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Wim Wenders
Wim Wendersvia

Wim Wenders tells stories from his cult career

Like the time he hid in a toilet to see films at Paris’s Cinematheque

Wim Wenders made his rep as an indie legend in the 60s and 70s with freewheeling films about rootless wanderers in sprawling lands like Alice in the Cities and Paris, Texas. They were infused with the music he loved, and fired the imaginations of fellow directors like Jim Jarmusch. Always keen to experiment with the latest of tech developments, the German autuer has made dozens of films through his decades-long career, and now only works with 3D. His penchant for documenting the creative processes of other artists led to Pina on choreographer Pina Bausch, The Salt of the Earth about social photographer Sebastiao Salgado – up this year for an Oscar – and his current project on Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Wenders is set to be presented with a lifetime achievement next week at the Berlin International Film Festival, which is showing a major retrospective of his films. His career still going strong, his new drama Every Thing Will Be Fine about the aftermath of an accident, starring James Franco and Charlotte Gainsbourg, will also have its world premiere at Berlin. As president of the European Film Academy, Wenders was in Riga last December for the European Film Awards, and filled us in there on some meaningful career moments.


“Well, it looks like I’m turning 70. I like the Berlin Film Festival very much – it’s always been a time when for once all my friends came to Berlin instead of my travelling. I was always there, in my hometown, so it’s really special we’ll be showing ten of my films there, restored so they’re looking brand new. It’s always the first movies when you don’t know how it all works that contain an innocence you can’t regain, no matter how hard you try.”


“When I was born after the war in Germany there was nothing. I never saw a movie, and television only came in the early 50s. I had never seen a moving image. Until one day my father found something in the basement that had survived the war – a little hand-crank projector that he himself had gotten as a child. It was a format that’s now obsolete – 9.5mm – and there was another little box of tiny films inside with scenes from Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and German animations. You can’t believe my amazement when my father projected it against a white sheet. And then it was mine. I was the king of every birthday party, because I was the only one who owned these moving images.”


“What do you do when you become a painter as a 21-year-old? I went to Paris. What else? In Paris it was cold, I didn’t know anybody; I didn’t even know French. I studied the beautiful craft of etching, but it ended in the afternoon and my room wasn’t heated so I needed a warm place. The cheapest warm place was the cinematheque. You could see one film for one franc, and if you stayed in the toilet between, you could see four films for one franc. That was my budget. I became quickly addicted. I saw about 15,000 movies in a year – the entire history of cinema – and realised there was something in there that was much more interesting than anything I’d dreamt of. I looked at filmmaking as if it was a continuation of painting with a camera.”

“The cheapest warm place was the cinematheque. If you stayed in the toilet between, you could see four films for one franc. I saw about 15,000 movies in a year and realised there was something in there that was much more interesting than anything I’d dreamt of”


“In my first two features there was no story, men just did things – walked around, listened to music… I made one to look like a Hitchcock movie and somebody committed a murder, but then he didn’t care about it, and we never saw a single policeman investigating. Some television studio offered me a lot of money to make a bigger film and it was a disaster, based on my favourite novel The Scarlet Letter by Patricia Highsmith. I realised after I was not made to shoot historic period films. Everything that was fun in life – jukeboxes, pinball machines and cars – couldn’t appear, so I got terribly bored and realised this was not for me.”


“I knew in my heart that anybody could have made my first three films. I didn’t have my name on them – they weren’t from inside me. I thought if I make one more movie it’s got to be one that nobody else can make. It was all or nothing.

We made a film on the road, and I realised that was the water in which I could really swim like a fish. No screenplay, just an itinerary, characters I believed in and then we made it up as we went. I could not have done it with my 60mm Bolex. I could only make it because the first generation of 35mm cameras appeared that could shoot with direct sound and that you could put on your shoulder and be very mobile with. The technology that had evolved allowed me to reinvent the road movie for myself. If you go back in the history of cinema you’ll see that any film that you like probably was not possible a few years earlier. The development of film language is always very closely linked to what was possible technologically at that moment.”


“We made Paris, Texas exactly 30 years ago. I had a pretty romantic vision of America back then. The US is no longer the same country. Maybe the conflict within it was already there but you couldn’t feel the division of today with its brutal separation between rich and poor. When I first drove out to the American West to prepare the film I couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought these skies only existed in photographs – these Kodachrome colours, like nothing you’ve ever seen. As a European I thought this was all too much – that I would have to reduce these colours because no-one would believe they’re true. I travelled there for several months and took colour photographs every day, all day long, in order to get used to the colours and dare to show them.”


“For 20 years I’d talked to Pina (Bausch) about filming the poetry of her dance theatre but I’d always shied away from doing it because I realised the cameras I had couldn’t capture that magic. And all of a sudden there it was – a new language called 3D. I could finally move into the realm of dancers and work inside space, which until then had always been a lie in cinema. Pina and I decided together that I would film four of her important pieces. Then she died. I slowly came to understand that there was now another reason to make the movie, as a way for the dancers to say goodbye to her. They told me Pina had not imposed any choreography on them but would ask them lots of existential little questions, and ask them to dance their answers. They’d work on these answers until she had hundreds of them, from which she’d compose her pieces. So I asked each of the dancers to give me an answer about who Pina was. Those slowly became the film.”