Wenders movie festival full of fascinationWim Wenders Film Series, Goethe Institute, 170 Beacon Street. Fridays, 3, 6 and 9 pm.
Wim Wenders is making a name for himself these days in the film community. Paris, Texas is only Wenders' second English language dramatic film, but he is by no means a newcomer to filmmaking. He has spent the past decade as a leading figure in the German cinema, making films of great subtlety, power, and insight in a low-budget, declamatory style.
The Goethe Institute of Boston is providing a great service by presenting a retrospective series of Wenders' early work. This is an exciting opportunity. Wenders may well follow in the footsteps of the likes of such native Germans as Fritz Lang, Max Ophuls, and Otto Preminger, all of whom left legacies as great American film directors.
Born in 1945, Wenders ended up in Munich's Institute of Television and Film -- after puttering with medicine and philosophy. Short films Wenders made as a student preluded a successful break into feature films: Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick) and Alice in den St"adten (Alice in the Cities).
He started to gain wide attention with Falsche Bewegung (Wrong Move, 1975), which features many touches typical of his style. The high, distant shots of towns and landscapes, the harsh, wet city backdrops of industrial Germany, the dissonant piano tones, and a collection of characters who wander aimlessly through the movie are key elements which Wenders would repeat later.
The story of this film centers around Wilhelm, a young man who desires to write but has nothing to write about. Evicted by his mother, he wanders about Germany, gradually attracting a small group of equally aimless traveling companions. They relate their dreams and their histories to each other, bound together by their mutual disaffection from society.
The movie is full of meaningless violence and petty mutilations: Wilhelm smashes his hand through a window and looks dispassionately at his bloodied hand; an old man suffers from nosebleeds when he tells the truth; a wealthy widower, later to hang himself, drives a pencil into his palm as he explains his intricate theories of loneliness. The characters attempt to find meaning in pain and death, but there is none.
A facile interpretation of this film might make mention of the loss of meaning and direction in Europe, but there is more here than simple dimestore post-War nihilism. Wenders shows his subtle mastery of the craft by gradually making the audience aware of a glaring irony: Wilhelm's situation is analogous to the audience's own. We think negatively of Wilhelm's cold detachment and morbid strife for excitement, yet we ourselves sit bleary-eyed in a darkened room, isolated from the people around us, expecting to be moved by the images on the screen.
Wenders makes us conspirators in the central dilemma of the film maker: the more he tries to capture real life and real emotion on film, the more he emphasizes his objective position in relation to them and so increases his isolation.
Almost like an icon of the film's theme, the movie ends with Wilhelm, having left his companions, filming the antics of a tourist couple as a favor -- an intimate moment for them, but meaningless to Wilhelm. The last shot is one of Wilhelm at a scenic lookout at the top of a mountain he had seen in pictures, serene, aloof, detached. Wenders ends by giving us nothing more than what we have made of ourselves.
Wenders gradually worked his way into the mainstream of American film, making friends with Nicholas Ray, the maverick director best known for Rebel Without a Cause. Der Amerikanische Freund (The American Friend), made in 1977, shows his increasingly American outlook.
This time, the plot rambles less than in his previous films: it fits more or less into the suspense thriller genre. It concerns a gentle young German named Zimmermann with a fatal blood disease who allows the Mafia to persuade him to become a hit-man: one job for a large price, in order to buy security for his family. Once the Mob has him on their hook, however, they won't turn him loose, until an American named Ripley (Dennis Hopper) helps him out.
In trying to provide for his family, out of the most loving and caring impulses, Zimmermann estranges himself from his wife and child. His bond with Ripley consequently strengthens.
Throughout the movie, Wenders extends his theme from simple irony into a more complex set of duplicities. Zimmermann has a craft, framing pictures (a metaphor that cannot be ignored); he is able to show off his work and see the results of his labor, but the entire business of frame making is the business of limits. Ripley has no limits, travels widely and spends a lot of money, but in turn, has nothing to show for his activities. The duplicities resonate between the characters, the director and the audience.
The Goethe Institute will be featuring Wim Wenders' films for two more weekends. The upcoming movies should be real treats: they include Hammett, Wenders' first Hollywood feature, a semi-fictional story about the author of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, who was himself a San Francisco detective before he turned to writing. The showings only cost a dollar, but be sure to get there early, they always sell out.
The Wim Wenders film series is a chance to peek behind the scenes of the movie industry, to see how a director is made. Such a peek is especially rewarding when the director cares about creating and developing ideas, ideas which challenge the viewer.