On a Wender: The Berlin & Beyond Film Festival highlights Wim Wenders' career with an in-person appearance and a variety of films, including the docu "One Who Sets Forth."

Wim Wenders: Berlin & Beyond

Dennis Harvey January 15, 2009

Italy, England, Scandinavia and much of Eastern Europe all had their giddy cinematic "New Waves" of the 1950s and 1960s. But Germany—pretty well stymied by cultural conservatism following WWII, not to mention half the nation’s Communist oligarchy—took slightly longer to exhale fresh filmic breath.

"New German Cinema," as it came to be called, was a movement that emerged from West German hippie experimental theater/art/film scenes, flourishing in the 1970s via several distinctive, erratic, brilliant and prolific directors. Most stellar were Fassbinder, Herzog, and Wenders. The latter is this year’s honoree at the 14th annual Berlin & Beyond festival.

More than any contemporary, Wim Wenders tasted major international success. He even got called to Hollywood, to make beleaguered Hammett, a 1983 take on hardboiled author Dash Hammett’s life and writings that executive producer Francis Ford Coppola purportedly re-shot at length (over three years in fact). That frustrating failure didn’t lead to more mainstream compromises, however. Instead he made the strikingly astringent, Sam Shepard-written 1984 Paris, Texas, then repaired back to Europe where his vision risked little studio interference. There he’s stayed since—even as projects have become ever-more “international” in casting, funding and physicality.

Those two American films form an odd middle interlude in a career otherwise neatly divided into two major phases: The ambivalent, pokerfaced yet wry, very cineaste-ic German films made before, and the starry multinational projects since. There were exceptions—for instance he directed-for-hire a profoundly dull Europudding The Scarlet Letter in 1974, and in recent years has made several documentaries including the enormously successful Buena Vista Social Club. But in general it’s a filmography with one tightly focused first half and a wandering, vague, still-unfinished second. As tribute, Berlin & Beyond is showing one feature from each: 1976’s Kings of the Road and Wenders’ latest Palermo Shooting.

Like a lot of New German Cinema greats, Wenders made some profoundly boring, self-indulgent films en route to crystallizing his art. His features were very hit-and-miss until Kings of the Road, the epic yet infinitely detailed 1976 movie that’s B&B’s sole retrospective offering. Three hours long, in grainily beautiful B&W, it has actors Rudiger Bogler and Hanns Zischler as two 30-ish men traveling the vanishing circuit of West Germany’s tiny bordertown cinemas to repair projectors and re-splice aged films.

Kings of the Road
is a quintessential "nothing happens" movie. Yet the accumulation of small, eccentric incidents and character details somehow build into something monumentally funny, lyrical and melancholy. It also celebrates Wenders’ love of American culture—as opposed, perhaps, to America itself—in a soundtrack full of "golden oldies" and the "road movie" ambiance redolent of both laconic Westerns and Kerouac cool.

That same year, Wenders—in another expression of pop Yank-o-philia—made The American Friend, a noirish concoction shaped equally by Patricia Highsmith, the director’s frequent muse Bruno Ganz as a bewildered hero, and crazy-ass Dennis Hopper as the trickster who pulls Ganz into a black-comedy chaos of violence and crime.

He recovered from his brief subsequent U.S. sojourn to make 1987’s Wings of Desire, the existential arthouse fantasy romance of all time. What else could compare? Wings almost created its own genre. Flawed but rhapsodic, it addressed life beyond this Earthly plane in ways even nonbelievers might embrace. It was written by literary German novelist Peter Haneke, and one could argue Wenders’ films have suffered terribly since he stopped relying upon screenplay contributors as disciplined as this one.

Who imagined this director would make a date movie, if probably the most philosophically inclined such ever to touch so many people? With Ganz again as the angel who wants to experience mortal, material life and gets his wish, it was one of those rare films that miraculously transcend incipient sentimental mush. Yet I’m a little afraid to see it again—time might have diminished its magic.

It’s certainly diminished Wenders’ own. This one international smash seemingly transformed him from a droll, private observer into the sage that those who love, love, LOVED Wings—but wouldn’t have cared for anything he’d done before, particularly Kings of the Road—now imagined him. The kind who globe-trots amongst the famous and talented, doing no harm (except to paying customers), but saying very little concrete or worthwhile via meandering, indulgent films that smack of privileged New Age dabbling. The kind who becomes BFF with Bono—even letting him conceive the story for 2000’s unwatchable Million Dollar Hotel—another celebrity whose do-gooding somehow frequently comes off as insufferably affected.

Until the End of the World
was a sprawling quasi-sci-fi mess posing as quasi-spiritual quest. Wings sequel Faraway, So Close! disappointed even that movie’s most fervent fans. The End of Violence carried itself like a Major Statement but was simply inane. More recent U.S. shot features Land of Plenty and Don't Come Knocking were barely seen here—a testament to how far his stock has fallen—though some viewers thought them both partial rebounds.

These films have drawn in the likes of William Hurt, Jeanne Moreau, Max Von Sydow, Tom Waits, Nastassja Kinski, Lou Reed, Horst Bucholz, Jeremy Davies, Milla Jovovich, Mel Gibson, Amanda Plummer, Jimmy Smits, Bud Cort, Andie MacDowell, George Kennedy, Eva Marie Saint, Fairuza Balk, Jessica Lange and, yes, Bono. But often their presences feel like the kind of empty Mutual Admiration Party between director and performers that turned the actual wedding in Rachel Getting Married into a distracting minimovie called "Jonathan Demme Presents: Look How Many Cool Musicians Are My Friends!"

It might prove more interesting than many of these films themselves to hear Wenders talk about them. (He’ll be interviewed this Tuesday at the Castro by Dartmouth prof and German film scholar Gerd Gemunden after accepting the festival’s lifetime achievement award for directing.) His appearance follows the screening of Palermo Shooting, which personifies the pleasures and problems in latterday Wenders.

German musician, journalist and all-around media personality Campino nee Andreas Frege plays Finn, a world-famous fashion and fine arts photographer who lives fast/hard. He does or doesn’t die while driving his sportscar, taking pictures and listening to his iPod . (He shoulda paid more attention to the driving part.) He has a Princess Leia hologram-type vision of Lou Reed in a bar, then sets off on a surreal journey to the titular Sicilian capital. This nearly 3000-year-old city promises a fresh start from his jadedly dissatisfied life to date. The minus side is that he’s targeted by a mystery assassin wielding bow and arrow.

Palermo Shooting
is insanely pretentious, often silly, yet sometimes surprisingly fun. It has a rich sense of place courtesy Wenders’ recently preferred cinematographer Franz Lustig, and a soundtrack full of whatever cool stuff Wenders has been listening to lately. (I particularly applaud the inclusion of personal fave Iron & Wine.) Heavily tattooed and oft half-naked, Campino does have charisma. There are also appearances by Wenders veterans Dennis Hopper (as a very garrulous Death) and Milla Jovovich (as her very pregnant self).

Wenders is almost 65. Yet Palermo Shooting might’ve been imagined by a not-dumb nuevo glam rocker wearing fuscia velvet longcoat, leather pants and even more expensive designer shades to an A-list-only gallery opening with this year’s international supermodel as arm candy.

This is at once refreshing—should one ever "act your age"—and kinda distressing. Wenders has done worse. Still, is this colorful goof what we once hoped from the director of Kings of the Road, American Friend or Wings of Desire? He’s made great films. It’s been so long since one imagined him making another.

Elsewhere in this year’s Berlin & Beyond program, opening nighter Cherry Blossoms has a first half as fine as anything veteran fest-favorite German director Dorris Dorrie has done. If the second (involving a little too much fey whimsy and bad Butoh dancing) lost me, it’s nonetheless charmed many others.

Other highlights include a January 19 "Hollywood Speaks German" program excavating excerpts from German-dubbed early U.S. talkies; Summer in Berlin director Andreas Dresen’s new Cloud 9, featuring some pretty intense elderly sex; veteran Barbara Sukowa’s awarded turn as a conflicted war bride in Invention of the Curried Sausage; and The Wave, a drama about the ease of propagandic brainwashing that was inspired by a 1967 Palo Alto high school experiment.

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.

  • Oct 19, 2011

    Essential SF: Irving Saraf and Allie Light

    Saraf and Light's work is marked by an unwavering appreciation for underdogs and outsiders.