New York City’s own IFC Center is currently hosting the first leg of German auteur Wim Wenders’ major touring retrospective, “Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road,” with Wenders himself set to appear at select screenings for post-screening discussions. Following the IFC launch, the films will then travel to 15+ cities around the country.
For decades, much of Wenders’ work went unseen; it was unavailable due to unresolved rights clearances or poor quality. But Wenders has been faithfully restoring his older films, upgrading the quality and making them permanently accessible to the public. Now is your chance to see his classics on the big screen. A shortened version of “Until the End of the World” was released in theaters in 1991 and critically panned; but this retrospective has the 4.5 hour Director’s Cut, which is infinitely better. It’s the version Wenders intended.
Along with Herzog and Fassbinder, Wenders completes the best-known filmmaker trio of New German Cinema. In keeping with his retrospective’s fitting title, Wenders is perhaps most recognized for his “road movies.” These films are about people who set out on foot or by car, discovering a landscape and fording their own inner landscapes along the way.
In more recent years, Wenders has turned to the documentary, a genre he believes affords him more creative freedom. This retrospective spans his entire 40-year career, from his earliest road movies (“Kings of the Road,” “Alice in the Cities,”) to the arthouse films of the 80s that elevated him to international acclaim (“Wings of Desire,” “Paris, Texas”) to his documentaries (“Buena Vistal Social Club,” “Pina”). There will also be a sneak peak at Wenders’ surprising latest project, a 3D character drama starring James Franco called “Every Thing Will Be Fine.”
Indiewire spoke with Wenders about how radically the film industry has changed in the past few decades. Some of the spontaneity has gone out of filmmaking; now it’s more of a business, less of an art form. Wenders is disappointed in how filmmakers have progressed (or not progressed) with 3D technology. At this point, the film industry craves “security”—everyone wants to know how a film is going to turn out before they make it or fund it. The time for wistful projects like Wenders’ “Wings of Desire,” made in 1987 with no script and nothing but a simple, dreamy vision, has come and gone. But we still have Wenders’ films, thankfully restored and available to savor for years to come.
A lot of filmmakers don’t like to talk about their older work. They mostly want to discuss whatever their latest project is.
You, too? You have to revisit your early stuff so often lately, speaking at retrospectives, and with all the restoration you’ve been doing.
I’m joking. If I had restored these old films and not liked to talk about it, I would have done something wrong. I did each of them between six months and six weeks. Some took longer. Some were badly damaged. Some had survived quite well. But I revisited all of them, and I’m happy they’re now finally seeing the light of day. Some of them were gone for almost 40 years.
How do you think the financing and production process of making films has most drastically changed since you were working in the 70s and 80s?
It’s a different ballgame. In the 70s, there was only one kind of film production. You had a choice to make a film on 35, on 16, black and white, or color, and that was it. And today you can make movies in many ways. You can make movies much more expensively than we ever dreamt of at the time, and you can make them much more cheaply. Financing and preparing a film is a different ballgame. You can’t get a movie made unless you have a really good script.
Even if you’re a big name director?
Especially if you’re a big name director. You have more leeway if you’re a first time director, today. If you have a big name, they really want to look at your script. The idea of making a film without a big script, or without a finished script — and I made a number of films without a single page of a script — is unthinkable today. If I were to go out now and try to make “Kings of the Road,” they would kick me out of any office of whatever institution or distributor it is that I would try to get money from. Nobody would be willing to invest money in a film with a director who tells you “we’ll write it as we go.”
People want more of a sure thing.
Yeah, it’s much more of an industry now than it was. At that time, there was more of a notion that filmmaking was part of the arts, a language, a form of expression. And if you said today, Well, I want to make a film where two guys are traveling through Germany and they discover the country, and it’s about the state of the cinemas, and all these little towns where there’s only one cinema left, and it’s dying…they would tell you, well, write a script and come again. But at the time, we could still finance the film and I could shoot it over a long period, 11 weeks. Today films have to be made so much quicker, and you have to prepare them for so much longer. Also in post-production, it takes so much longer. At the time, with linear editing, I’d never spend more than a few months in the editing room. But today with digital cinema, you sit there for a year. And then you work on your sound for another year, or six months. So it’s all a slower process. Financing a film takes much longer. And very often they tell you, Well, it sounds promising, but we think you need to fiddle around with the script a little more — come back again.
What about making a documentary — how is the financing different from a fiction film?
I’ve made more documentaries over the last decade than ever before, mainly because there was so much more freedom in that field, and people could accept that maybe you’d just write a short treatment and not a script. Even in the field of documentaries, I tell you, my students who go out and make their first feature films, they expect to do a documentary based on a script — believe it or not. So it gets a little out of hand. People want more security. They want to know before they make a film what it’s going to be like. I was very privileged to start in the 70s, and really make a film a year for 10 years. The only living person who’s still doing that is Woody Allen. He has a machinery going; writing in the winter, prepping in the spring, shooting in the summer, editing in the fall. He has it down. But he’s the only living person who’s still doing that.
Not all of them are good…
Well, it comes with the territory. I was only able to do that in the 70s. In the 80s, it already got more complicated. “Every Thing Will Be Fine” took 5 years and “Salt of the Earth” took three years. From the beginning, to the conception, until it’s out. So it takes longer, it’s more complicated, people need more security, and it’s much more of an industrial process.
You have to really sell a movie in this era, and there’s a lot of non-creative marketing stuff involved.
Yeah, you have to pitch it. I never pitched a movie, all through the 70s. I didn’t even know the word. Today, with my students, they want to know. “Can you help us understand how to pitch?” I know by now how to do it.
The film community now is pretty inclusive — filmmakers and critics and audiences all interact online. A director can read what people are saying about his or her film immediately. And the industry is bigger than ever — film festivals are huge, there’s more coverage and more films, tons of hype. How has the film community changed, in your estimation, over the last couple of decades?
When I started out, it was all based much more on friendship and solidarity. German cinema was strictly possible through an act of historically unmatched solidarity of 15 or 20 filmmakers who helped each other, because none of us would’ve been able to produce, let alone distribute a movie alone. Even if we didn’t like each other’s movies, we helped each other. Today, that’s pretty unthinkable. It’s much more competitive. Films are so much more under the duress of stress. From the beginning, you have a little window, and if the film doesn’t click with your audience, it’s gone away. A film like “Wings of Desire,” if it came out today, would not have a chance. It would disappear. Even at the time, it needed time. It eventually became a classic, if I may say so, but it needed time. Films go through this narrow hole of distribution today and become cult movies or classics…for every one of them that makes it today, I know 10 others that don’t. There’s so many good movies that do not make it. So I feel privileged I was able to start in the 70s. There was more patience, and a young filmmaker like myself could make a few rotten tomatoes without my career going down the drain. Today it’s very difficult to make a second movie if your first one didn’t make it.
How are your films received in America versus in your native Germany?
I’m one of those guys to whom the saying can be applied, about the prophet in his own country. New German Cinema was an invention by the American press—they coined it. Fassbinder, Herzog, myself, and a few other guys. We were looked at like a hopeless bunch of freaks in Germany. Only the recognition we got in America helped us. So I’m extremely grateful for the way my films were received in America. I remember I arrived in New York in January 1972 for the very first time, because MoMA had their first New Directors season, and I was one of the 12 who was going to present his first film here. That was the very first time I gave an interview. The film of mine was received sort of positively, and with respect, and in Germany, we were the outlaws. Nobody knew what to do with us.
Why didn’t the Germans take to your filmmaking?
Because Germans were burned with 15 years of filmmaking under the Nazis, where it was strictly propaganda. After that, throughout the 50s and 60s, German cinema was very much influenced by American cinema. Germans didn’t really have confidence in their own stories, or in the fact that cinema could be a reflection of their own history. Thus they looked at American movies, and were happy to not be in any dilemma about their history. When we showed up in the late 60s and early 70s, people were not used to being confronted with themselves. I think the openness with which American audiences and critics received us helped us to be taken seriously. My films, from the beginning, had been heavily influenced by American cinema, so that helped a lot for them to be understood here.
You lived in America for a total of 15 years. How did the reality of living here compare to the mythology you were fascinated by before you came?
I came here first in ’72 as a visitor, and I finally moved to America in ’78 and stayed here for 8 years, and then moved back to Europe again. And then later came back here again. And of course I couldn’t answer the question without really referring to all the history that went down in the 70s, 80s, 90s, all the big events that changed America and the world. This was a different city when I lived here. I drove my bike every day from my apartment on Central Park West, to my office here on Union Square. And people thought I was a bike messenger because I had a backpack on my back — nobody had a backpack at that time. No one wore backpacks.
How’d they carry their stuff around?
They didn’t have any stuff.
I guess people didn’t have phones and laptops to take with them everywhere.
Yeah. So I was considered a messenger. Now, every second person is carrying a backpack. So much has changed. The whole country has changed. Movies are made with a whole different means today, and when I started out I don’t think the word “video” was in the dictionary. Let alone the word “digital.” Some computer freaks probably knew the word digital, but we didn’t know it was going to change our lives so drastically.
You have made multiple 3D films, including your latest “Every Thing Will Be Fine.” For the past several years, you’ve advocated for the format to be used for drama rather than just big fantasy or action epics. What do you love about 3D—what potential do you see in it?
For an American audience, it might sound totally weird when I say I love it for its intimacy and for the way it brings us closer to people. My colleagues in America connect 3D with effects, loud stuff, and action. I think its real propensity is intimacy and warmth and immersion. It’s a fantastic tool to discover the world and tell stories of reality, and it’s used for the sheer opposite — it’s driving me crazy. I’m very scared that 3D will disappear because people are fed up with it, and think it’s baloney, and it’s not for them. I’m scared 3D will disappear without ever having been discovered. Even with my new film “Every Thing Will Be Fine,” people are skeptical. They say, We don’t like 3D. Then I try to tell them what it’s about, and why I like it, and they’re still skeptical, because they’ve been burned. I am a big defender of the idea that 3D can do things nobody knows about.
People were crazy about the 3D in “Pina.”
Yes. But ever since then, they haven’t seen anything. I thought it was the beginning of something. While doing “Pina,” I decided to make an intimate fictional film in 3D, and it took me 5 years. I thought, when this film comes out, it’s going to be 1 in 100. By then, there’s going to be intimate films, comedies, documentaries galore that are made in this language, and it will fit into this new landscape. And now it’s out, and it’s the opposite. It’s a strange, one-of-a-kind thing.
You’ve never liked shooting in studios. I assume you don’t approve of how many films are shot in front of a green screen. Do you think special effects and CGI can ever compare to filming out in the real world?
[Laughs] You have a way of posing these big questions. I think the world is such a fantastic place, and it really bores me to see movies where I know the actors were never there. They’ve never seen each other. They talk to each other, but they haven’t seen each other. I mean, you take it for granted that if you shoot a movie in space, the people weren’t really there — OK. But if they’re in Yellowstone or whatever, you’d like them to have been there. Now, more or less, people take it for granted that movies don’t have anything to do with their lives. That has become the definition of movies. I think that’s sad. I think movies can enlighten our lives in a beautiful way, and I have a strong affinity for reality and for what it feels like to be alive today and the whole bloody mystery of life. I think it’s something that movies can enlighten. But that idea by now is almost obsolete.