INTERVIEW WITH WIM WENDERS: ON THE DOCUMENTARIES

What is the attraction of the documentary form for you?

Wim Wenders: First of all the spontaneity it allows for. All my documentaries have opened up and presented themselves to me on very short notice. And then you’re confronted with the reality of a situation, and you try to find the form for it. You “react”. Fiction usually works the other way around. You act.

Were your influences for documentary the same as fiction film or did you look to other filmmakers for inspiration?

My fictional work always included a “documentary tendency”. I was always happy to let as much “reality” as possible enter my stories. I base my work on a strong sense of place, and that applies to fictional as well as documentary films. But while I learned a lot about the language and grammar of filmmaking from the American Cinema (Ford, Mann, Ray, Fuller, Hitchcock…), I can’t really quote “documentary influences”. That is more a self-made form for me, and was initially leaning more to diary-films or essays than to “classic” documentaries. I do admire some documentary filmmakers, though. Pennebaker, Chris Marker, just to name two.

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A TRICK OF THE LIGHT: Max Skladanowsky - A Cinematic Innovator

Max Skladanowsky was one of the true innovators of early cinema. The son of a glazier, he was born in Berlin on 30 April 1863. Employed by the Hagedorn workshops, who specialised in the manufacture of props and lighting for theatres, he trained in photography, glass painting and optics, learning how to construct the magic lanterns that were popular at the time.

In 1879, along with his older brother Emil, he accompanied his father, Carl, around Germany and neighbouring countries, presenting dissolving magic lantern shows. In 1890 Max and Emil constructed a mobile mechanical theatre which they took on tour the following year, and to Vienna, Budapest and Scandinavia in 1892.

Around this time, the brothers constructed a chronophotographic camera, designed for unperforated Kodak roll film and using a worm-gear intermittent movement. Their first footage was shot on 20 August, 1892. It featured forty-eight frames of Emil.

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ALICE IN THE CITIES

With Alice in the Cities I found my individual voice in the cinema.

Wim Wenders

Alice in the Cities cemented Wim Wenders’ reputation as one of the iconic European filmmakers of the 1970s. It featured many of the elements that would become staples of his work: a fascination with American culture, rock ‘n’ roll and the exploration of character through landscape. A deeply personal film, it was also made at a crucial point in his career. Its success, artistically, would decide his future as a filmmaker.

The only member of the German New Wave of the 1970’s to attend film school (Rainer Werner Fassbinder was turned down from Munich's Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, from which Wenders graduated), Wenders attracted praise for his feature-length graduation film, Summer in the City in 1970. His first ‘commercial’film was an adaptation of Austrian writer Peter Handke’s novel, The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty. His direction on that film impressed its co-producer so much that Wenders was offered the chance to direct an adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

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A WINTER’S TALE

Alter egos are not uncommon in cinema. A number of directors have found in one specific actor the traits that allow them time and again to explore different characters in their films. For over twenty years, Scorsese found a connection with Robert De Niro. In film and television David Lynch returned to Kyle MacLachlan. However, few directors have used both the same actor and character in the way that Wim Wenders and Rüdiger Vogler have reprised Philip Winter.

Winter first appeared in Alice in the Cities. Adrift and alone, he was the perfect tool through which to communicate Wenders’ concerns about the state of the world. It was Rüdiger Vogler’s third role for Wenders (he played a small role in The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick and Wenders’ ill fated adaptation of The Scarlet Letter). Although Winter would not appear in film again for another 17 years, it is worth noting the similarity between Vogler’s character in Alice and Bruno Winter, the travelling projectionist, in 1976’s Kings of the Road. Like Alice’s Winter, Bruno is also concerned with the importance of images. (Between these two films, Vogler appeared in Wrong Move, playing Wilhelm, which happens to be Wim Wenders’birthname.)

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NOTES ON IMAGES, DREAMS AND MUSIC

However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it; and that is no more I than it is you. When the play, it may be the tragedy, of life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only, so far as he was concerned. This doubleness may easily make us poor neighbours and friends sometimes.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

 

On Images

Alice in the Cities ends with a death, not of a central character, but of an age of cinema. As a train takes Alice back to her mother and Philip Winter towards some kind of redemption, a newspaper he is reading reports that John Ford has died. With him departed the cinema that informed Wim Wenders’ education in film.

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