Wim Wenders’s Cinema of Sincerity

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Partway through the 1989 documentary “Notebook on Cities and Clothes,” Wim Wenders reveals the philosophy that underpins his art. “Filmmaking should just be a way of life,” he says, “carried along by nothing other than its curiosity.” Then in his early forties, the German director had already attracted acclaim for his Patricia Highsmith adaptation “The American Friend,” won a Palme d’Or for his road movie “Paris, Texas,” and cemented his reputation with “Wings of Desire,” a drama about melancholy angels set in Cold War-era Berlin. For “Notebook,” a “diary film” about the Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto, he’d taken a surprisingly stripped-back approach. The project, which Wenders shot largely by himself, was an exercise in answering the questions that arose in real time between him and his subject—one that evolved into a contemplation of their respective crafts.

Four decades and dozens of films on, Wenders remains a light-handed auteur open to the moment. This May, the now seventy-eight-year-old premièred two films at Cannes—a rare double entry at the prestigious festival—which at first glance appear to be total opposites. “Anselm,” released in the U.S. on Friday, is a career-spanning documentary on the German artist Anselm Kiefer; “Perfect Days,” which opens here in February, is a sparsely plotted story about a middle-aged bathroom attendant in Tokyo.

Shot in 3-D, “Anselm” is an epic-scale tribute fit to match Kiefer’s ashen landscapes and harrowing subject matter. There are serene drone shots of the artist’s multi-acre compound, in the South of France, and reënactments of a formative period spent working in the Odenwald, for which Kiefer’s son Daniel serves as a stand-in. “Perfect Days,” too, is a celebration of the sublime, albeit in a very different form. The movie, which was selected by Japan as its entry for the 2024 Oscars, is a character study of an aging hipster who’s opted for a simpler life. It’s Wenders’s first feature in six years, and a return to his first principles of filmmaking: there are blissful driving scenes set to a cassette-tape soundtrack, vividly drawn side characters who puncture the protagonist’s serenity, and exchanges that imbue the story with genuine existential weight.

When Wenders and I spoke last month, via Zoom, we discussed his complicated relationship to his native Germany, “Perfect Days” ’s unlikely origins, the beauty of sharing mixtapes, and the new project he’s been nursing for the past six years. Our conversation, which took place over two days, has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Looking over your career, there’s a noticeable lack of irony in your films—almost as if your work is a reaction against this. How important is sincerity to you?

I do know that I have no cynicism in me, and that I’m incapable of cynicism. Cynicism is something that, really, I find revolting. I see no positive energy in it. The eighties and nineties were quite cynical in many ways. Maybe cynicism is irony just grown to other proportions. I think there is irony in my films, but there is certainly an absence of cynicism.

You’ve been described as a “sentimental” filmmaker, and I’ve seen that used both pejoratively and positively. I’m curious how you interpret such comments, and whether you agree.

I don’t like when sentimentality is produced on the screen. I do not like it, and I don’t think I do this in my films. Maybe the closest I got to a sentimental movie was “Paris, Texas,” because it deals a lot with a family situation and is a very existential love story. I think I escaped the trap by letting Harry Dean [Stanton] leave in the end, having him realize that they were not going to become the holy family again. That it was better for his son and his ex-wife to be together rather than him disturbing it. The American studio that bought the film [Twentieth Century Fox] called me and said, “Wim, we would like you to add one shot to the ending. We want to see his car making a U-turn on the freeway.”

I said, “I’m not going to do it.” The studio gave up all efforts to release the film afterward. They didn’t put up a single ad. Harry Dean was devastated. He thought he’d have a shot at a nomination with this film. He said, “If you had done that fucking U-turn, they would’ve done ads for me and stuff. You’re so stubborn. You’re such a German to not do that shot.”

Did that impact your relationship with Harry?

No, no. I loved him dearly. Harry was one of a kind, such a pure heart. You’ll never find an actor like him again in the whole universe. But he suffered from the fact that he got this part too late. After “Paris, Texas,” he really made up his mind that he was not going to go back to doing little parts, and that he wanted to play only leads in dramas and romantic stories. It never happened. He never got another part like this. Harry also didn’t know any cynicism. Maybe that’s why we got along so well, and why he was ideal for that part.

Past documentaries you’ve done—on Pina Bausch, on Yohji Yamamoto—have focussed on artistry that is much more personal. In “Anselm,” you’ve put together a documentary about an artist, Anselm Kiefer, whose work deals with these immense, tectonic subjects: identity and history, Nazism, destruction, rebirth. He’s working on this industrial scale. How did you come to focus on him?

I got to know Anselm personally in the early nineties, and we hit it off quite well. For the longest stretch of time, we had dinner together every night. He was in Berlin installing a show at the Nationalgalerie in 1991; I was editing “Until the End of the World.” Anselm happened to come to the same joint where I was eating every night. He sat at my table, and we talked until we were the last guests.

At that time we sort of shook hands on the idea that we should do something together. That idea came to an abrupt stop because his show was so badly received in Germany, after the triumph he had in America, and Anselm decided to move to the South of France and leave Germany for good.

In 2019, I first went to visit Anselm’s studio, in Barjac. Anselm had the good sense of just getting me from the train station, then dropping me in the middle of the compound. He gave me a map and said, “You can see what is what, and we’ll meet again in the evening.” So I had that whole day basically on my own. All the doors were open. Whenever I go to a museum, I never take any of the guides; I just want to discover on my own. And at the end of the day I was really so full of impressions of what I’d seen. So much struck me that, when I finally sat with him at the dinner table, I said, “Well, Anselm, it’s now or never. I think we should do it now.”

His work is so overwhelming and so multifaceted. I was at a loss at the beginning. I just realized I had to start somewhere, and I warned him that I might come back several times. It turned out to be seven times, and it took two and a half years until the last shoot. All the other films, especially the documentaries, grew in one piece. This one really needed time. Maybe that was only in response to time being such a huge subject for him, as well.

What was it like to be around Anselm for so long? Would you say he is a happy person?

Actually, he’s a very happy person—when he’s in his studio. I lived at his complex. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and realize that there was a light on in his big studio. I’d walk there and find him whistling away in the middle of the night, happy as a clam. I mean, I’m a workaholic. I’m a confessed workaholic! But it is nothing in comparison with Anselm’s involvement with his own work. When I wake up at night, I will read a book. When Anselm wakes up at night, he puts on his sandals and heads into his studio.

You were both born in 1945, and both of you came of age in postwar Germany. So much of Anselm’s work is an investigation and interrogation of Germany’s culture of silence around the Second World War. Was that part of what drew you to him as an artist?

His approach is the opposite approach to mine, and that’s why Anselm interested me. Since childhood, I just wanted to leave Germany behind. My earliest memories are looking at photographs in newspapers, or in my dad’s encyclopedia, and realizing my world in Düsseldorf, which was ninety per cent destroyed [during the Second World War], was not like the rest of the world. What I saw from the rest of the world was so mesmerizing to me. Growing up, I felt very clearly that something was wrong.

The lack of the past is also something that you start noticing even when you grow up. You start realizing that, funny enough, other countries have histories, and your own country had a history long ago. The twentieth century basically started when I was born. I knew enough, and of course I informed myself. I knew a lot about the Holocaust—but in a strange way my life had started afterward, and I didn’t feel responsible. I just wanted to get away from it. And I did my best. I lived in America for fifteen years. And all my films are basically movies made on the road or travelling.

Then I met Anselm, who stayed there. Rock steady. He confronted it and lived there. He looked into that history, and he relentlessly dug deeper and deeper in that wound. That struck me. I was very interested in how he survived it and how he got out of it, too. Because you cannot do that forever. You cannot make that your life.

You’ve historically avoided political themes in your films, with “Anselm” being an exception. Was that a reflection of your desire to leave all of that behind?

I feel that entertainment is politics. I feel that storytelling is politics. I feel that art is politics, and everything that expresses the freedom of spirit and the freedom of expression is politics—especially today, in a world where everything gets streamlined. The political can be in storytelling that is not explicitly political. I think my film “Land of Plenty” is maybe the most outspoken political film I’ve made. It was my statement on America when I decided to leave and return my green card after the beginning of the Iraq War.

I never was so much interested in actual politics, which is shifting now that I’m getting older. I do get involved much more, and I do want to make a much more explicitly political film on the subject of peace. I’ve been working on this huge peace project for the past six years. Peace was a subject that mankind seemed to have forgotten, and now there are people marching for peace again. The whole world seems to be going down the drain, but peace becomes a more and more urgent issue, because it seems less and less that people know what it’s all about. As soon as you ask anybody to define peace without the mention of war, they start stuttering. They don’t quite know how to explain.

This is a new feature film idea that you’ve been developing?

It’s a feature film that I’ve been working on. I have several versions and several drafts, and it has evolved from a documentary to a fiction film.

So, in between your work with Anselm and the peace film, how did you end up settling on a project like “Perfect Days,” which follows the day-to-day of a toilet cleaner in Tokyo?

It was a very open invitation from Koji [Yanai, the executive producer of “Perfect Days”].

Was there a relationship between you, or was this out of the blue?

It was completely out of the blue. I got this letter from Koji last New Year’s. This was after the night I told my wife how much I was homesick for Tokyo, and that it was a crying shame that we hadn’t been there for years. And then Koji said, “Why don’t you come to Tokyo and look at these little marvels of toilets built by great architects, and perhaps make some short documentaries about them?”

In Berlin, where I live, the lockdown ended in disaster. When people were able to go out again and have parties in parks, these parks were destroyed. The park near where I live was a garbage heap after a week. It had to be fenced in order to come back to life. Two years later, it was dead. The feeling of the common good was gone. Everybody left their garbage everywhere.

Coming to Tokyo at the moment when these people came out again, I saw how civilized they were doing it—how they had parties, even in cemeteries. Afterward, they were as clean as before. People there even went around and picked up cigarette butts! I was mesmerized. Out of this exuberance, I suggested that I do a film that could really bring out this sense of the common good. I told Koji that the toilets by themselves could not carry a film. These places are lost in a documentary. These places will only live if you have a story to tell. We’re into storytelling. It’s the other side of the moon from where the idea started, and they embraced it.

I want to know your definition of storytelling.

My definition is: I’d like to know where it starts, and I’d like not to know how it ends. I’d like to know where it wants to take us, and then I’d like to follow it. My ideal story is one that I can tell in chronological order. That’s the reason why I did so many road movies. This genre forces you to tell a thing in chronological order. The road becomes a story, and therefore the itinerary, and therefore the structure. Normally, you’re not allowed to do that. You’re never, ever allowed to tell anything in chronological order. You are always forced to shoot locations out of order. But if you shoot on the road they’ll let you shoot a story. It should be lived and not sort of conceived before.

In “Perfect Days,” you show the main character, Hirayama, driving through Tokyo in these long, airy scenes as he listens to cassette tapes. The second he did that, I thought, O.K., Wim is secretly making another road film.

Totally. His driving life is a counterpoint to his life at home. Driving through Tokyo is quite an experience. It’s not like driving through any other city in the world. I love it. I like the elevated highways, and to see the city from a higher level. You are almost driving over people’s roofs, and you see the horizon. It’s a very strange perspective of a city.

Where did the idea for these scenes come from?

It is very simple. In the script, these scenes are one-liners. They’re such a nice empty space between the scenes to dream yourself into when you’re writing and also when you’re shooting. It’s a freedom to film driving for a little moment.

What’s it like to direct a scene with just one line of guidance in the script, but which is so integral to the film? How do you approach that with an actor?

The beautiful thing was that our means were so limited that driving shots meant we were with Koji [Yakusho, who plays Hirayama] in the car. He was at the wheel and not on some trailer that was being pulled through Tokyo. He actually drove the fucking little car. It’s a lovely state of bliss in the movie when the actor is really driving and not pretending to drive.

You get to share that with him. We were in that little time capsule of the car, moving through the city. It’s such a wonderful time-out for us, for the cameraman, for me—for our minds, as well. We’re just watching the actor. I’d have my little monitor on my knee, looking down while sitting in the same car. I’d be happy that he’s driving, that’s he’s a good driver, and he’s careful, and he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, but he’s also attentive. There were so many unforeseen things happening. The sun would be shining through. You’d see buildings in the background that you always hoped would somehow show up in the film, but you never knew how to get them in there. Driving is full of surprises. And, of course, you always shoot too much. You shoot twenty minutes in a row, and you never stop the camera.

“Perfect Days” and “Anselm” are drastically different films in scope, subject matter, and approach, but nostalgia is a theme in both. Anselm Kiefer is someone who’s spent his career refusing to sentimentalize the past; in “Perfect Days” you have a subject who wishes things could just stay the same. Why do you think it’s such a consistent focus for you this year?

I really am quite convinced that I’m not a nostalgic person. I’m very interested in the future. But I think it’s very important to know the past, whether or not it is something that you want to have back or want to prolong. It’s very good and healthy to know the past, and to know losses, and to know stuff we gain. To ignore the past seems like a recipe for disaster. Yet I’m not inclined to want anything back.

It just so happened that our character in “Perfect Days” listens to cassettes because he believes in reduction. That’s really more of an idea than a recommendation. But, with all things that are gone, there is loss. For instance, the loss is something like the good old compilation tape. A compilation tape is really like a letter. It’s very personal. There’s a whole generation now growing up with playlists, and when they see what a compilation can do they’re completely overwhelmed and awestruck. I still have my brother’s cassette tapes from when I lived in America. We suffered from our separation for seven, eight years. He sent me a cassette every week—we didn’t send each other letters. It tells so many stories. Some of the songs he just recorded off the record player. Maybe if I talk longer about it, you will get convinced that I am a nostalgic person, but I’m just describing a loss. And a loss is something that you only know when you, well, know history.

So much of your work seems to be about the sublime—and then in “Perfect Days” you have this very real, raw humanness. You have Hirayama cleaning his tatami mats. Does this mark a shift in your work?

Well, you could say it touches on the sublime, his contentedness and the way he’s able to live in the here and now. Toilet-cleaning work is not fancy, and it is considered a lower job by many people. But if you see him do his job, and the way he does it, you’ll realize he’s dedicated. He’s doing it because he’s of service. I do think that in a strange way he’s a utopian character.

Do you think we need more utopian characters in our stories, as a culture?

I think we need more utopian characters. I think it is good to see something in movies that takes you to a realm that you don’t know yet, and which maybe doesn’t exist, but which you feel would be nice if it existed, and something to aspire to or to reach out for. If there’s no utopia then the question of how you live is irrelevant because you can just live any way.

You gave an interview to the Guardian a few months ago in which you criticize the current state of cinema, saying it makes you “nauseous.” Is the lack of films that grapple with these questions part of that?

A film that is based on another film cannot reach that aim of being utopian, because any film based on another film, by definition, can never get you on another level. There’s too many of those happening today. Too many films are made with recipes, or whatever will get people into the movie theatre. I was always in every movie until the credits. There are movies where I feel I’m wasting my time after ten minutes—I know exactly where this is going. This violence that is happening now is gratuitous, and it is not needed for the story. I realized I can walk out. What a great feeling it is sometimes to walk out. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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