Interviews - Wim Wenders

Wim Wenders was born in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1945. While studying as a painter in Paris during the late '60s he became "addicted" to moviegoing and started to write about what he saw. Aside from this visual education, he also credits rock 'n' roll as a significant influence on his work; his desire to become a filmmaker was rooted in an urge to put images and music together. He is now known as the auteur of such acclaimed and greatly admired works as Wings of Desire (1987), Paris, Texas (1984), and Buena Vista Social Club (1999). His intense, searching eyes have combed and wandered the streets of cities from Portugal's Lisbon to America's Marfa, Texas, and beyond. His two most recent books, Written in the West and Once, both published this year, offer poetic sketches and photographs from such searches. A great enthusiast of road maps, Wenders makes films that inspire the same sense of longing and wonder a map can produce. Outside his home in Los Angeles, an old Volkswagen minibus remains parked on a hill, with rocks lodged behind its back wheels. The following interview took place in his California home in February 2001, with his wife, Donata, present.

Michael Coles: How did you think and dream of America before you came to this land—what got your mind going about it?

Wim Wenders: I experienced America through all sorts of different media. The first source of information I encoutered was the comic strip. I was an ardent collector, and my favorites were Mighty Mouse, Superman, and of course Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. The Walt Disney comics came out only monthly in Germany, from 1952 on. I still have the complete ’52 collection. Each volume was a revelation. I was seven years old and very much aware of the fact that these gorgeous things came from America. That’s what made them so valuable! They were American comic strips translated into German, with German dialogue bubbles. Great translations. Very funny. The characters had German names, too.

I never knew that my beloved Tick, Trick, und Track were actually called Hewey, Lewey, and Dewey until twenty years later. Or that Onkel Dagobert was Uncle Scrooge, and so on. This incredibly rich guy, he lived in America, that was for sure. In my imagination it was not just the land of unlimited possibilities, it was also the land of unlimited fun. I collected all sorts of comic strips, much to the dismay of my parents, who thought they were ruining their boy forever. Most of my comic strip collection, I had to keep them secret and hide them. Not the Disney ones. My parents approved of those.

And then there were the books! The first novels I read on my own were Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I knew them by heart when I was seven or eight years old. I read a lot of books, but all the American ones were special to me. Their sense of adventure and excitement surpassed everything else.

I saw my first “real movies” a bit later, when I was eight or nine, I mean in actual movie theaters. But I was a film projectionist way before that, because I had inherited a little projector from my father. It was not an 8-millimeter one, but a 9.5-millimeter, an obsolete format used in the ’20s and ’30s. Anyway, it had the sprockets in the middle between each frame. This little hand-cranked projector had survived the war, together with a box of tiny little reels, one-minute or two-minute maximum. Mack Sennett, Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton; not entire films, just scenes.

I also had some early animated movies. There was a box of maybe thirty films inherited together with this hand-cranked projector. Of course, that was the time before television. Television came up in Germany only in the mid-fifties. So with this projector, I was the king of every birthday party. It was a high-tech machine! You could go backwards and forwards and freeze-frame whenever you wanted.

I never rewound a roll of it. I would play the same thing backwards, which was even more fun. I projected my twenty or thirty little films thousands of times, on any wall or bedcover. Every time I was invited somewhere, I had to bring the projector and the films. Come to think of it, that was my first encounter with American culture, long before I met comic strips, then literature, then, a little later, real movies (which meant Westerns), and then, finally, in the late ’50s, the arrival of rock ’n’ roll! It all came on top of each other, as one confirmation after the other that the real fun and the real world were somewhere else, in a mythical place called America. I also collected all sorts of magazines, anything with pictures of cars, women, incredible open landscapes, and skyscrapers.

MC: Who did you find more intriguing, Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer?

WW: I liked the relationship they had, but I was probably inclined to like Tom better. Huckleberry, he scared me a little bit. He was “out there,” somehow. Tom was more familiar.

MC: Did you ever perchance see the Beatles when they lived and played in Hamburg?

WW: No, I never saw them, neither in Hamburg nor anywhere else. But I saw some of my other favorites, like the Pretty Things, the Yardbirds, and Van Morrison. I saw lots of English groups play at the Marquee, in London, but I never saw the Beatles. They were too big already when I started to go to clubs.

MC: You spent some time as a painter before you made the transition into film. At what point did photography and film begin to appeal to your senses?

WW: I was heavily influenced by the so-called New American Underground. A lot of American painters made movies in the mid to late '60s, Warhol being the most famous one. There was a whole retrospective traveling through Europe at the time. I saw these films in ’66 or ’67, and that was very important for me. I wrote about them, too. I wrote about Michael Snow especially, and a film that he had made called Wavelength (1967). It was the first article I wrote. Wavelength was a painter’s film. It was actually only one shot, a painstakingly slow zoom across a room toward the windows. Day and night were passing. Nothing much happened. It was very painterly. My first films were basically landscape paintings, except that they were shot with a movie camera. I never moved the frame. Nothing ever happened in them. Each scene lasted as long as a 16-millimeter daylight reel, which was about four minutes. There was no editing involved, other than attaching one reel to the other.

MC: You seem to evoke Edward Hopper in some of your films. How has Hopper influenced your work?

WW: I encountered Hopper on my first trip to America, in 1972. I was in New York and spent quite some time at the Whitney Museum. And I had known Hopper a little before, but he hadn't made much of an impact on me until I actually saw the paintings. He became very popular all over the world during the 1970s, with calendars and books and postcards everywhere. But at the time I saw him in the Whitney, he wasn't yet the postcard artist of the twentieth century. The first film of mine that was influenced by Edward Hopper's paintings was The American Friend, which I shot in 1976. More than anything else I liked his sense of framing. It was very cinematic and reminded me a lot of classic American movies, of Anthony Mann or John Ford. I especially liked the city paintings and his hotel windows. Hopper's influence showed most in The Million Dollar Hotel (2000). The entire film was shot in a brownstone building that could have served as Hopper's studio. Of course, later I learned how much Hopper himself had been influenced by movies, and how often he had gone to see them whenever he suffered from “painter's block.”

MC: Do you remember the first time that you started to see the films of Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau?

WW: I saw those films at the Cinemathèque in Paris, in the mid-'60s. I saw all of the classic German cinema there, when I lived in Paris to paint and to study etching. I spent a year at the studio of a famous American etcher, Johnny Friedlander, to learn that craft, and during that time I became addicted to the Cinemathèque. Etching classes started at nine in the morning and ended at two in the afternoon, and then we were all on our own, except for the elder students, who then printed the master's works, but we were not allowed to do that yet. And so from two o'clock on, I was on my own, and I had this tiny unheated room, one of those maid's rooms under the roof that you find in all Parisian houses. It was freezing cold and could not be heated. I was in bad need of a warm place during the day. Going to the movies was too expensive. It was like five or six francs, and I couldn't afford that. But I discovered the Cinemathèque, where you could see a film for one franc, which was like a quarter, and you could start seeing films from two in the afternoon until two in the morning. You could see up to seven or eight movies this way. I also found out that you only had to pay once, if you didn't walk out of the theater between shows but rather hid in the toilets. This way you could stretch your one franc to all the day's films. I saw the entire program for one year. More and more I became addicted to watching movies. I saw more than a thousand pictures, a real crash course in the history of cinema. I saw all of Murnau and Fritz Lang then, I had never seen any of them before. That was between '65 and '66. I was twenty-one. This experience didn't really start my career as a filmmaker, though. I didn't think I'd be a filmmaker, I still thought I'd become a painter.

I was attracted by the film camera, though, especially after I saw that retrospective of “The New American Underground” on top of my crash course at the Cinemathèque. This was like the counterstory to the history of cinema that I'd seen up till then. But, I still did not see myself as a director. I had started to write about movies. If you see six or seven films a day, when you come out of the theater way after midnight you've completely forgotten what the first film was like that you saw in the afternoon. So I started to take notes—even while the movies were playing. I filled notebook after notebook with badly scribbled observations, and started to also read lots of books on film history (bought second hand at those open-air book dealers by the Seine) in order to place the stuff that I was seeing within context: American films, Japanese films, German, French, European films from the '20s. I saw huge retrospectives on John Ford and Anthony Mann. I saw all of Fritz Lang's work. I saw an insane amount of movies, and started to read and write about them, in order to digest it all. So finally I thought I might become a film critic and went to film school, basically with the intention to know more about the history of films and to be a better writer. I still did not think I could possibly become a filmmaker.

MC: How did you go from being a film critic and historian to picking up a camera and starting a project?

WW: I shot a few short films in those three years of film school in Munich, basically on my own, because the school didn't really provide the means to make short films. That was pretty disappointing. It was all very theoretical, so if anyone wanted to make a short film, you had to do it more or less on your own. I made four, basically with friends, and with our own money. The school finally acquired a film camera, but it was always being used by somebody else. They also had only one editing table, but you could only access it between something like three and six in the morning, which was usually the only time it was available.

In my first short films nothing ever happened. It was just static frames, landscapes and cityscapes. Soon I began combining these shots with music. That was the greatest discovery: to sit at that editing table and see your shots with some music from a tape recorder playing along with them. So finally I put a magnetic track on my films and married the images with the music. Doing all this probably steered me in the right direction, and I started to taste what it would be like to make movies.

The photographic or painterly aspect started to recede more into the background. Other aspects like notions of action, dialogue, and storytelling started to emerge. Of course, I put on music that I never had the right to use! I mean, I used the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Coltrane, or Bob Dylan; God only knows what sort of music I put into those films. I could never release them, because I never had the money to buy the rights to use these songs. These first films were made on nothing but shoestrings. The thrill of combining music and images really pushed me to continue more with the storytelling process. The only film the school actually allowed me to do was one short in order to graduate and receive some sort of diploma. We got enough money to shoot a twenty-minute film, each of us, which was tremendous. I, however, stretched the money, and instead of making a twenty-minute film in 35-millimeter and in color like everybody else, I made a two-hour film in black-and-white on 16- millimeter, for the same budget. That became my first feature film, Summer in the City (1970). The title, from a Loving Spoonful record (and a painting by Edward Hopper), indicates how heavily I was influenced by rock 'n' roll; the film itself was dedicated to the Kinks. It had lots of music by the Kinks, and again, none of it was cleared. So it was only shown in film school, and once or twice in some retrospectives. Other than that, the film could never be shown, because I never had the music rights.

That was the first time I made a long film. It almost felt incidental that I made it. I liked it mainly because of the music, and because I had begun to tell a story. Not much happened, though. It was a story of a man who has spent two years in prison. He comes out and the film observes him for the next two or three days of his life. He tries to visit old friends, but they're either not there anymore or they don't want to see him. He vaguely tries to connect with his former life, his girlfriends, but it's a story of one failure after another. He has lost touch with all these people, really, because he was in prison. The film is a description of how he is trying to deal the best he can with reality. Nothing much happens except that he listens to a lot of music and drives around the city, so content to be at liberty again. And that's all he ever does. He tries to contact people but does not succeed.

Anyway, I liked the process of making this film and I thought maybe I'd make another one, still not thinking I would become a film director, but remain a painter and continue writing. Even in my wildest dreams I didn't fancy I'd turn into a filmmaker! Nevertheless, I was fortunate to have a good friend in Peter Handke, whom I knew already before I went to film school. I was in high school when we met. Peter had written a best seller at the time, in Germany. It was a novel called The Goalkeeper's Fear at the Penalty Kick (1970). So I asked Peter if I could make a movie out of it, and he gave me the rights to this novel practically for free. He said, If you think you can make a movie out of it and if you can actually get it made, then go ahead. Because the film was based on a best seller and Peter's name was very good at the time, I actually managed to get the financing together and was actually able to shoot this film in 35-millimeter, with a real professional crew. In a way, this was the first real film I made. Summer in the City didn't really count, because it was shot in ten days, with a crew of film students basically, and never exposed. The Goalkeeper's Fear was made under relatively professional circumstances. I liked this one much more than the film I did before. It gave me my first glance at the potential of storytelling. Plus it was the ideal combination of everything I had ever wanted to do: it combined the work of a painter, the work of a photographer, and of course the writing was an important aspect of it, as well as the music. So, all of a sudden, it dawned on me that what I had just started was everything I really had ever hoped for. You could do it all in one and it was called filmmaking! I still didn't dare think I could end up making a living from it. I just considered myself lucky for making two movies already at the age of twenty-six. It wasn't until the fourth one, Alice in the Cities (1974), that I actually acknowledged myself as a film director. Until then I had always identified myself as a writer. I remember the moment exactly. When shooting the film in New York, we registered at a hotel on Eighty-first Street, and I wrote down my profession as “Film director.” It seemed preposterous, but ever since that's what I am.