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WIM WENDERS (GERMANY)
PHOTOS

17/2-3/3 1998
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 does not 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 one.
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