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Wim Wenders on Being Grateful for James Cameron, Catastrophe of Brexit, and More

Written by on September 14, 2016 

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Wim Wenders‘ latest film, an adaptation of Peter Handke’s The Beautiful Days of Aranjuezpremiered at the Venice Film Festival last week. While the legendary New German Cinema director has, in recent years, found much more success with his non-fiction output, Aranjuez is undeniably wistful stuff — and frankly quite dated, too, yet it nevertheless demonstrates that Wenders is still eager to take risks with his films and further push the boundaries of his technique. Whatever the case, in a quaint hotel by the Mediterranean Sea, we found the great man in a somewhat introspective mood.

Shot, essentially, as a 3D chamber piece, Aranjuez imagines the conversation between a man and a woman sitting on the patio of a grand old French chateau. The man talks nostalgia. The woman talks sex. Nick Cave appears on a piano. Check out our conversation below.

The Film Stage: Aranjuez takes place on a beautiful day in a beautiful garden. Is the film a search for that tranquility?

Wim Wenders: Well, the garden does evoke the First Garden. And it’s a little bit garden of paradise. We even added an apple. And I think we all miss it. If we know it or not we all miss it. We all miss the wind in the leaves and we all miss the birds. Maybe we have unlearned it.

The Film Stage: And yet you are a very urban person. You’ve lived in cities your whole life.

Totally right, but luckily my profession led me to silent places and it led me to deserts, and I realized those deserts were my favorite places in America and Africa and Australia. So, I realized I was a city man who had the capacity to be exposed to silence. And I much enjoy shooting in nature today, I must say. I really enjoyed [it]. And I really developed an ability to film there that I didn’t have before. My entire desire, as a young filmmaker was to be out in the cities, to discover more roads and more cities. It’s only now, that I’ve become older, that I am happy to be in silent places.

The Film Stage: You mentioned the wind in the trees; filmmakers often use that image to show madness or desire. It’s very prominent when these characters express desire.

It’s only when we’re shooting that I realized you first hear the wind. You hear the wind and only a few seconds [later] you see the leaves starting to move, and then they sway like crazy and sometimes at dramatic moments in the dialogue it’s as if the wind knew to orchestrate itself. But it’s only in the film that I realized you first hear it, and then you see it. In a lot of our other phenomena, [it is] the other way around: you first see it, and then you hear it. The wind you first hear him. Him, why do I say “him?” [Laughs]

You are also playing with 3D, color, and black-and-white. Would it be correct to say you use technology very consciously in your films?

I do, because it enables me to do things I wasn’t able to do before. I’m not necessarily a technology freak, but I’m curious to find out what you can do with new tools. I also started to experiment with virtual reality because I am interested in where technology… does it expand what we can do? Does it expand our possibilities to express ourselves and to be storytellers, or doesn’t it? And 3D does, so I like it and I embraced it, and I’m horrified by the fact that it’s going to disappear before we know it because it’s only been abused. It’s been abused, and abused and misused over and over again, so now a lot of people are sick and tired of it. And they think it’s useless, because it’s mainly used in useless ways. Unfortunately.

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Do you mean with blockbuster movies?

Well, most of them don’t really need it. And a lot of them are not even shot in 3D — they’re shot in 2D and then they make some sort of artificial 3D out of it afterwards. That is brain-damaging. It really hurts our brains.

Do you think VR technology will have a similar story? Will it have a big burst and then fade away?

VR? I don’t know if it has storytelling abilities. I think it has great abilities to put us into situations — so I think it has great abilities for documentary situations — but I’m not sure it has storytelling abilities. I’m not sure. I don’t know if I want to know what’s happening behind my back in a story. Unless I make that a subject of that story, but then it is limited. I think editing is difficult in VR, and editing is a very important part of storytelling. For a writer, as well as for a filmmaker. I am not quite sure, but who knows what we can come up with? I haven’t seen the film that’s showing here, The Life of Jesus Christ, but I hope I can see it tonight.

How has 3D changed your language as a director?

I realized it gave me a more complete instrument of perception. And I realized that a huge part of my desire as a filmmaker was to take people there — where I was filming. And I always realized that my means were limited and that the flat screen is a limited place to immerse somebody. As hard as I always tried — sometimes I succeeded; sometimes I didn’t — it’s limited. Because, for a 100 years, movies were pretending they can take people into space, and movies invented a lot of fantastic things like tracks and cranes, steadicams to be more and more mobile, and more and more to [be able to] invade space, but, in the end, it’s always like in the ancient caves — it’s always on the wall, it’s always on the flat surface.

So the fact that the screen suddenly opened up and really became a window — and of course, movies always pretended to be windows into the world, but these windows always had a closed shutter because it always happened on a wall — now for the first time that wall opened and I thought that was interesting enough to try it. And then I realized it opened ways for storytellers, it definitely opened ways for me as a documentary filmmaker when I was making Pina. For the first time, it gave me a tool that allowed me to be in the realm of the dancers, in the realm of the dancers’ space. That’s their principal equipment, and that’s their principal tool, space. Everything they do is conquering space, and my tools never allowed me to do that.

So I was happy to discover 3D with something that really needed it. And of course, that was in the early days — we shot Pina before Avatar came out and put 3D on the map and I’m eternally grateful to Cameron that he did because I don’t know if we could have even distributed Pina without Avatar. A lot of theaters equipped themselves with that 3D equipment and that was very, very helpful for our film. When we made the film in 3D and announced it was going to be in 3D everybody said, “You’re crazy. Which movie theater is going to show it? They don’t even have projectors for it.” And then James Cameron brought in the projectors, and it was a beautiful film as well I thought.

Were you aware that Avatar was happening at the time?

Not really, no.

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James Cameron saves European film.

In many ways no, no he didn’t. Because not many people caught up. And I was so sure, I was so sure that it was going to catch on and documentary filmmakers were going to start using it, and experimental filmmakers were going to start using it, and I was sure that they were all going to jump on it. It was too good to be true and then nobody did. Because the industry didn’t really want other people to use it. The big studios made sure that everybody believed it was their tool, and their territory. And even now, if you look at the trades [papers], which are really the arm of the big studios, they have foam in front of their mouths to talk about my films in 3D. They hate it. They don’t want us, independent filmmakers, to mess with the studio’s own tool. They hate people and auteurs using it, because they think it’s none of our business. And that’s going to ruin the language of 3D, before we know it nobody’s going to make these movies. And there’s going to be a huge cry for it.

There is a quality to Aranjuez that feels uniquely European.

Maybe it’s because it’s in French, and because French is such a language at the center of European cinema. Maybe that’s part of it. Maybe it’s because we had Portuguese producers and a German director and an Austrian writer. I don’t know what it is.

Well do you think nowadays — as a member of the EFA — that European cinema has its own quality, its label?

Oh, yes. I think it has proven that it deserves a name and that it has qualities that, unfortunately, the political Europe does not have. I think our films have a European quality that deserves the name, while European politics, in my opinion, don’t deserve the name. Politics continues to beat us down, to understand Europe as a financial and economic unity instead of a country. In our European film academy we have Palestinians and Israelis because we realize that’s part of our context. And the English will still be beloved partners of the European Film Academy after the Brexit, so we have nothing to do with the way politics defines Europe. I think politics would be very well-advised to come off that high pedestal of economics and start thinking about Europe as a cultural unit instead of an economic unit.

Are you very disappointed with what’s happening in Europe?

What do you mean, disappointed? It’s a catastrophe. We’re not only disappointed; we are hurt. We are very hurt because that is the opposite of what were looking forward to. I mean this nationalism and this redefinition of nationality. Countries that define themselves by their borders is a disaster, a total disaster. It is the worst that can happen to Europe is this onslaught of retro ideas of what culture is, of what a country is, of what a nation is, of what freedom is. It’s a disaster.

None of us thought so when this millennium began, right? We all thought, “Wow. Wow, that’s a great future ahead of us.” And now we wish we could be back in the 1990s. It was so peaceful! And so lovely! So full of hope!

Those values that seemed natural are suddenly being questioned. Like being tolerant and listening to other people.

They are all questioned by the past, that is the trouble: they are not questioned by the future; they are questioned by the past. None of these right-wing parties has any ideas for the future, all of their ideas are about bringing back something. And a whole generation of young English people are stolen, their future is stolen from under their feet by old farts. That makes me more angry than anything else, that it’s elderly people who steal the future of the young. That is unheard of in history, I think. I still get angry. Let’s get into something else.

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Some of the close-up shots in Aranjuez are reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu. I was wondering what has been his most lasting influence on your work.

Ozu is a great inspiration, always — not because of his technology or because of the way he shot or anything, but because of his love for people. And because his style is not even a style, it’s an expression of his affection for his people. I don’t know if I learned anything from him in terms of filmmaking, but I certainly learned from him in terms of being in love with his characters. And that almost automatically translates into what the camera does.

So some of the shots [in my film] may evoke some of Ozu’s, but that is only because I love people. And I learned that the camera can express that.

What are the types of narratives that you love? And what can they bring to the modern world?

I think, in a sense, that the creative act is one of the last adventures left. I was such a great traveler. I thought traveling was one of the greatest freedoms a man can have. And I defined myself more like a traveler than anything else — until I realized, not so long ago, traveling didn’t mean much anymore. Anybody travels, any secretary who goes for a weekend in Thailand or a week in the Australian desert and then they’re back in another week. There’s almost no place that isn’t already discovered as adventureland. So traveling has been so much replaced by tourism and virtual traveling that traveling is no longer where discoveries take place.

I think the huge discoveries and the greatest adventure today is the creative act. Musicians, painters, writers, whatever, architects. I think the greatest adventures today are people who venture into new territories of the mind, and no longer into some remote area of the Himalayas. They go there, there is already a hundred people there.

With cheap airlines and everything else, might this increase in availability also be a good thing?

I don’t know if it’s good; I don’t know if these people gain something by going there. I doubt it very much. I really doubt it very much that these people enlarge their horizon or really experience anything by traveling this way. It makes me depressed by thinking that they go there, and then they only arrive there when they’re back home looking at photographs. That’s the only time where they’re really there. That depresses me. It depresses me that first-hand experience is going out of business.

What journey affected you the most? Was there any place that made you a different man, a different person, a different artist?

I don’t know. My greatest travels were travels into museums when I was a kid.

The Rijksmuseum, yes?

The Rijksmuseum, for instance. Yeah. That was my most exciting travel when I took my bicycle, didn’t tell my parents, and I arrived in Amsterdam the evening of the same day — because it was just 100 kilometers — and I called them and said, “I’m now in Amsterdam, I think I’ll find a youth hostel and then come back tomorrow.” My mother was out of her mind. But I was so happy because, the next morning, I went to the Rijksmuseum on my own and then I got back on my bike, and I think that… not the distance, but the museum was the place of my longing. In these paintings, and it was something else see them and to be there than to see them in a book.

What about your first trip to New York?

When I first traveled to New York, I was the first person I knew who had ever been there. None of my friends in school, none of my friends in film school — nobody I knew had ever been there. So I wrote hundreds of postcards because I realized I owed that to all these people, and I was the first one there and now, pfft, I don’t know where I would travel to to send post cards, because I was proud to be there. [Laughs]

New York was different. Berlin was different. Obviously the architecture is different…

Well, the entire planet becomes one place anyway. Which is, of course, in many ways a good thing, and in many ways it’s a loss of specificity and a loss of identity, and a loss of attraction, and the planet becomes a different planet and we have to find other ways to explore.

Did you find your place in the world? When you close your eyes what place do you see?

I’m in Berlin when I close my eyes. I’m in Berlin and very happily so. I moved to Berlin in 1974, and that’s now quite a while ago, and I’ve always had my office there and an apartment, even when I lived in America. Berlin is my city and it had difficult times and hard times. [Pauses] It was divided when I first got to know it and it’s now a place where everybody wants to go and it will also survive that.

I think it’s still a specific place.

It’s still a specific place, but you don’t know for how long. Cities go through these cycles.

What do you love so much in Berlin?

Wim Wenders’ PA: Do you work for the Lonely Planet? [Laughs]

It’s different, and developers are trying hard to make those different places disappear. Unfortunately, a lot of the places that are different in any other city are slowly disappearing because they are slowly bought up by developers who make it like any other place. So, it goes down the drain. But I have high hopes for Berlin because Berlin is quite a special breed and they have their own sense of humor and they’re quite resistant. What movies will you see tonight?

There’s a new one from Ulrich Seidl.

Oh, yes, he’s talking about what we were talking about: tourism. [Laughs] Well, great. We need him.

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The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez premiered at the 2016 Venice Film Festival.

See our complete Venice 2016 coverage.


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