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The Essentials: The 10 Best Wim Wenders Films

The Essentials: The 10 Best Wim Wenders Films

Wim Wenders started out as a painter, and one could argue that helps to explain a long-held fascination with landscapes that’s run through his career (and perhaps best exemplified in the recent The Salt Of The Earth). But the director, born in 1945, a key figure in New German Cinema and the holder of three Academy Award nominations (plus a Golden Lion, a Palme d’Or and an honorary Golden Bear from Venice, Cannes and Berlin respectively), has from day one been as interested in the people that fill these landscapes, and in the ways that they move.

Wenders first came to the United States in 1972 with his second feature, the New Directors/New Films premiere of “The Goalkeeper’s Fear Of The Penalty” and he never quite looked back. The journey seemed to trigger the restless wanderer in him and the painter-turned-filmmaker soon began a soulful and inquisitive examination of landscapes from America and beyond. This curiosity and peripatetic quest for answers about how human beings live, exist, suffer, and ultimately try and discover themselves has taken him all over the globe to tackle myriad topics.

Though he’s perhaps best known for the arthouse classics “Paris, Texas” and “Wings Of Desire,” Wenders has had a diverse career, managing to maintain a reputation as a beloved outsider while also mixing with the great and the not-so-great (the Bono-written, Mel Gibson-featuring “Million Dollar Hotel” being an unfortunate example of the latter). Music has always been key, particularly in his documentary work, which often features artists that Wenders admires and wants to share with the world —Pina Bausch, Sebastian Salgado, The Buena Vista Social Club.

Altogether, it’s one of the most eclectic careers of any director, both within non-fiction and fiction, which has seen Wenders tackle dramas, docs, mysteries, crime movies, killers, love, death and of course life on the road in search of something. Wenders is the subject of Portraits Along The Road,” a touring retrospective from Janus Films of twelve of his films at present, some of which have hardly ever been seen in this country, and have now been lovingly restored, and to mark the occasion, we’ve picked out the ten most essential of his movies across a career that’s now closing on the five-decade mark. Take a look below, and let us know your favorites in the comments. 

“The Goalkeeper’s Fear Of The Penalty” (1972)

At one point, a female friend of Joseph Bloch’s (Arthur Brauss) asks him why he’s pacing around and doing other random fidgety bits of business; Bloch immediately deflects the question, changing the subject to her daughter instead. Such evasiveness is part and parcel of Wim Wenders’s resolutely anti-psychological approach in this, his second feature. Despite what the title suggests, “The Goalkeeper’s Fear Of The Penalty” (also sometimes known as “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick“) has little to do with soccer and everything to do with close character observation. Even when Bloch suddenly chokes a random woman to death, he, and by extension the film, remains inexplicably unfazed—in stark contrast to the cool he loses when disputing a missed offside penalty call in the film’s opening scene. The result plays almost like a man-on-the-run thriller without the thrills, replaced instead by a near-anthropological detachment, one seemingly more interested in local color—especially bits of American culture intruding onto the German landscape—than plumbing the depths of the titular athlete/murderer. Unlike Rainer Werner Fassbinder‘s stylistically similar “Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?,” there is no build-up to any violent catharsis or blinding revelations. A final dialogue exchange between Bloch and a random observer at a soccer game may explain everything or nothing—or both.

Alice in the Cities” (1974)

A bittersweet, picturesque snapshot of the world in motion, as well as a touching portrait of two very different people searching for their roots, “Alice in the Cities” is one of the most quietly, unassumingly powerful films of its time. The first in the director’s beloved “Road” trilogy, “Alice” is hopelessly in love with the tattered fabric of American life, even if the director’s worldview remains untethered to any one time or place in particular. In this way, “Alice” can be looked at as a sort of spiritual companion piece to the early films of Jim Jarmusch, who also made languid, minimalist pictures that examined the sublime poetry embedded in everyday life as well as the stark contrasts in the various cultures that make up the melting pot of our country. What story there is follows a shiftless photographer played by Rüdiger Volger, whose assignment is to find some sort of meaning in the dead-end margins of middle America. Along the way, he finds himself becoming the “guardian”, if that’s the right word for it, for a fearlessly independent little girl named Alice who has wandered out into the world in search of her long-estranged grandmother. What unfolds is alternately bemusing, beautiful, intimate and devastating – played, as always, in Wenders’s delicate minor key. There’s a superficial similarity to Peter Bogdanovich’s “Paper Moon” (a comparison Wenders himself was not entirely happy about) in the film’s depiction of a strained father-daughter relationship, but otherwise the films are as different as night and day. As a tender, textured story about broken relationships and the ongoing search for home, “Alice” is nothing short of a knockout.

“The Wrong Move” (1975)

The second part of Wenders’s road trilogy once again stars Rüdiger Vogler, the lead of “Alice In The Cities” plus Fassbinder regular Hanna Schygulla, and it also includes the first ever appearance of Nastassja Kinski, who was all of thirteen at that time. Much more aimless than his other films (read: plotless), “The Wrong Move” is at the very least a sort of manifesto in film form, setting out everything Wenders ever tried to achieve in cinema. It centers on a man in a type of existential crisis, who goes on a journey to Bonn in order to hopefully discover his voice as a writer, while along the way gathering a odd group of friends to travel with (like Kinski as the mute acrobat). Absentee fathers tend to be a theme in Wenders’s works and yes, there’s no patriarchal presence in the film, but the domineering mother who finally lets her son go and buys him the train ticket to Bonn is rather unique. When his fiction films haven’t worked, his soul-searching qualities have been accused of being incredibly pretentious and ponderous and “The Wrong Move” ostensibly fits that bill with its contemplative voice-over and long, gazing shots intended to find meaning in landscape. But the aimlessness of both the character and narrative are so genuine, the longing mood so real and the Robby Müller cinematography so evocative, that the lost and directionless dimensions of the film take on quietly poignant qualities. Admittedly, its status as an “essential” Wenders film is perhaps relative; its slow, wandering qualities are probably trying for all but Wenders-acolytes, but its also a key, early development film about the distances between people and lesser roads traveled.

“Kings of the Road” (1976)

A sense of loss infuses Wim Wenders’s 1976 masterpiece—but, as befitting its luxurious three-hour length, “Kings of the Road” is about many different kinds of loss. Sure, there are all the small-town East German movie theaters closing down and thus making Bruno Winter’s (Rüdiger Vogler) projectionist job increasingly obsolete, but there are also personal losses. Most notably, Bruno’s lack of a father figure in his life, and Robert Lander’s (Hanns Zischler) estrangement from his own father. And, with Wenders’s usual emphasis on details of encroaching Westernization—in a soundtrack filled with American tunes—”Kings of the Road” implies a broader loss of cultural identity after the devastation of World War II. With its many scenes of tenderness and humor, this road-trip epic is far from a downer. Nor is it simple-minded: Wenders isn’t shy about suggesting that self-pity may play as much of a role in Bruno’s and Robert’s predicaments as any external factors. In the end, at least one of these two characters comes to the everlasting realization that, as is always the case in life, “Everything must change.”

“The American Friend” (1977)

Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s “Ripley’s Game,” “The American Friend” could be seen as Wim Wenders’s attempt at something like a mainstream thriller—and with two masterful suspense sequences revolving around one character’s murder attempts, Wenders shows himself to be no slouch at satisfying the bare minimum of genre expectations. But this is still a Wenders film through and through—not just in its globe-trotting perspective, but in its moody existentialism and psychological opacity. Though the titular “American friend” refers to clingy sociopath Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper, sporting a big cowboy hat for good measure much of the time), he’s more a mysterious hovering presence; the film instead focuses more on ordinary man Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz), who turns to murder after he’s duped by Ripley and a French gangster (Gérard Blain) into believing he has not much longer to live. Does Zimmermann find something perversely pleasurable in his newfound amorality? Perhaps that explains why he and Ripley suddenly seem inseparable, at least for a spell, in the film’s third act. Whatever makes these characters tick, the film’s haunting final moments pulse with the tragedy of characters who have lived life on the edge and are paying for it as a result.

“Paris, Texas” (1984)

With its open-air settings, plaintive Ry Cooder guitar score, and fascination with images—especially the iconography of the American West—”Paris, Texas” certainly feels like vrai Wim Wenders. This 1984 film has an added verbal eloquence thanks to co-screenwriter Sam Shepard, who brings his brand of spare, distinctly American lyricism to much of the dialogue. Ghosts are felt everywhere in this landscape—not just in the broken-down motels and desert landscapes that these characters traverse, but in the craggy face of central figure Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), haunted by regret and desire for reconnection, expressed as much through gestures and action as through words. In its second half, “Paris, Texas” ultimately becomes a tale of redemption, as Travis searches for his former wife, Jane (Nastassja Kinski), to reunite her with her son, Hunter (Hunter Carson). His final scene with Jane remains one of the most breathtaking and unbearably poignant reconciliation scenes in all of cinema.

“Wings of Desire” (1987)

Faith-based allegory. Celestial fable. Expressionist doodle. A tale of earthbound angels and of Berlin before the wall fell. Describing “Wings of Desire” has never been easy and distilling its narrative essence, even less so. But as opaque and mystifying as “Wings” occasionally is, it’s also one of the most staggeringly beautiful films ever made: lyrical, melancholy, severe and laced with penetrating ruminative power. Ostensibly, it’s the story of two angels who watch the mass of Berlin’s human populace from the gilded rooftops of the city’s famed Cathedrals, listening in on their private thoughts, musings and confessions. And yet such a literal-minded description of the plot does no justice to the luminous majesty of Wenders’s vision. The film was shot by legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan, who also lensed Jean Cocteau’s timeless “Beauty and the Beast,” and the French D.P. brings some of that same lustrous, uncanny magic to the table here too. “Wings,” when examined more closely, is a spellbinding examination of loneliness: from God, from other people, and finally, from the world as a whole. There are some neat cameos along the way for cinephiles and culture mavens, including a memorable appearance by musician Nick Cave and his group the Bad Seeds, as well as a charming turn from Cassavetes-regular Peter Falk, who plays HIMSELF playing an angel (we always knew that Columbo was special). It’s a film you don’t so much watch as breathe in, letting its strange sensations wash over you and course through your body. One could go so far as to call it a religious experience.

“Until the End of the World” (1991)

The first half of Wim Wenders’s 1991 epic plays like a globe-trotting mystery thriller, as lost soul Claire Tourneur (Solveig Dommartin) scours the world to find Sam Farber (William Hurt), whom she latches onto as the one who will deliver her from her spiritual ennui. But only when we discover what it is that makes Sam run—an image-recording device he has stolen that essentially helps blind people see—does “Until the End of the World” fully reveal its cosmic ambition. The film imagines a world on the brink of technological apocalypse, in which the threat of digital collapse momentarily helps bring disparate societies together before it isolates people into their own narcissistic bubbles. Watching it now, it’s startling to see just how much the film anticipated in terms of the societal effects of social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter; the many images in its final hour of characters dazedly staring at screens contemplating their own memories are, if anything, even more resonant today than they were back in 1991. With this 4K digital restoration of the 295-minute director’s cut—rarely screened here in the U.S., and only available on video in Europe—more audiences will finally get a chance to see Wenders’s apocalyptic epic for the amazing visionary folly it was intended to be.

“Buena Vista Social Club” (1999)

Wenders’s biggest-ever crossover hit, one of the most successful documentaries of all time (up until that point), and the director’s first Oscar-nominated film, “Buena Vista Social Club” has always been a deep pleasure. It feels especially interesting in a year when U.S-Cuban relations have finally thawed in a major way. The director had been a friend of legendary slide guitarist Ry Cooder since the latter scored “Paris, Texas,” and when Cooder set out out to unite a line-up of legendary Cuban musicians forgotten after Castro took power and record an album and bring them on tour, Wenders was there to document every step. The resulting record of the same name had been a giant global hit two years earlier, and the gigs sell-out, but Wenders is as interested in the people and the locations than in the music — it’s no concert movie, which is perhaps a little frustrating to die-hard world music fans, but more fun for the rest of us. Wenders is one of the great documenters of place, and this film let him gorgeously capture Havana, which had become more and more exotic for U.S. audiences over the previous thirty years. The most memorable, and most moving moments are watching these astonishing musicians — including 90-year-old singer Ibrahim Ferrer — play together, laugh together and finally enjoy the recognition that they should have had decades earlier.

“Pina” (2011)

Some artists just can’t help but reinvent their medium. What Federico Fellini is to cinema, what William S. Burroughs is to post-WWII literature, that’s what German-born Pina Bausch is to dance. Her work resembles nothing you’ve ever seen before – she smashes the rules of traditional dance into tiny bits and pieces and forms glorious relics out of the rubble. She’s a perfect subject, in other words, for the restless and perpetually curious Mr. Wenders, who made Bausch the subject of his 2011 Oscar-nominated documentary “Pina”. Shot largely outdoors in the dancer’s home city of Wuppertal (in hugely effective 3D, no less) and divided into four show-stopping dance numbers, “Pina” is nothing short of hypnotic as a pure display of aesthetic prowess. The dance sequences have a seamless, almost hallucinatory power, resulting in some of the most vivid imagery Wenders has ever managed to whip up. And honestly, if the movie were simply that, we’d be totally fine with it. But “Pina” as it stands is so much more – in addition to being a great sound-and-light show, it’s also a deceptively incisive look at one renegade artist who marched proudly and defiantly to the beat of her own drum. We come to know Bausch through interviews with collaborators and family members alike, and Wenders is generous enough to let us see her genius in bravura pieces like the “Café Muller” number, or the emotionally-charged finale where the stage is suddenly flooded with water. In a career filled with oddities and excursions into the unknown, “Pina” still manages to stand out. Doc or not, this is one of the director’s more compelling pictures.

Honorable Mentions: There’s plenty more among Wenders’s expansive filmography that’s worth checking out beyond this. Among them: 1980’s “Lightning Over Water,” about the final days of Nicholas Ray’s life, the fascinating, if uneven 1982 picture Hammett,” 1985’s Ozu doc “Tokyo-Ga,” entertaining Golden Lion winner “The State Of Things” and its 1994 follow-up “Lisbon Story,” his mixed collaboration with Antonioni on 1995’s “Beyond The Clouds” and the interesting Sam Shepard-starring “Don’t Come Knocking.” Did we miss your favorite Wenders pic? Let us know your favorite in the comments.

— Kenji Fujishima, Nicholas Laskin, Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez

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