|WIM WENDERS (GERMANY)
GOETHE INSTITUTE OF THESSALONIKI
NIKIS AV 15 / 272-644
MO-SA 9.00 - 21.30
Philip Winter, the protagonist of Alice in the Cities takes pictures of his environment with a Polaroid
(which, to Wim Wenders, has become, in the technical age, the equivalent of what water-colour
paintings and sketches used to be) complaining, though, "that they never show what one has seen".
Reality cannot be truly reflected by a picture which can only reproduce a moment in time. The
German translation of the French saying "Je ne sais plus ou j' en suis" is "Mir ist Horen und Sehen
vergangen", which literally means "I have lost the ablility to see and understand". In Amsterdam,
Alice presents Philip with a generous gift: she photographs him with his camera and remarks
laconically, "Now you know what you look like!" A photograph, for once, is clear evidence and, at the
same time, a reflection of the conflict between migration and settling down, one of Wender's key
topics, since people are condemned to be strangers at home and to feel lonely abroad.
One of his first films is entitled Scenes. Scenes are "places where things happen", where particular
moments take place: a theatre of war, a stage, the scene of a crime or of any other event. This film is
lost now. It was made in Munich when the city prepared itself for the 1972 Olympics, which were to
finally send to oblivion the memory of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It did not show a cheerful and
hospitable city but dug-up streets, a chaos of construction sites, mesh wire fences and concrete. Static
pictures were abundant. It was meant to be a photographer's film. In his later films, Wenders time and
time again embedded such static pictures in his cinema of motion.
Another one of his early short films is rather expressive: Same player shoots again was made in 1967.
In it, he varies a single sequence by continually changing its colour. Its title is an allusion to the
announcement of a free flashing up on ancient pinball machines. One and the same situation leads to
a variety of results, the same take is repeated six times: A man, carrying a gun in his hand and
obviously severely wounded by a bullet, is stumbling along on a pavement with ever greater difficulty
in remaining standing on his feet. But shortly before his breakdown the film starts all over again with
exactly the same situation, only that the black-and-white copy has been coloured differently. During
the entire film the tunes of Mood Music reflect Wenders' intimate relation with Rock and Blues.
For young people in post-war Germany revealing in reconstruction, playing pinball, listening to
music, going to cinema, swapping comics were, to a larger degree than they are today, means of
establishing identities and gaining freedom. An early song by The Kinks is of special significance for
Wenders' work. "What are we living for?" they ask in Dead and Street. One can relate the question to
Paul Cezanne whom Wenders often quotes: "Things are getting worse. One had better hurry if one
still wants to see anything. Everything disappears. "For Wenders, these three sentences from the
artist's last diary express everything about the dignity of the arts: dissatisfaction over the state of the
world; the gesture of rescue which does not confuse conservation of fugitive beauty with conservatism,
and, finally, the act of resistance against a blind world market that chokes to death everything that
recognize its supreme authority. To unite Cezanne and The Kinks is characteristic for Wenders'
manner of making use of the metalanguage of Rock.
Like all young Germans who were born immediately after the horrors of World War II, Wenders was
influenced by American Forces Network. He never took Rock or Folk as a sign of American cultural
imperialism; rather than that, he always saw them as a metalanguage that allowed understanding
where spoken language did not fulfill its function. In his own words: "Often, language does not lead
to communication, since it always lags behind reality, especially the reality of feelings".
In 1968, Wenders makes a 15-minute-film in Munich, entitled 3 American LPs. As Peter Buchka, the
renowned film critic, has so aptly explained, here the young director is still dreaming of making a
film consisting entirely of full shots which are to be static and complex at the same time. This must be
seen as the realization of his silent and, as yet, still unspoken desire to show the spectators as much as
possible, to give them the time (and the freedom) to submerge into details which they enjoy and which
stir up their imagination while listening to the music of Van Morrison, Creedence Clearwater Revival
and Harvey Mandel.
For Wenders, still young and unfamiliar with the maze and the pitfalls of the film business, nothing
must create the impression that cuts have been made in a film. The spectator is never to be confronted
with an arbitrary cut which may lead to his being detracted from listening, watching or dreaming.
In a world of juke boxes and pinball machines, their noises and their music, Wenders draws a rather
amusing parallel to Hegel's plilosophy, to the almost idealistic dream of a totality that allows
unconstrained mobility while being the only appropriate image of truth. His characters do not intend
to make the world a better place. Indeed, the world makes them suffer, but they aim at changing
themselves, not the world. The age of ideologies is succeeded by the age of the dream of the entirely
different, the dream of individual identity: to eventually live up to one's hidden potential. Peter
Buchka explains at length that all the characters in Wenders' films possess a will of their own. But
since they have known from the very start what it is they don't want, they try to run away from
something in the first place. But they do have a dream. It's realization begins with a feeling that it is
necessary to dream. That's why, in almost all of Wenders' films, dreams are told. Thus, he gets rid of
what he rejects, and in doing so, preserves it as negation and stores its energy. The dream tales
represent the initial step in the process of expressing one's imagination. Small wonder then that music
should play such an essential part within the frame of the discovery of oneself. It's not only the young
people of today who recognize themselves so intensively in this cinema of dreams, which is also a
cinema of travelling, as well as of waiting.
"My life was saved by Rock' n Roll", Wim Wenders explains, "because it was this kind of music that,
for the very first time in my life, gave me a feeling of identity, the feeling that I had a right to enjoy,
to imagine, and to do something. Had it not been for Rock' n Roll, I might be a lawyer now". This
music is always there in his films and in Alice in the Cities, it is associated with photography itself.
Even if it is nothing more than a superficial glance at the surface of things, it helps to discover one's
self as well as the world. In the words of the Kinks: "People take pictures of each other just to prove
that they really existed".
So Wenders has never ceased to include static pictures into his cinema of motion. Each time he
prepares shooting a film he takes pictures to determine the locations as well as to record "the state of
affairs". In all his films there are allusions to photography, which is his profound passion. While
travelling through Japan for example, he experimented with the most intricate and advanced
technologies to get what he calls Electronic Paintings. Some of his pictures, among them the most
banal ones to be conceived, he had to process repeatedly to create, step by step, impressionistic,
pointilistic, cubistic and abstract photographical essays. I met him in exactly the moment he returned
from Tokyo, still all excited over his experience. It was then that I thought it might be a good idea to
let him have a look through the stereoscope at the Musée de l' Elysée to open his eyes to the fact that
already the first photographs from the 19th century consisted of pixels as well!
On all his travels Wenders took photographs. His pictures from America and Australia, which he
loves to show, not only remind one of his fascination for both continents that runs right through his
works, but also prove that what he looks for is not symbols but signs.
These pictures reveal the fascination felt by the German post-war adolescent for the vastness of
Australia, not only a foreign, but also a strange land. He travels there before he has seen Hollywood,
and he repeatedly returns to it. The United States, for that matter, is a vast country as well, but it
epitomizes the common ground for the modern age film and music generation. Wenders' Australia,
though, is a continent of origins. The imposing panorama of this flat expanse which seems reduced to
two dimensions is overwhelming. Nowhere else on the planet is vastness more immense than here,
where nothing, or almost nothing, bars one's view. I wonder whether Wenders knows Charles
Dickens' remark which so aptly comments his photographic vision: "The uniformity of Australia
makes it possible to present it as a clearly defined totality. Whereas in Europe, one can cross various
regions or landscapes in a single day with languages and customs changing continually, one could
travel in Australia for long periods of time without ever seeing anything but the exact replica of what
one has just seen. Or the one made by George Bernand Shaw:" A massive continent, battered by the
sea, safe from gusts of wind". Or the one by D.H. Lawrence: "It seems as if Australia does not possess
a single form of interior life; only time passes perennially. A fascinating indifference, a physical
indifference towards what we commonly call soul or spirit".
It is obvious to me that Wim Wenders concentrates on bringing to the surface the rusted and buried
traces of civilization that can be ound in these landscapes from which man has vanished: a train never
again going anywhere, water tanks, iron fences, stakes, tubes, trucks, caravans, a car dump, palisades
of corrugated iron, a deserted construction site. One single photograph shows an urban night scene:
empty, lit-up rooms. The only trace of human life in these photographs are a mere ten tourists who are
about to turn over a gravel heap, and an abandoned racksack on a mountain top. But in between all
this solitude there suddenly is the giant empty screen of a drive-in theatre. Apart from that, there are
termites' nests, single trees, geological rarities, a road vanishing into the boundless horizon, a sky
filled with clouds and a white sun, and finally, spectacular sunsets. Not one of the famous symbols of
Australia is shown: no bottle trees, no cangaroos, no boomerangs. Instead of all this, there is Ayers
Rock, the strange 340-metre-high granite monolith, the Holy Mountain of the Aborigines. It is located
near the boundaries of the most barren areas of the entire continent: the Gibson Desert, the Great
Sand Desert, the Simpson Desert and the huge Victoria Desert. It is at this rock, the most eminent
altar of a religion that sees nature as one great pantheon of spirits, where one can, day in and day out,
marvel at eternal and even at still unborn heroes, the Altjiranganitjina, who live their lives on the
fringes of human society because the stone age still seems to exist for the ones as well as for the
others. Just like in Paris, Texas this photographic road movie brings to the surface the traces of a
civilization swiftly abolished by nature. It's a melancholy hymn to freedom, to the challenge of utopia,
as well as to the world as it is, suggesting that the mere realization of its original difference at the foot
and on the mythical top of Ayers Rock, which has just emerged from Genesis, makes it a different
For Wim Wenders, the arts definitely have got something in common with life, with the fears and
hopes of people. Films, music and photographs are much more than just products of the entertainment
industry; they are means to find out, in the source of time, about the state of affairs, on the wings of
desire to the end of the world.
Charles-Henri Favrod was director of the museum of photography Musée de l' Elysee, Lausanne