“Movies are something people see all over the world because there is a certain need for it.”—Wim Wenders.
German filmmaker Ernst Wilhelm ‘Wim’ Wenders is undoubtedly one of the greatest filmmakers of the last century as well as a leading figure of New German Cinema.
His films have been the recipient of widespread critical acclaim and multiple major honours such as BAFTA Award for Best Direction for his narrative drama 1984 film Paris, Texas, which also won the Palme d’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. He has also received three Academy Award nominations Best Documentary Feature for works such as Buena Vista Social Club and Pina, among others.
Born in Düsseldorf, Germany, Wenders dropped out of university and moved to Paris in October 1966 in order to become a painter. He only began his filmmaking career in the late 1960s during the New German Cinema era. He completed several short films before graduating from the Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film München with a 16mm 1970 black-and-white film, Summer in the City, his feature directorial debut.
On his 75th birthday, we celebrate the life of one of the greatest living filmmakers by taking a look at his mesmerizing filmography.
Top 10 Films of Wim Wenders:
10. Until the End of the World (1991)
Wim Wenders’ 1991 epic presents an apocalyptic world on the brink of technological collapse where a satellite is threatening to end life on earth. Wenders launches an investigation of cultural identities amidst desolate landscapes. It is the search for the human soul despite the threat of complete destruction.
Wenders said, “The film was the most ambitious thing I ever did, and also probably the most expensive independent-auteur film ever, at least at the time. It was an epic adventure, and we shot for one year.”
“In the editing process, it became obvious that I could never deliver the two and a half hours that I had promised.”
9. Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
Wenders’s biggest-ever crossover hit, his 1999 work Buena Vista Social Club, was one of the most successful documentaries when it was first released and it was also his first Academy Award-nominated film. The documentary follows the stories of ageing Cuban musicians who had been neglected after Castro had come to power. Legendary slide-guitarist (who worked on the musical score of Paris, Texas) came out of retirement to unite a line-up of the legendary Cuban musicians, record an album and bring them on tour.
“As you can see from the way it started, this whole thing was very spontaneous,” Wenders reflected. “Which, I think, is a good condition for a documentary. You just jump into the cold water and swim. This was my very first trip to Havana, anyway. And we started shooting basically the day we arrived.”
“I had made documentaries before, but of different nature. More personal, more subjective, and I had called these films ‘journals’.”
8. Lisbon Story (1994)
The 1994 film starts with an intriguing premise where a sound engineer receives a cryptic postcard from a friend who is currently shooting a film in Lisbon which says: “Dear Phil. I cannot continue s.o.s.! S.O.S.! Come to Lisbon with all your stuff a.s.a.p.! Big hug, Fritz.”
It is a beautiful homage to the city of Lisbon and to the history of cinema itself, a reflection on what it means to make films after a century had passed since the invention of the medium.
Lisbon Story is a dreamy travelogue in which Wenders posits many of the philosophical problems he has explored throughout his career. The film combines the warmth of human connection, humour and the eternal concept of love while discussing art and alienation.
7. The State of Things (1982)
The State of Things is a meta-fictional commentary on the process of filmmaking.
The 1982 film is about a film crew stranded in Portugal without any negatives to continue shooting a black-and-white science fiction movie about survivors on a post-apocalyptic Earth, titled The Survivors. Wenders beautifully explores the conflict between individual expression and the desire for a sense of connection.
According to Wenders, “To make a film in the States means jettisoning a lot of your ideas. Hollywood doesn’t rate the idea of cinema being relevant to life. The central idea of The State of Things is the contrast between European and American cinema.”
6. The American Friend (1977)
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel Ripley’s Game, Wenders’ 1977 film is an allegorical examination of the relationship between Europe and America as the characters struggle with the overwhelming emotions of fear, anxiety and camaraderie. Dennis Hopper puts up yet another brilliant performance as an American expatriate in Europe, who convinces a German picture framer suffering from a fatal illness to indulge in murder.
Wenders had this to say about Hopper’s performance: “Dennis was a courageous man and he was taking risks. Dennis singlehandedly shaped the character into a different direction. I liked the direction because I understood this Ripley all of a sudden.
“He was quite a wild man and quite impossible to pin down which I thought was more important than being immoral. So he filled my wildest hope of a man that was like nobody else. I think I learned from Dennis to take risks.”
5. Kings of the Road (1976)
One of the greatest road films of all time, Wenders’ 1976 masterpiece presents a film projector repairman saves the life of a suicidal psychologist. Both of them embark on a journey along the Eastern and Western German frontier. The road becomes a metaphor for life as the two men try to make sense of loneliness, existential despair and the human condition.
When asked about the emotional power of his films, Wenders replied, “Sentimentality, of course, is a danger: it’s the other side of emotion, a perversion of emotion, right?
“With the two guys in Kings of the Road, for example, which is also a movie about love, you feel that’s what they’re longing for and they can’t face it.”
4. Pina (2011)
The 2011 film is Wenders’ poignant tribute to Pina Bausch, one of the most important choreographers of the last 40 years. Originally shot in 3D, the film is an immersive experience which introduces us to her intimate world and makes us understand what it is to live and to feel. We move along with the dancers of Pina’s Tanztheater Wuppertal ensemble, out of the theatre and into her wonderful hometown of Wuppertal.
Wenders explained why he made the film, saying, “My first encounter with Pina took place 25 years ago. Until then, I had not much interest in dance. It was very limited. I thought it did not concern me. It wasn’t really for me. And then, one night, I saw a double bill of Pina’s Café Mueller and Le Sacre du Printemps against my will.”
Continuing, “My girlfriend forced me and it changed my life. It really was a life changing experience. I cried through the entire night helplessly, not understanding what was happening to me.”
3. Alice in the Cities (1974)
Loosely based on Peter Handke’s novel Long Farewell, this 1974 film is the first of Wenders’ famous road-film trilogy, followed by Kings of the Road and False Movement. It follows the life of Phillip, a German writer who accepts temporary custody of Alice, the daughter of a woman he spent the night with. Their bond strengthens as they travel through Europe in search of the girl’s grandmother. Wenders beautifully combines two antithetical perspectives of life, fantasy and reality, and the result is lovely.
Speaking about the road film genre, Wenders said, “Frankly, I didn’t know the genre existed. I must have seen some movies, I think I saw Detour (1945), but I didn’t recognize it as a genre. Of course I knew a lot of westerns, if there was any precursor to those movies it was the western. But I didn’t know you could make movies while traveling.”
“I didn’t know you could actually get in a car, start a story, and the itinerary and story would become the same. While we made Alice in the Cities, I found out. I felt like a fish in the water. This was the kind of filmmaking I was born for.”
2. Wings of Desire (1987)
Wings of Desire is an overwhelming study of the concept of alienation: from God, society and even from the self. The film was shot by legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan, who was also involved in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. It is a beautiful allegory involving two angels who study Berlin’s human population from the gilded rooftops of the city’s famous Cathedrals, immortal beings trying to understand what it means to be a human.
“The idea strictly came from wandering around Berlin and feeling inspired to make a film that would tell the story of a city that had seen hell,” Wenders elaborated. “And that was now a very unique place on Earth, an island city divided by a wall. A film that would show as many aspects of this city as possible, and that would also go diagonally through its history.”
Adding, “I was looking for characters through whom I could tell the city, because I didn’t want to make a documentary film. Fiction is the best way to preserve places, I feel.”
1. Paris, Texas (1984)
Wim Wenders’ magnum opus, the 1984 masterpiece is a powerful exploration of the concept of family and human connection in the unforgiving landscape of the modern world.
Travis Henderson (played by Harry Dean Stanton), embarks on a quest for redemption as he travels across Texas to pick up the pieces of his broken family. The climactic scene, filmed in a peep-show booth, is Stanton’s most powerful stint on the big screen where an overwhelming sense of tragedy annihilates all inhibitions and leaves only what is emotional and human.
In an interview, Wenders revealed, “From our first one-page outline, we knew the movie was Travis and Jane, and we had to take Travis to that point, and ourselves to that point, and face a story neither of us had told before. We had to get there slowly.
“I don’t think there’s a break; at some point in the middle, the movie turns and starts walking on new territory, like in a blank space in the landscape. At least my landscape.”