Stills from a life in moving pictures
Wim Wenders made his name with films like `Paris, Texas' and `Wings of Desire'. Now he fancies himself as a photographer as well.
Friday 19 June 1998
Wenders has been a leading representative of German cinema since the Seventies, when he made the film Summer in the City with music by The Kinks. We met last week not in London but in the medieval town of Cahors in the South of France, where he is currently staging an exhibition of his work at the Printemps de Cahors Photography Festival.
The town is a beautiful, if rather incongruous setting for this annual gathering of avant-garde photographers. The splendour of the 14th-century buildings is a little at odds with the very latest in determinedly experimental photography.
The festival's director, the glamorous Madame Perrin, loves a star to top the bill and for the past two years the principal stars have both been actors-turned-photographers. And it has to be said that Dennis Hopper's retrospective last year was interesting. This year the spotlight is on Hopper's friend, Wenders, another director-turned-photographer. (Hopper starred in Wenders' 1977 movie The American Friend.)
So this is how I come to be talking to Wim Wenders quite early one morning among the olive trees at Madame Perrin's chateau. Sporting shades and looking quite a youthful 53, Wenders is a little hung over. "No-one seemed to want to go to bed last night, so I'm exhausted." He is thoughtful and careful in his speech.
"I was given my first camera when I was six and had a darkroom when I was 12. So I thought about making photographs long before the idea of making movies ever occurred to me," he says. "I always loved to take photographs in black and white. Perhaps that was still with me when I decided to shoot the first part of Wings of Desire, my favourite of my movies, in black and white."
That magical, much-acclaimed film was shot in Berlin at the time the wall came down. The movie changes from black and white to colour when one of the angels falls in love with a circus acrobat, forsaking his immortal status to join her on earth.
Painting is also important to Wenders, as it continues to be to his friend Hopper. Wenders desperately wanted to be a painter, studying in Paris as a young man to achieve his ambition. "I still remember the terrible disappointment when I realised I wasn't going to make it," he says. "For a while afterwards I had no direction."
His description of himself in a dejected, demoralised state, wandering around the streets of Paris, conjures up images of the anxiety and alienation experienced by some of his film characters.
"It was during this very depressed period in my life, I started going to see movies at the Parisian Cinematique, where it only cost one franc to get in. After the first movie was over, I would hide in the toilets, which meant I could see the next film free. I was horribly poor at that time. Often I saw five movies a day - at first to pass the time - but gradually I started to become quite obsessed. Maybe it was an obsession to take me out of this colossal disappointment about failing as a painter. But anyway, that's when the obsession started and it has never gone away".
During this time, Wenders started to jot down what he thought about the films he was watching daily in the Cinematique. Then for the next few years he worked reviewing films. "I'm certain that being a critic helped me come to terms with the whole problem of reacting to criticism. I tend not to get too upset about unfavourable reviews because I am aware of how subjective the whole thing is".
Many of Wenders' movies have been admired for their intense evocation of mood and atmosphere, Paris, Texas especially bringing him international acclaim in the early Eighties. He believes that his awareness of light - undoubtedly an essential element for the creation of ambience in his movies, - was stimulated by taking photographs from an early age.
"Music is the other element that can create ambience in movies. It has been important in all my work," says Wenders, who has just finished making a documentary film about his friend Ry Cooder, whose music featured in Paris, Texas.
Wenders is clearly interested in being taken seriously as a photographer in a way quite distinct from his successful career as movie maker. But the photographs in his Cahors show, entitled "Une fois", are often reminiscent of the carefully-constructed images of his movies. They are all set in different locations at different times - Bali in 1980, California in 1983, Paris in 1994 - making a sort of road movie in stills.
Wenders has recently been working on a film about an alcoholic. He thinks this is why he is intrigued by the work of the young British photographer Richard Billingham, who made a big impact at the Royal Academy's "Sensations" exhibition last autumn.
Billingham, who also has a show at Cahors, focuses much of his work on the life of his dad Ray, who is a chronic alcoholic. With a mixture of detachment and affection, Billingham leaves little to the imagination about the life of a man who has been completely dependent on alcohol for most of his life.
"What is amazing about Billingham's work is how he is able to give an insider's picture of his father's life," Wenders comments. "He is not on the outside looking in. He is right there with his family and knows everything about such a life. It is curiously moving."
Wenders professes to be amazed by his own success. "I sometimes look back to bad times in the past, like when I was in Paris as a young student and felt that I had completely failed in what I had set out to be - a painter.
"I have been very lucky to find another direction for my creativity that has worked. But who knows? I would not like to do anything as an amateur now - but maybe one day I will go back to painting."
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