Wim Wenders: languid landscapes, political fairy-tales and Cuban musical legends
By Jake Hall | Film+TV | 25 April 2020

Still, ‘Paris, Texas’ (1984) dir. Wim Wenders

This article is part of HERO Dailies – Essential culture, curated daily and also part of The Saturday Auteur

HERO DAILIES: Essential culture, curated daily
THE SATURDAY AUTEUR: Exploring the life and work of revered directors

Wim Wenders once described himself as a painter searching for ways to express time. Statements like these are characteristic of the revered filmmaker, born in 1945 to a Catholic family in Düsseldorf, whose fascination with art and philosophy was evident from a young age. After three years of studying medicine and philosophy, he decided to drop out of university and pursue his artistic talents full-time in Paris.

Here, he began painting in earnest. “I worked as a painter, and I wanted to be a painter,” he explained in a 2014 interview, “but it is difficult to catch the element of time in images. It made a lot of sense to start using a camera.”

Wenders’ early experimentations with film came at a pivotal time. In 1962, a group of German filmmakers issued a powerful manifesto with a clear message: “The old cinema is dead. We believe in the new cinema.” Inspired by the French New Wave directors of the late 1950s, these trailblazers were determined to bring a heightened sense of artistry to a then-stagnant film industry by working with low budgets and avoiding commercial interference. Wenders, whose film debut came in 1970 with Summer In The City, embodied this same spirit, and quickly became a figurehead of the New German Cinema movement.

It didn’t take long for Wenders’ signatures to emerge: even Summer in the City, his graduation project, was named after a song by The Lovin’ Spoonful, signalling his persistent interest in music. Jukeboxes, record players and car radios went on to crop up frequently throughout his feature films, which often came accompanied with bespoke soundtracks featuring the likes of Ry Cooder, Nick Cave and Lou Reed.

Road trips became another Wenders hallmark. Languid shots of barren freeways and sprawling landscapes, whose flawless compositions belied his painting background, defined some of his best-known films, most notably his Road Movie Trilogy (1974-1976). These themes revealed plenty about Wenders’ own character: incredibly, he took his first solo train ride at just five years old, and quickly made a habit of travelling unaccompanied at a young age.

Paris, Texas by Wim Wenders (1984)

Still, ‘Paris, Texas’ (1984) dir. Wim Wenders

These early road movies laid the foundations for Paris, Texas, one of Wenders’ most acclaimed films. At the time, he had spent years travelling the United States and photographing buildings, roads and landscapes in otherwise deserted corners of the country. These became the backdrop for an emotional tale of family, identity and connection, which cemented Wenders’ status as a powerful storyteller as well as an arthouse favourite.

Again, his fascinations stem back to childhood inspirations: as a child growing up in West Germany, Wenders became a collector of comic book strips and an avid fan of American cinematic giants like John Ford. This reverence for the country is stamped across his work, which encapsulates the free-spirited ideology of the American Dream without ever veering into cliché.

Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders (1987)

Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders (1987)

After almost eight years of living in America, Wenders returned to Germany in 1984 and quickly set about marking a new chapter in his career. Wings of Desire switches out realism for fantasy, drawing from the lyricism and mystical themes of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The result is a poignant, political fairy-tale which centres themes of love and unity against the beautifully-shot backdrop of Berlin, then divided by the wall which fell two years after the film’s release.

Buena Vista Social Club by Wim Wenders (1999)

Still, Buena Vista Social Club by Wim Wenders (1999)

No celebration of Wenders would be complete without mention of his skill as a documentary-maker. Over the course of several decades, he turned his focus to artistic greats like choreographer Pina Bausch, photographer Sebastião Salgado and enigmatic designer Yohji Yamamoto, who offered Wenders unprecedented access into his world for 1989 documentary Notebooks on Cities and Clothes

But Buena Vista Social Club is arguably the ultimate fusion of his two main passions: music and world culture. In a reunion with Ry Cooder, whose guitar skills soundtracked Paris, Texas, Wenders decided to spotlight a series of Cuban musical veterans, who rallied together to preserve the sounds of pre-revolutionary Cuba.

The result is a vibrant, powerful testament to the cultural importance of music, interspersed with political commentary and interviews with the musicians themselves, some of which were coaxed out of retirement just for the documentary. Their efforts paid off: the film was nominated for an Academy Award, cementing Wenders’ enduring status as a cinematic heavyweight.

Top image: Still from Paris, Texas (1984)


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