Wim Wenders—born Wilhelm Ernst Wenders in Düsseldorf, German, Aug. 14, 1945—came to prominence during the New German Cinema of the 1970s. Triggered by the Oberhausen Manifesto in ’62—a conscientious break from Germany’s past—a new style of German cinema was born, one that bore allegiance to Britpop and Hollywood over traditional Germanic history and storytelling.
Wenders, alongside countrymen Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, gained celebrity on an international stage. But unlike Herzog and Fassbinder, Wenders’s legacy tends to be limited to a few titles while the rest of his oeuvre is relegated to obscurity—an undeserving fate for masterpieces of independent cinema.
Take Wenders’ second feature film, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, from 1972. Adapted from a novel by Peter Handke—who also wrote the script for Wenders’ most famous work, Wings of Desire—Goalie is greatly influenced by painting, a craft Wenders studied and practiced before picking up a camera. After years of study in Paris, Wenders admitted he was not a great painter, but his studies laid a foundation for his work with the moving image.
“I was very much attracted to frames,” Wenders says in an interview for Louisiana Channel. “I liked the idea that everything was framed in paintings, and everything in the frame was right. Maybe that is an idea of beauty. It was all organized.”
Much like the directors of the New American Cinema, Wenders learned his craft by going to the movies, but as critic and filmmaker Mark Cousins notes in The Story of Film, “Wenders has often said that the anti-Jewish and nationalistic cinema of the Nazi period destroyed German image-making.”
Wenders had no choice but to look to America for inspiration, and Americana imbues the works of Alice in the Cities, 1974; Kings of the Road, 1976; The American Friend, 1977; and Paris, Texas, 1984. All are inspired by American imagery but contain the sting of the American occupation. “The Americans have colonized our subconscious,” Kings of the Road hitchhiker Lander (Hanns Zischler) declares.
Though America inspired Wenders, he would never succumb to its cultural imperialism. In Tokyo-Ga, 1985, Wenders blends documentary footage of Japan with clips from Yasujirô Ozu films in an attempt to understand where reality ends and cinema begins. A theme that continues through his most widely known masterpiece, Wings of Desire, 1987, where the angel, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), meditates on a simple question: Why am I me and not you?
Although watching a Wenders film can be an enchanting experience, describing one can be frustrating. Wenders’s cinema is a road trip where the windshield—a frame and a barrier—reveals life but remains removed. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his Great Movies review of Wings of Desire, “[Wenders] suggests what it would be like to see everything and not participate in it.”
But that doesn’t mean that Wenders is disconnected from what his camera is capturing. Much like the work of Charlie Chaplin, Michael Powell, François Truffaut, and Yasujirô Ozu, Wenders is genuine in his sincerity. His work lacks irony. In lieu of directorial moralizing, Wenders asks his audience to engage with the subject matter directly. As the goalie (Arthur Brauss) in The Goalie’s Anxiety advises: When watching a soccer match, don’t watch the forward with the ball. Watch the keeper. While the other eyes and players focus in on one central point, the man with the ball, the keeper dances a lonely dance in anticipation of what is to happen next.
The same can be said of Wenders’ films. It is difficult to pull your eyes from the faces of Bruno Ganz, Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, Solveig Dommartin, and Peter Falk, but when you do, you will see a whole world back there.
A version of the above essay first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 23, No. 35, “IFS unlocks the artistry of Wim Wenders.”
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