German filmmaker Wim Wenders has really done it all. From narrative to documentaries, including 3D arthouse dramas (the upcoming “Every Thing Will Be Fine”), 3D documentaries (“Pina”), music videos (U2, Talking Heads), live concert films, and almost every kind of movie imaginable in between — Wenders’ work has been restlessly eclectic. The filmmaker has been an early adopter of new technology throughout his career, shooting on video in the mid ‘90s (“Until the End of the World”), and his embrace of 3D technology began even earlier than is suggested on paper (he began shooting “Pina” even before James Cameron’s “Avatar” was released in theaters).
He’s also received a ton of accolades over the years, winning the Palme d’Or in 1984 at Cannes (“Paris, Texas”), Best Director at Cannes in 1987 (“Wings Of Desire”) and he’s been nominated for three Academy Awards for the documentaries “Buena Vista Social Club,” the aforementioned film about dance choreographer “Pina,” and his most recent picture, “The Salt of the Earth,” about Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado.
You may not know Sebastião Salgado by name, but you’ve probably seen his social/humanitarian photojournalist works; stunning black and white photos of stark contrast often centering on the impoverished, the marginalized and the forgotten. Salgado was on the ground floor of some of the most brutal international catastrophes, revolutions and conflicts over the last 40 years, documenting the famines that struck Africa in the 1980s, the appalling ’90s genocides in Rwanda, the ethnic cleansing wars in Yugoslavia, the Saddam Hussein-devastated Kuwaiti oilfields, and so much more.
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Haunted by the stark power of Salgado’s works, Wenders not only purchased them, but eventually befriended the photographer and along with the man’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, co-directed “The Salt Of The Earth.” The movie is a poetic and powerful portrait of the photographer (read our review here), not only highlighting his visuals, but bringing a better understanding of the man behind the camera and how he captured such arresting observations of humanity in his work. We spoke to Wenders earlier this year about the documentary, (which hits theaters this weekend) his entire career, the near mythic backstory on his collaboration with Francis Ford Coppola, his 3D forays, and much more.
This movie is something really moving and special. When did you first become aware of Sebastião Salgado and his photos?
I didn’t know about the man until one day in 1987. In the mid-’80s I was walking in Los Angeles, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a couple of black and white pictures in a gallery that I had no intention to go into. I just saw them and they attracted me immediately.
I went straight inside and they had about a dozen photos from a series shot in Buenos Aires and I was completely blown away by this young, Brazilian photographer, Sebastião Salgado. And as this was a commercial gallery I decided to buy one these pictures. I just had to, because I thought they were so extraordinary and so adventurous… This photographer had a great eye and also was a great adventurer.
Then the [person at the] gallery really took advantage of me and said, “I have another series of pictures from this photographer.” And what I was shown was a very different mission that Salgado was on. These pictures from the Sahel in Africa where it was more humanitarian mission to report about the droughts and they touched me in a very different way. And I was equally blown away. So I walked out of there with two pictures and I hanged them up and they’ve been with me ever since.
But then you sought him out.
I had all his books now, had seen all of his big shows but had never met him. So eventually, in 2009, I made an effort through a friend and collector who knew him, and he helped me get in touch with him. That was without any idea of making a movie, it was just to get to know this man who was my declared favorite photographer.
Are you conscious of the fact that Sebastião is sort of a prototypical or classic Wenders protagonist?
Well, many of your characters are in search for themselves and they often travel and explore the world doing so, often at the expense of loved ones. And additionally, many of them are absentee fathers like Travis in “Paris, Texas.” A lot of characters just leave. This kind of sums up Salgado’s story, no?
Wow. [long pause]. Damn you’re right. I hadn’t thought of that.
Sometimes you work on a thing for three years and then somebody has to come and tell you. I never looked at him as a character. I looked at him as a real person and I always wanted to find out who was this man and what was driving him. But you’re right, maybe one is always looking for what one is attracted to in the first place. Maybe the fact that I was so much attracted by his photography, that he was somehow a spirit that was connected to my work in some way. He’s a great traveler and so we really have something in common.
Right, and you’re also a global traveler and your films span the entire world — it just struck me that you were sort of almost drawn to one another in your desires to explore.
It could be. We came from very different angles though. Sebastião, who really was not an artist to begin with, really came from the financial world, started a career at the World Bank… with statistics and reports and all of that sort of financial stuff. He took a camera with him just in order to tell his wife afterwards where he’d been. He then realized in those pictures his heart was more involved than in what he really had learned. So he came from a different corner. All my life I really wanted to be a painter and I became a filmmaker. I was a sidetracked painter, so to speak. So we came from opposite sides and but maybe driven by similar interests, that’s absolutely possible.
He treats his subjects with… it’s obviously never stated, but the photos just pour out empathy and dignity.
Yes, but again dignity is not a photographic entity, it’s a moral entity. That’s one of the reasons I was driven to make this movie is to find out why these pictures that I’d seen and had this aura for me of being utterly respectful, of giving dignity to people who were in situations that had driven all dignity out of them. A lot of his pictures were in situations where people have no more dignity. They become like animals almost. Even then his photographs had respect and helped these people to regain their dignity and that was one of the reasons I wanted to make this film.
It seems like on the most basic level, the impetus for your documentaries is to share the things you love, whether it’s Pina Bausch, your love for Yasujirō Ozu, [in “Tokyo Ga”] or the music of the Bueno Vista Social Club.
It’s true. My impetus to start a movie is not to unveil something or be critical of he situation or call attention to some situations that need to be changed. My impetus is sort of that I like something and I like something so much that I have the urge to share it. Instead of telling my friends, “you have to see this,” as a filmmaker I have the privilege of showing this by making a movie about it. All of my documentaries work that way and I don’t know any other kind of way to approach it. And I know that there are a lot of other reasons to make a movie, that there’s a great reason to hate something or make a film because you want to change things. But that’s not my way.
You’ve celebrated a lot of filmmakers in the past — “Tokyo Ga,” [Ozu], “Lightning Over Water,” [Nicholas Ray], “A Trick of Light” [about the pioneering Skladanowsky brothers], “Room 666” [about the state of cinema shot in Cannes in 1982], but it strikes me in some ways that you’re like a patron of the image. Throughout your work, you’ve celebrated, not only the image itself, but the people who made the images. Much like Salgado.
Maybe because I think one of the great adventures left on our planet is to create images, respectful images or meaningful images. The act of creation is something I’m really really interested in and realizing that there’s so many different ways to create and to give an image of this world and that you can do that as a fashion designer just as well as a musician. So I’ve always been driven to understanding how these other approaches of representing the world and how they function, what’s driving them.
Your narratives also seem to have a documentary, exploratory approach. Are you conscious of that? Something like “Paris, Texas” is very exploratory even in the way that it was shot, written and conceived, right?
Well, I have a love of paintings; figurative painting, portrait as well as landscapes. So when I started making movies they were a continuation of painting, with the camera. I didn’t have any narrative impetus. I didn’t know that existed. But from the first moment that I cut two shots together I was aware of the fact that it immediately creates a third. So I realized that is the essence of storytelling: you put one image and another together, you have this change and all of a sudden it is an arch and it is a story.
So I became a storyteller against my own will, and from the beginning I was very much attached to preserve and maintain what’s there.
My stories are always very reality driven and driven by an impulse to catch as much real life as possible. Especially “Paris, Texas,” but you can take any of them. They’re very much dedicated to a sense of place, and a sense of place only exists if the place is real.
Right. Most of your films take place in the world rather than inside a studio, or some sort of fabrication.
I couldn’t, I wouldn’t. I really think it’s pointless. I don’t even grasp that kind of filmmaking where people are acting in front of green screen. For me it’s an image of horror.
But it happened once, you shooting in a studio on “Hammett,” right? [You can read our long digression on “Hammett,” working with Francis Ford Coppola and Zoetrope studios here]
A lot of your films are readily available on DVD. Is that going to change? I noticed hat Criterion had put “Alice in the Cities” on Hulu Plus maybe a year or two ago and it was a nice surprise. Are we going to see more of that?
You’re going to see a lot of it. Except for “Hammett,” I produced all the films myself, so I own them all. And in 2002, I lost the entire body in a bankruptcy of my production company that was really not the fault of the production company.
After 9/11 the entire commercial industry in Europe fell apart and the parent company that I had merged with went bankrupt. [another aside; Wenders explains everything that happened here]
During your MOMA retrospective, are we going to see the little-seen “Summer in the City,” you’re debut?
Yes, but “Summer in the City” is a little sadder, it cannot be really saved because the music rights in that movie would cost ten times as much.
Music rights cost less these days though.
“Summer in the City” has music by everybody that’s expensive and impossible to get from the Rolling Stones to Chuck Berry to Elvis Presley. It’s insane. There’s music for two-and-a-half hours. To get the music rights for that movie is totally insane. You can probably screen it in a museum here and there and then retrospectives. But we can’t re-release it and we can’t release it on DVD. We’re going to show [1972 film] “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick” again, we just finished restoring that. That was first shown here in New York in 1971, on my first trip to New York.
Are some of these going to come out on Criterion then? The Road Trilogy, things like that?
You’re a big early adopter and I wanted to talk 3D. I heard that you were shooting “Pina” even before “Avatar” hit theaters.
We did shoot before “Avatar” came out. We were in the editing process when “Avatar” came out.
Still, that’s super early when you think of the 3D phenomenon and what happened post-“Avatar.” And at the very least in the documentary world it was unheard of. And so how did people react when you were doing this? What was the reception before?
People were laughing at us when we said we were making a documentary in 3D. People laughed and wasn’t easy to finance it because nobody really believed in it. The 3D circuits were so limited. When we started to finance it and put it together the amount of screens in Germany was ridiculously low that could show it, and when the film was finally finished it didn’t even play in cineplexes.
It really enlarged the arthouse circuit in terms of 3D. A lot of screens were boosted up to 3D so they could play the movie. And at the time I was so optimistic that this was going to fly, [that] we were just a forerunner and that in a few years no documentary would be done in any other medium anymore and even independents were going to pick it up, intimate movies were going to start using it, and arthouse movies, and that it was going to be taken seriously as a great new language. Little did I know.
For a year there, it was such a huge phenomenon that was supposed to change the industry, and now it feels like 3D is on its way out or dead already.
I don’t know. I worked a lot in 3D afterwards. I made three films since then.
Yes. I made a series in architecture called “Cathedrals of Culture,” six directors, each of us did a 30 minute film on architecture. Robert Redford was one of them. I finished a feature film that is going to come out [“Every Thing Will Be Fine”]. I did work a lot in 3D and I still believe in it, but I’m sort of shocked how unexplored it still is.
There’s only been a handful of filmmakers who have really done anything with it. Do you have a favorite? Do you think the studios ruined it?
Well, it will be easy to say that, and of course somehow they did and of course somehow too many movies were made in 3D that didn’t really need to be in 3D and that only used 3D as a stamp on it. So it wasn’t really taken too seriously as a language by a lot of the blockbuster movies. But my disappointment is really that independents didn’t dare go there.
I think the only 3D drama that really did much with the medium was Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.”
“Gravity” was good but it’s still also just a kind of action thing in a way. “Hugo” was fabulous, I loved “Hugo.”
What is your approach to drama and 3D?
We shot a family drama with James Franco, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Rachel McAdams. We started working on that right after “Pina.” I thought that [by time] “Every Thing Will be Fine” came out, it will be one of many. Now it’s going to come out and it’s still going to be this strange rarity, arthouse 3D. It didn’t catch on. It’s a shame because a lot of theaters have the ability to show it, they’re waiting for product and they don’t get it.
“The Salt Of The Earth” opens in limited release this weekend.