Wim Wenders: Catholic Journeyman

One of the leading filmmakers to emerge from the New German Cinema movement in the ’70s was Wim Wenders, then a young graduate from the recently opened Munich film school. Less radical in style and content than other conspicuous representatives of the young German cinema like Werner Herzog, Rainer Fassbinder, and Volker Schlöndorff, Wim Wenders has filled the spot in the international scene left vacant by the deaths of Fellini and Bunuel, and the cinematic retreat of Antonioni, Bergman, and Kurosawa.

The torch of the art film, as shaped by these figures emerging in the postwar era, and renovated by the various national waves of the ’60s and ’70s, has come to rest on Wenders, whose body of work over twenty-five years has traced some of the main issues of our times: alienation, communication, the relationship between men and women, and the status of technology and truth. It only took two pivotal films, Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987), to catapult Wenders into the international spotlight.

Wim (Ernst Wilhelm) Wenders was born in Dusseldorf, Germany on August 14, 1945, shortly after the end of World War II. Growing up in a Catholic home during the rapid economic recovery of the U.S.-backed Bundesrepublik of the ’50s, Wenders developed a lifelong fascination with American popular culture, especially movies and rock and roll music. In the mid-60s, following a family tradition, he briefly went to medical school, and later spent a few months in Paris attending daily screenings of the Cinematheque Francaise. He settled in Munich in 1967, to study filmmaking at the Hochschule fur Fernsehen and Film, from which he graduated in 1970 with Summer in the City, a drama of isolation that anticipated the themes of his later work.

While in film school, he was a critic for several publications. By age and sensibility a member of the generation that wanted to change “Opas Kino” (Grandpa’s cinema), Wenders shared the tenets of the Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962, which sought a renewal of the German screen, and was a founding member of Filmverlag der Autoren, a cooperative to produce and distribute films outside of the regular channels. With financial backing from German public television, Wenders was able to consolidate his career around a cluster of idiosyncratic “road movies”: The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972), Alice in the Cities (1974), Wrong Move (1975) and Kings of the Road (1976).

The critical and box office success of the neo film noir thriller The American Friend (1977) led to an invitation from Francis Coppola to make a film in Los Angeles about detective writer Dashiell Hammett, which after much heartache and studio interference was released in 1982 as Hammett, starring Frederic Forrest. The difficult Hollywood experience— from 1978 to 1984—crystallized in two soul searching self-referential films: the experimental documentary Lightning over Water (1980) about his friendship with dying filmmaker Nicholas Ray, and the autobiographical fiction The State of Things (1982). Wenders would return to more traditional fiction in the widely acclaimed family drama Paris, Texas (1984). After his return to Europe, Wenders settled in Berlin, a center of 20th century artistic development to which he paid poetic homage in the extraordinary Wings of Desire (1987) and its underrated sequel Faraway, So Close! (1993).

His other recent features—the science fiction road movie parable Until the End of the World (1991) and the futuristic thriller The End of Violence (1997)—have not provoked the same enthusiasm of his breakout titles. Parallel to his fiction work, Wenders has produced several idiosyncratic film diaries about the nature and future of cinema in the electronic age, most notably TokyoGa (1985) and Notebook on Clothes and Cities (1989). A European filmmaker who deeply admires classical Hollywood cinema, Wenders sees his work as a conversation with the great names of this young art, including Wenders’ favorites John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray, and Yazujiro Ozu.

The question of the relationship between Wenders’s Catholic background and his films seems at first difficult to answer. While the filmmaker has always been willing to discuss his life and work in connection to the cinema, he has supplied little information about himself. “I have the same biography as Scorsese—in so far as being Catholic goes, and wanting to become a priest,” he told an interviewer in 1976. And he noted again in 1988, “You keep a lot of what formed you as a child, and I think I was profoundly formed by growing up in a Catholic family, and by my father’s profession. He’s a surgeon, a really committed doctor.” As was the case with the other directors discussed so far in the pages of this magazine—Ford, Hitchcock, and Coppola—the only way to discern a given director’s Catholic world view is to look at his work. The temptation is to make their films fit a Procrustean bed of preset ideas; modern academia has read into Wenders’s work oedipal trajectories, homoerotic undertones, and patriarchal structures, but the films themselves reveal a more traditional understanding of human relationships, and the role played by cinematic forebears.

Unlike directors working in a highly-specialized studio system like Hollywood, Wenders has been the generator of all his projects from their inception to the final stages; even exceptions to this, The Scarlet Letter (1973) and Hammett, both bear his imprint. Taking Wenders’s films as a work in progress from 1972—the year of his first commercial release—to date, a unifying theme runs through them: how an individual person struggles to cope with, or change, the circumstances of his life. In Wenders there is identification between the personal and the cinematographic. His films reflect the evolution of his concerns—intellectual and moral—from the individual toward the two primary forms of community: couple and family.

His early features, the road movies of the ’70s, follow the geographical and spiritual meanderings of lonely males, alienated figures lost in the historical vacuum of postwar Germany, yearning for American pop culture, passive spectators of life who relate to women with difficulty. While the films of Fassbinder and Alexander Kluge examine the social and political conditions of postwar Germany, and Antonioni denounces the alienation created by an industrialized society, Wenders describes the effects of this angst-ridden malaise on individuals like himself. Far from narcissistic exercises, these road movies, by weaving literary, historical, and political allusions in minimalist plots, have become documentary vignettes of the fractured Germany so drastically changed after 1989.

In Paris, Texas, a family drama in the guise of a road movie, co-written with Sam Shepard, the director shows with emotional vigor the struggles of a sinful man to reconstitute the family he broke. The protagonist, Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), is on the road with a mission. The film is cast in the mold of Ford’s The Searchers, about a loner’s impossible quest for home and family, and uses the desert of the Southwest like an impressionist landscape, in a manner reminiscent of Ford’s Westerns. But the landscape—in another nod to Ford—is also an extension of the protagonist’s broken moral universe. At the beginning of the film, the Texas desert from which Travis emerges in a catatonic state to the haunting guitar score of Ry Cooder is literally and figuratively the burning hell where he has spent the years after the breakup of his marriage and family. The open space to which he returns at the end, after having reunited his wife (Nastassia Kinski) and child (Hunter Carson), has now become a purgatory. He is redeemed but, like the hero of the classical Western, is unable to participate in the community he has saved.

The climax of Paris, Texas—a conversation between husband and wife, separated symbolically by a thick one-way glass—is staged like a confession; the sordid peep show where the abandoned wife now works becomes a confessional that restores communication and makes redemption possible. The reunion of mother and son at the end of the film—shot with the emotional restraint characteristic of Wenders—gracefully evokes the Madonna and child.

The Christian elements shaping the narrative of Paris, Texas become the defining traits of Wenders’s European return, the allegoric and multilayered Wings of Desire and its sequel Faraway, So Close! If the road movies of the ’70s are about wandering through Germany to make sense of oneself in connection to the rural, urban, and human landscape, and Paris, Texas is a German’s existential view of America, Wings of Desire is a “vertical road movie” about Berlin, to quote Wenders. Written in collaboration with the Austrian writer Peter Handke (who coauthored The Goalie’s Anxiety and Wrong Move), and inspired by Rilke’s poetry, the film imagines the lives of the guardian angels that watch over the Berliners, listening to their subconscious and alleviating their physical pains and heartaches. The Wall is an open wound that fractures the city, and the past is ever present around the corner. Only children can see the angels floating over the city—hence the beautiful original title in German, Der Himmel iiber Berlin. Heavenly spirits without human desires and outside the ravages of time (imaginatively resolved on film), the angels guard the memory of the city, dwelling in a public library near the Wall.

One of them, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), forgoes eternity for the experience of life’s simple pleasures and the love of a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin), an earthly woman thirsting for the beauty of a couple lasting over time. The angel’s incarnation is marked by the film’s switch from black and white—the spiritual sphere of the angels—to color, the world of human experience. Even though the plot weaves several interconnected stories about Berlin and its ambivalent past, the film hinges on Damiel, a Wendersian hero on a journey of contemplation that leads to knowledge and action. It opens with a closeup of the angel’s hand writing: “When the child was a child, he did not know that he was a child … and that all souls were one….” The shot is paralleled at the end, when the incarnated Damiel writes of love: “I now know … what no angel knows.” The final shot of the Berlin skyline has superimposed “nous sommes embarquis” (we are on board), and then “to be continued.”

Predictably, Hollywood is currently remaking Wings of Desire in the city of Los Angeles, with Nicholas Cage.

Faraway, So Close! is the companion piece to Wings of Desire. Made when the dust of the collapsed Wall was still triggering a domino effect in Eastern Europe, the film takes up the story of angel Cassiel (Otto Sander) and his own incarnation. This time, however, the poetic celebration of humanness at the heart of Wings of Desire has given place to the pressing need to document a unique historic moment. Wenders does so in a somewhat paradoxical manner, turning the story of the angel into an allegory of Christ while making post-communist Berlin an archetypical battleground between good and evil.

The film opens with a Gospel citation, Matthew 6:22, a line with special resonance to a filmmaker: “The lamp of the body is the eye. It follows that if your eye is clear, your whole body will be filled with light.” Standing atop the Victory Column in the heart of reunited Berlin, Cassiel describes himself as a messenger who purposefully refrains from reporting his message. The angel’s life as an incarnated soul follows, in essence, the story of Christ; it is a story of encounters with the good and evil inhabitants of present day Berlin, culminating in the angel’s sacrificial death to save those he loves. Using different film genres, several plots are interwoven to record the city’s picaresque: the Nazi past, mafia-style businessmen, the daily struggles of honest people, and the work of petty crooks like the fallen angel/Judas figure played by Willem Dafoe.

The poignant death of this modern Christ takes place on a river boat heading towards the open sea. Pictorially, this closing scene is staged as a descent from the cross, with Christ resting in the arms of his afflicted mother, surrounded by faithful friends. The voices of angels are overheard, completing Cassiel’s opening lines: “We are only messengers … the message is love.” Color fades into black and white. The angel has arrived home.

Some reviewers of Faraway, So Close! noted that Wenders had become a moralist intent on delivering a message. In a 1994 interview, reprinted in The Cinema of Wim Wenders (1997), the director addressed this criticism, remarking:

[T]he images can no longer carry the message. That’s why I wanted to be more specific with Faraway, So Close! than with Wings of Desire. If I take the liberty to use the angels a second time and to continue their story, then I have to say something that too often remains unsaid…. Today films are evaluated exclusively by their entertainment value, and it bothered many people that Faraway, So Close! had a message, if they saw it as a Christian message.

In a quiet but effective manner, the films of Wim Wenders invite the viewer to contemplate the journeys of life and the yearnings for home, through heroes torn by the dilemmas presented by life in the modern world. It is in these geographical journeys—the central narrative of a Wenders film—that they find a response, first by finding themselves. The rootless drifters of the first films have subsequently become searchers who yearn to be made whole by accepting the responsibilities of family. In Wenders’s universe children fulfill a double role: they bring change and redemption, and they also symbolize trust and hope, in the spirit of the Gospel. It is only natural, after all, that the wise innocence of Alice in Alice in the Cities and Hunter in Paris, Texas is an attribute of the angels in the Berlin diptych.

In his latest release, The End of Violence, Wenders recapitulates themes recurring in his work, without breaking new ground. It is befitting that the story of Michael Max (Bill Pullman), a fast-track Hollywood producer of violent action movies, unfolds in Los Angeles, a city that has been the home of so many European filmmakers in the past and today. The film reprises the issue, raised in Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), of the moral use of technology, and echoes the chilling possibilities of a world ruled by Big Brother depicted in George Orwell’s novel 1984. But it is also a sharp-edged portrait of Hollywood movie sharks, a story about the formation of a couple, and an affectionate picture of a closely-knit Catholic Mexican family that saves the protagonist’s life and helps him on a journey of redemption. At the end of the millennium, Wenders keeps repeating that a change of heart is the first step towards salvation.


  • Maria Elena de las Carreras

    María Elena de las Carreras, MA '89, PhD ’95 is an associate professor at the UCLA school of theater, film, and television. a Fulbright scholar and film critic from Argentina, she is a regular collaborator of the Latin American Cinemateca of Los Angeles and the CSUN Cinematheque. She has been an accredited journalist at the Berlin Film Festival since 1986. She has published many journalistic articles and essays, in English and Spanish. Her scholarly publications and blog are available through academia.edu.

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