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The dA-Zed guide to Wim Wenders

Painting, politics and POVs – uncovering the soul of the master German filmmaker

With German filmmaker Wim Wenders set to receive an honorary Golden Bear at the the 65th Berlin International Film Festival for his lifetime achievement in cinema, it’s probably a pretty great time to pay tribute to the auteur, with a celebratory dA-Zed. But don’t expect P is for Paris, Texas – what follows are some of the more obscure facts only Wenders’ super-fans will have in their scrapbooks. 

A IS FOR ACTORS 

“Respect your actors,” Wenders once counselled sagely. “Their job is ten times more dangerous than yours.” Perhaps because of this attitude, Wim has wrestled career-best performances from some of cinema’s most intense character actors, including Dennis Hopper, William Hurt and Harry Dean Stanton.

B IS FOR BLUES

When Martin Scorsese asked Wenders to direct a feature-length documentary about the blues (The Soul of a Man, 2003), both directors had doubts. Scorsese wasn’t sure if Wenders was a blues fan, Wenders – who was actually a fan – wasn’t sure if he knew enough about the subject. But Wenders saw the opportunity as a voyage of discovery, and found parallels with his own work. Here he is talking about the music: he could just as easily be discussing his own films. “The blues is utterly emotional music, with a very simple pattern inside which musicians can take enormous liberties. I liked that supposition of a structure that is simple, inside which a lot of freedom can play out.”

C IS FOR CHILDHOOD

Wenders’ first experience of cinema – or indeed, of any moving image – came when his father found a hand-crank projector in the family basement. “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.” For stories from Wim Wenders’ cult career, go here.

D IS FOR DOLLY GRIP

The auteur believes that every single crew member is essential to the making of a movie. “If your dolly grip is grumpy or your electricians hate the shot, it will all show on the film. (Also, if you’re constipated…)” Thanks for that extra detail there, Wim.

E IS FOR EDWARD HOPPER

Wenders moved to Paris in 1966 to become a painter, and it’s clear his films have an artist’s eye. In the case of The End Of Violence (1997), that artist’s eye belongs to Edward Hopper, with Wenders paying live-action tribute to Hopper’s famous painting, “Nighthawks”. 

F IS FOR FOUNDATION

In 2012, the Wim Wenders Foundation was established. Its mission? To create a legally binding framework to bring together the cinematic, photographic, artistic and literary work of Wim Wenders in Germany, and make it permanently accessible to the general public worldwide. The non-profit model ensures Wenders’ whole body of work remains beyond the reach of any form of private self-interest. And the foundation doesn’t just preserve Wenders’s work, it also supports innovative young filmmakers.

G IS FOR GLASSES

Wenders probably has the most high-fashion frame collection of any auteur, but in 2007 he put some less stylish eye-wear on for the first time – 3D glasses. The experience changed his life. “I put on the glasses for the first time. I didn’t expect anything but seeing a film with a gimmick. From the first moment on, I almost didn’t see the film. I just saw the possibility. I saw the answer to 20 years of hesitation and 20 years of not knowing what to do. I saw the answer was there.” 

H IS FOR HIDING OUT IN A TOILET

When we spoke to Wenders earlier this month, we found out where Wenders’ passion for cinema began. And it’s not what you’d expect. “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 Cinémathèque (Française, legendary film archive). 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 IS FOR INVISIBLE CRIMES

One of Wenders’ regrets is that he didn’t give The End of Violence the title Invisible Crimes, a name he only came up with after the film had screened. “We showed it at Cannes and it immediately got pushed into this stupid conversation about violence, when the film isn't about violence at all. It failed expectations just because of that title. After it was too late, Nicholas (Klein) and I came upon the right title: we should have called it Invisible Crimes, but we didn’t, and I’m convinced that the film would have had a different life from the start if we had.”

J IS FOR JAMES FRANCO

Franco stars in Wenders’ forthcoming Every Thing Will Be Fine, and was an important element in the director’s decision to shoot the arthouse drama in 3D. As Wenders puts it: “The key is the actors’ ‘presence’… James Franco has screen presence galore. He knows what it is, he knows how to ‘turn it on’. Does it make a difference in 3D? Do we understand the character better? Are we closer to him and more involved in his inner life? I’m very much aware, all of the time, that we’re working on new territory. We might gain something: intensity, identification, immersion.”

K IS FOR KINGS OF THE ROAD 

Ostensibly a film about a travelling projection-equipment mechanic, Kings of the Road (1976) has been interpreted by some critics as a searing critique of corporate imperialism, partly born out of a bad experience interning at United Artists. In 1969, he wrote a short essay about what he learned during the period. Here’s a key quote from that piece of writing. “From production through to distribution, the same brutality was at work: the lovelessness in dealing with images, sounds and language, the stupidity of German synchronisation, the meanness of the block-and-blind booking system, the indifference of advertising, the absence of conscience in the exploitation of cinema owners, the narrow-mindedness in the shortening of films and so on.”

L IS FOR LAND OF PLENTY

Dealing with post 9/11 poverty in the United States, Wenders describes Land of Plenty (2004) as his most political film. “My sheer rage about (America’s reaction to 9/11) produced Land of Plenty. Because I’m not a provocateur, and in my opinion rage is not a fine motive, I made a film that tried to differentiate and talk about America’s pain, as well as its misled patriotism.” It’s certainly a harrowing watch, with Michelle Williams on typically stunning form.

M IS FOR MADREDEUS

Real-life Portuguese folk group Madredeus cameo in Wenders’ lovely Lisbon Story (1994). And they don’t just sing, they act - proving that Wenders can get a performance out of pretty much anyone. Here’s a clip to illustrate.

N IS FOR NOVELS 

Early on in his career, Wenders transformed Peter Handke’s book The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick into a fairly beautiful film. Despite the fact it was well received, Wenders may not have enjoyed the experience. When asked for his golden rules for filmmaking in 2013, one of his shortest tips ran as follows: “Don’t adapt novels.”

O IS FOR OZU 

In 1985, Wenders released his documentary Tokyo-Ga. The film focuses on Yasujirō Ozu – one of the greatest directors ever to shout (or in Ozu’s case, probably whisper) ‘action’. Like Wenders, Ozu experimented with perspective, and explored in exquisite detail the humanity of his characters. Newcomers to Ozu’s work should track down Tokyo Story immediately, as well as a couple of boxes of tissues to wipe away the beauty-awed tears.

P IS FOR POV

Wenders enjoys experimenting with the point-of-view of his camera, characters and audience. “Most of my films are exclusively designed from somebody’s point-of-view, like for example The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty (1972) and Paris, Texas (1984), so to break the pattern every now and then, and very rarely of course, is sort of a mental jump(...) It creates a strange distance all of a sudden and it turns the point-of-view from the character back to the audience, i.e. everybody who is watching the film. Every single pair of eyes that is looking at the film all of a sudden becomes the new point-of-view.”

Q IS FOR QUIETLY STRANGE 

In 2011, Wenders released a rather lovely volume of photography called Places Strange & Quiet. According to the director, the book came about partly by accident: “When you travel a lot, and when you love to just wander around and get lost, you can end up in the strangest spots... I don’t know, it must be some sort of built-in radar that often directs me to places that are strangely quiet, or quietly strange.” Just in case you want to see the kind of photos Wenders took, someone’s provided a handy video of the book, here

R IS FOR ROOM 666 

In 1982, Wenders set up a camera in room 666 of the Hotel Martinez in Cannes. He asked directors attending the festival to speak to the camera for the duration of one 16mm reel about the future of cinema. And, because it was Wenders, some fairly incredible directors took part. Herzog, Spielberg, Antonioni and Godard were just some of the people who allowed themselves to be interviewed. Sadly, one of the most iconic contributors, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, passed away less than a month after his section was filmed.

S IS FOR SUGAR

Wenders tries to avoid sugary snacks on shoots, and with good reason. “Too much sugary stuff on the craft table can have a disastrous effect on your crew’s morale,” he says. Which is actually pretty great life advice in general.

T IS FOR THE SALT OF THE EARTH

Wenders next film due in UK cinemas – it’ll land on Friday July 3 – is a stunning celebration of Sebastião Salgado’s intense photography, and you can read more about it in our 2015 preview.

U IS FOR URBAN SOLITUDE 

Urban Solitude was the fairly appropriate title of an Italian exhibition of Wenders’ portraits of metropolitan landscapes, from the American west to the far east, passing through Russia, Italy and Germany. It took place in 2014, but here’s hoping it’s updated and brought back soon.

V IS FOR VERTIGO

The director is a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, stating that, despite the fact it’s obviously an outrageous fantasy, “If somebody 500 years from now happened to find Vertigo, they’d have a pretty clear notion of what America looked like in 1958.” Apart from all of those psychedelic swirly bits, we’d have to agree.

W IS FOR WAGNER

In 2013, Wenders was scheduled to stage Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the German composer’s opera house in Bayreuth. However, he clashed with organisers - who claimed he’d asked for millions in financing to make a 3D film of the production. It was reported that Katharina Wagner wouldn't tolerate this sort of ‘arrogance’, and Wenders was replaced by ‘bad-boy’ theatre director Frank Castorf. According to reviews, the production was booed.

X IS FOR XENOGENESIS 

The definition of xenogenesis is ‘the hypothetical production of offspring unlike either parent’, and when he was growing up, Wenders did indeed seem to be quite unlike his parents. “I bought all these records, but because my parents hated this rock’n’roll, I had to keep my records at a friend’s place. But if you have to defend something that you like, it makes you to like it even more. And what I like most is that all these interests were really mine. My parents hated the comic strips, they hated rock’n’roll, and when they found out what movies I was going to they also were against that. So everything I loved I had to defend.”

Y IS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE

Wenders is a fierce supporter of young artists, directly through his foundation’s funding of upcoming filmmakers, and generally via the advice he offers freely. Here’s a lovely video full of wisdom.

Z IS FOR ZECHE ZOLLVEREIN

The Zeche Zollverein coal mine industrial complex is a key location in Wenders’ glorious 3D dance spectacular Pina (2011), as is the Zollverein school of design. You can see both locations in the trailer below – as well as many more of the unusual places Wenders took his team for the film.