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Interview – Films

Wim Wenders

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Interview in English with the German film director Wim Wenders, produced by Arthur Kopel and Karen Lavot-Bouscarle, june 2009.
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Arthur Kopel — You said you were crying when you first saw Cries and Whispers, by Bergman. Nobody talks about tears sometimes provoked by a movie. Is it a taboo to mention the tears?

Wim Wenders — It’s much easier to report (or brag) about your laughter than to confess your tears, for most people. But then again, it can be so satisfying when all of a sudden these tears burst out of you. It leaves a longer-lasting effect, I think. What the laughing and the crying have in common: they are triggered by a moment of truth. You don’t cry if the scene has a sense of phoniness about it, and you don’t laugh, either, if you don’t recognize the grain of truth in the comedy, or the joke.

Wim Wenders
Photography © Donata Wenders, 2004

A. K. — An angel says at the begining of Faraway, so Close: "If only our tears could help them!". What about crying in front of a work of art?

W. W. — There are lots of paintings and works of art that provoked my tears. What is it? Is it something else each time, or does it come for always a similar reason? You must know the feeling: You recognize something you have not been able to see before. Your vision of the world, your capacity to see and understand, has just been widened. You are able to exceed yourself! You can do it because somebody took you by the hand. You become like a child again, and at the same time you become wiser. Reason enough to open your heart and cry. For happiness or for sorrow. Your horizon can widen in both directions...

A. K. — In To shoot pictures..., you wrote about fixed images, that during the photographic moment, we want to disappear in the wide world and inside things... At the end of Don’t come knocking, the man from the insurance company says he has no radio: "I don’t like the world, it is an unhealthy place. So, why let it come in?". This cold and insensitive guy shows his crack here. We feel like he is right, he is protecting himself, but he is right. Pictures are a way to let the world enter inside us, what can we do then?

W. W. — We can learn more and more to distinguish between those images that destroy and rage inside us, and those that create peace. The first kind is slowly blinding us, the second makes us see better. Myself, I wish I could sometimes delete imagery that has entered my mind and my soul, and that I can’t get rid of anymore. I wish I had a "delete button". But we can’t do that, yet. (In the future? Maybe...) So I am careful. I have developed a sort of sixth sense. I turn away if I see I’m being (ab)used to downloading some shit. Beware: Not every "beautiful" image has a source of beauty in it. Actually, I’m more afraid of those deceitful "beauties". And the other way around, not every "ugly" image speaks of the "brute truth". What is it then that we have to differentiate? It’s easier to understand in English, I guess, because the two words "sell" and "tell" sound so similar. The images that are meant to sell me something, first of all, I’m suspicious of. (Especially if they are trying to sell me the story.) I want them to tell me the story. I want them to be "telling", first of all. Storytelling, yes, but not only. An image can have something to say that is not a story. It can be just a state. It can be a moment outside of any "content". It can just tell me "itself". I’m allergic against the selling part.

A. K. — You said that to tell a story as film director, you have to restrain the pictures, and then, sometimes nothing is left, only mistreated pictures. Is it such a high price to pay for the image’s destiny?

W. W. — Sometimes. Some stories ask a high price from each and every of their (visual) elements. I don’t think I said (or meant to say) that every act of storytelling implies these constraints. It can just happen sometimes that the structure of your narrative becomes a prison for the images that help forming it. Once you’re in that vortex, that maelstrom, its hard to find your way back to freedom. The opposite can also happen, and those are the happy moments in the life of a filmmaker: the story flows lightly, and with every shot in the course of a day, a week, an entire shoot even, you are carried, you’re in the middle of the stream, floating, drifting, with an incredible sense of ease and liberty. The thing is: you can’t force that to happen. As soon as you try, you achieve the opposite result.

A. K. — You had a fascination for Cezanne when he was telling this sentence: "Everything is going wrong. You have to hurry if you want to see the things again. Everything is disappearing". Moreover, you said that "the camera is the weapon of the look against things’ misery: vanishing. Is it a nostalgia of the present which could never be lived, because already felt like the past? One can’t live it because it wouldn’t have any place in time?

W. W. — Thinking about that whole context today I find my own chain of thoughts too abstract, in hindsight. Some of it is true, though. And yes, Cézanne was right, of course, even if he did not live today, and in is worst nightmare could not have envisioned HOW MUCH AND HOW FAST things would slip into their disappearing act today. I’m not sure anymore, if a camera prevents things from disappearing. In the digital age, cameras rather accelerate the vanishing. Learning how to live in the present, after all, that’s the very subject of my last film, PALERMO SHOOTING. I won’t tell you more. You have to see for yourself... (Anybody who’s not a little bit of a salesman today, every now and then, is doomed to disappear, after all. "You just can’t win..." to quote a good Rock‘n Roll line.)

A. K. — And all things considered, if nobody can live it, maybe these tourists are right when they travel all over the world with their cameras ahead of their look, between the world and themselves. Would it be the only way to live the present?

W. W. — The tourists are off, by definition, and they will never learn how to live. The travelers at least have a chance to see the light of day... Never belong to the tourist, always make an effort to enjoy the road itself more than the arrival... (Don’t I sound like Confucius?)

A. K. — Many times in your films, you ask questions about connections between the tools and the possibilities with pictures: often the Polaroid, the Maltese Cross and the Shadow Puppets in Kings of the Road, the Zootrope, the Stereoscope in The American Friend, this machine which is not real in Until the End of the World, the surveillance cameras, Super 8 or video cameras, film cameras, the Lumière Brothers’ camera in Lisbon Story... What answers did you get with these questions concerning tools?

W. W. — Each instrument came up with a different answer, otherwise I would not have insisted asking them questions. Finn in PALERMO SHOOTING has a camera that shoots 360% around him. That’s how he manages to take a picture of death himself, in his back. Cinema might well be the truth 24 times a second, but it is also death 24 times a second, in between each frame. It’s a constant oscillation between life and death, if you want. That’s what gives it rhythm.

A. K. — Refering to the last question, in Paris, Texas, the filiation between the son and his father happens when the child sees the pictures, just with a Super 8 projector... Pictures have this power. Do pictures give us anything else than their power?

W. W. — They don’t "have" power. They "give" clarity, peace, joy, shock, recognition, they "un-veil", "dis-cover"... You can extract "power" from that, sometimes. Of course, you can say that images are very powerful today. You could (and I would) even say they are the most powerful weapons. Because they are used like that. People use images more than before, certainly more than words. But they have the same "power" than in the very beginning when they were painted on the walls of caves.

A. K. — At the end of Faraway, so Close, it is said that human beings forget that the light comes through the eyes to go toward the heart, and then, goes out to illuminate outside. It is with some similar words that the Ancient Greeks used to mention their idea about the look.

W. W. — In that film, I certainly said too much. That was its boldness, too. I still love how the film starts, with that quote from the gospel according to Matthew: "Your eyes are windows into your body..." (Or better known as "Your eyes are the lights of your body...")

A. K. — You said that you have to preserve some loyalty concerning passing time, for any of the films you shoot. And in this same film, a little poster appears on a wall, two times at very short intervals, on which it is written "Zeit ist Kunst", Time is Art... What was it?

W. W. — That strange little poster was there, I didn’t put it there. I probably shot that scene there because I found that "writing on the wall" there. I have seen that slogan, or rather: that haiku, nowhere else in town, and I have no idea who pasted it there. I believe in finding things, often more than in inventing them.

A. K. — When you talk about Photography in To shoot Pictures..., you mentioned that it was a dual image, it shows the object but at the same time, it shows how the photographer is, and his desire for what he looks. You said that sometimes, it is so wonderful that it can’t be real, so real that it can’t be wonderful. Is there an antagonism between Beauty and Truth? Is the picture the place for the conflict between them?

W. W. — You put the answer in my mouth. Hard to add something. The battle between truth and beauty is as diverse as both of its opponents — well, often enough they’re allies, after all. With every image you create you have to decipher from scratch what the beauty consists of that it transports, and what its truth it. Luckily, that is not really a conscious problem, most of the time. (Nobody would get a single movie done, if it was...) Most of the time that is a gut decision whether you accept (and believe) the beauty or the beast...