FILM / Director's Cut: The film director Wim Wenders on Buster Keaton's tragicomic classic, The Cameraman

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Two nights ago I saw, again, with just a vague and faded memory of it, Buster Keaton's The Cameraman: for my new film, a tiny, tiny, modest little comedy, I was going to shoot a scene with a hand-cranked camera somehow reminiscent of the 1920s.

Keaton starts out as a passport photographer, but he wants to be a big-time newsreel cameraman. Everything he does is wrong, but then he has his big chance. He's the only one to witness a fight in the Chinese quarter. There's fighting and shooting and he's in the middle of it with his camera, grinding like a maniac. And then, when he proudly delivers it, the film is broken.

You see him with all this enthusiasm: he risks his life, there are bullets flying around . . . and nothing is exposed. He just walks away and sells his camera and becomes a passport photographer again. In my memory, The Cameraman was all fun; I was ready to laugh at a slapstick comedy. But this was such a terrible moment. It's heartbreaking - you've shot something beautiful and you realise it's not on film and you can never recreate it.

Afterwards, we shot the scene we had looked at The Cameraman for, our own scene with the hand- cranked camera. The light was lovely, and then it was unusable: the film had rolled up inside the magazine. We tried to recreate it but the light was gone. It was funny that the same thing happened to us. Of course, in The Cameraman it turns out at the very end that the magazine has been saved after all . . . but that's another story.

People don't think of me as a director of comedy - ignoring the fact that it is my secret vocation] Over the last few months, I've been trying to study comedies, especially Keaton and Jacques Tati. They are my favourites. And the more I see, the more my respect for both of them grows.

It's amazing with Keaton's work how fast- paced it is. There's another moment in The Cameraman when he hears there's a fire. All the others sprint out to film it. He's a little late, but then a fire truck comes by and he jumps on it, holding on heroically, round all the curves in the road. The emotion is built up: everyone was making fun of him but now he's doing it, he's beating them all and you really feel, ahh, that's great.

Then the truck pulls into darkness and you understand it was on its way back to the fire station. Instead of being at the scene of the fire he has gone in the opposite direction. And already he's out. The whole thing happens so quickly: it lasts maybe 10 seconds. You couldn't tell the story any faster. Cutting to the pace of the viewer's emotion, not leaving any slack - I have the highest esteem for that, because I can't do it. The things I do always last too long.

A season of Wim Wenders' work continues at the National Film Theatre. His new film, 'Faraway, So Close', is on release

(Photograph omitted)

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