Wim Wenders: On a Wim and a prayer

After a great start in the Seventies and Eighties, the German film director Wim Wenders lost his way. A recovery, says James Mottram, is long overdue
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The Independent Culture

No doubt the programmers of the British Film Institute's forthcoming Wim Wenders retrospective didn't plan it this way. But dividing the German director's 40-year career across two months has left a distinct "before and after" look to his work. While the second half of the season begins in February with 1987's Wings of Desire, his superlative story of two eavesdropping angels overlooking Berlin that won him Best Director in Cannes, it's arguably the exception that proves the rule. Nothing he's made since has come close to it or the films that once fashioned him as one of the leading lights of New German Cinema.

While Wenders' fans might do well to book that winter break in February, it's not fair to say that he's entirely fallen from grace. His beguiling 1999 documentary, Buena Vista Social Club, about a group of ageing Cuban musicians, won him the only Oscar nomination of his career. There have been other highlights such as his work in 1995 helping an ailing Michelangelo Antonioni complete his poignant drama Beyond the Clouds. But from his pretentious 1991 science-fiction apocalypse epic Until the End of the World or Faraway, So Close, his lousy sequel to Wings of Desire, rarely has a director so consistently and spectacularly failed to impress in his middle years.

In response to this, Wenders, now 62, might well cite a line from The American Friend, his 1977 take on Patricia Highsmith's novel Ripley's Game, when Dennis Hopper's Tom Ripley says, "It's going to be a long road... but we're going to make it." More than most, Wenders knows that not every detour on life's highway is necessarily a successful, or even interesting, one just as the destination itself isn't always important. Rather, it's about the journey. In his case, it's been about exploring America as much as his own country and, in particular, the way in which, as the character Robert (Hanns Zischler), from Wenders' seminal 1976 film Kings of the Road, says: "The Yanks have colonised our subconscious."

Indeed, it's tempting to see Bruno (Rdiger Vogler), the itinerant who befriends Robert in Kings of the Road, as a blueprint for Wenders himself. Not only does he fix cinema projection equipment for a living, travelling between movie theatres on the East-West German border, but he amuses himself with a portable record player belting out early rock'*'roll. While Wenders felt an affinity with the American films of German ex-pat Fritz Lang that he saw when growing up in post-war Dsseldorf, it was music that saved his life. As he once said, "I don't know if I'd have become a film-maker without it."

If it was this that drew Wenders to the US, it's always been with his own country in mind. Like the glorious Alice in the Cities (1974). Beginning in New York, this story of a journalist (Vogler again) and a nine-year-old girl, Alice, is a tentative US jaunt for Wenders: when the film returns to rural Germany as the pair embark on a crazed search for Alice's grandmother, Wenders is much more at ease. There he soaks up US culture from a distance when Vogler's character goes to a Chuck Berry concert.

"I always figured it was good if you're not too close to something in order to look at it and show it," Wenders once told me. "And looking at American cities and landscapes, I always liked the distance I had automatically. I've never felt like a stranger in America, but I was always a little bit of the observer."

By the time Wenders came to make The American Friend, his confidence was running high. In the film, he imposed European sensibilities on the American crime genre something he continued with his next film, Hammett, his first fully fledged American effort. Yet it was an unhappy experience. A lavish homage to the ex-Pinkerton detective agent and his era, it took four years to complete after Wenders entered into protracted arguments with Francis Ford Coppola, whose Zoetrope company bankrolled the film.

His reaction was 1982's The State of Things, a "very dark and pessimistic film" as he puts it, about a film crew in Portugal. But the experience led Wenders to the most successful pit stop on his journey, Paris, Texas a film so guerrilla that all the crew worked illegally on tourist visas.

Co-written with Sam Shepard, this story of a memory-addled man (Harry Dean Stanton) who wanders along the Texas-Mexico border to the sound of the haunting bottleneck guitar of Ry Cooder was, for Wenders, the film that finally achieved what he had set out to do. "I made several films to try to understand what it [America] was," he says. "The only film that came to a certain conclusion was Paris, Texas. That allowed me to come back home. At the time, I wouldn't have dared to move back to Germany if I hadn't somehow accomplished my American mission."

With the film winning the Palme d'Or in Cannes, Wenders returned to Germany to make Wings of Desire and did not shoot another entire film in the US until 1997's The End of Violence. By this point, his decline was well under way though if any film best highlights this shift in his work, it is 2004's Land of Plenty, which receives its belated UK premiere during the retrospective. The conclusion to Wenders' so-called "LA trilogy", after The End of Violence and the woeful Bono-scripted The Million Dollar Hotel (1999), this story of a paranoid Vietnam veteran (John Diehl) in post-September 11 America marks a change of tone in Wenders' work.

When I interviewed Wenders after the film's premiere in Venice more than three years ago, it was evident that he, like many others, had fallen out of love with the country that has dominated so much of his work. "Living in America as a European in 2002 you could only be angry. You could only be upset about the drastic reduction of democracy and openness. All of a sudden, we all thought we were going back to the dark ages, to the Fifties and McCarthy. It felt unbearable. Last summer, I thought, 'I either stay here and say something or I just have to leave and get out.' And I'd rather stay, because I love America very much. In a way I made this film in defence of all the reasons I like America."

He may love America, but the days when Wenders put together Written in the West, his own striking book of photographs of the landscape of Paris, Texas, are long gone. As Land of Plenty showed, his fascination with America's curves and contours is at an end. "This one was really about the Americans and not the American landscape," he told me in Venice. With the "LA trilogy" lacking the aimless charm of his earlier films, Wenders had even found the perfect self-important sound for this new phase, in the shape of U2, whose songs had dominated his soundtracks from Until the End of the World onwards.

His most recent film, Don't Come Knocking, a long-overdue reunion with Shepard, who wrote the script and took the lead, has been the biggest disappointment to date. Superficially recalling Paris, Texas, with its tale of estranged fathers and children, it feels like a parody of the film-maker's former highs. Still, one lives in hope that Wenders can shake off this torpor. He's currently filming The Palermo Shooting, which reunites him with Hopper. A romantic thriller about a photographer that bounces between Germany and Sicily, by all accounts it sounds like classic Wenders territory. Just maybe he'll become the King of the Road once again.

The Wim Wenders season runs through January and February at the BFI Southbank, London SE1 (020-7928 3232); Wenders will be in conversation at NFT1 on 10 January

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