jarmusch, Lars von Trier and Michael Winterbottom, all of whom Müller went on to work with.
And thanks to the shockingly successful Buena Vista Social Club there’s always Cuba and Wenders’ love of all kinds of music, which he has written about in volume after volume of essays.
And yet, Wenders is oddly undefinable. After making angelic art school student favourite Wings of Desire in 1987 his career wavered, he was lambasted by critics for his smug Wings sequel Faraway, So Close, and his deathly dull multi-hander The Million Dollar Hotel and even for his fine Sam Shepherd adaptation Don’t Come Knocking. Wenders, ever the optimist and great invoker of sound bites silenced those critics who accused him of being out of step in these ‘days of Tarantino’ by saying: ‘Sex and violence was never really my cup of tea; I was always more into sax and violins.’ Whatever your opinion of his films, he’s a funny guy.
Wim Wenders season starts with a new print of Alice in the Cities at Filmhouse, Edinburgh on Fri 11 Jan www.filmhousecinema.com