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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

On the Road with Wim Wenders

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Born in Germany and now basically a citizen of the world, Wim Wenders is a highly respected filmmaker whose reputation in this country curiously seems to be based on a mere handful of movies. Best known for 1987's Wings of Desire and his 1999 documentary Buena Vista Social Club, Wenders has in fact been prolifically making movies since the early 1970s. There are those who also highly esteem his 1991 science fiction epic Until the End of the World, a movie that struck me as badly muddled but with enough redeeming qualities to make me curious to see his 280-minute director's cut. My own favorite of Wenders' films is Paris, Texas, a 1984 drama boasting what may be Harry Dean Stanton's finest performance.

It isn't that Wenders' American fans aren't curious to see his other work. It's just that for most of his career, a lot of his smaller movies have been difficult to lay hands on over here. Anchor Bay recently made that quest a whole lot easier with the release of The Wim Wenders Collection, an 8-disc boxed set of movies ranging from 1973 to 1995.

The Wim Wenders Collection

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

This is, in fact, a beefed-up version of a 3-disc collection the company released a few years back. But with the addition of five more movies, some of which have never been released in America on any format, this new set is a lot more than your usual double-dip.

While it would be a pleasure to report that every film here is a masterpiece, the set kicks things off with one of Wenders' least successful works. The Scarlet Letter was Wenders' second feature as a professional filmmaker and it's difficult to imagine a bigger sophomore slump. Tempted by the opportunity to work on a larger canvas, Wenders plunged into this adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel despite the fact that he had little affinity for the period and knowing that budget constraints would force him to cut corners. So we have the coast of Spain playing the part of Colonial New England, some community-theatre attempts at costuming, and an international cast speaking their dialogue in whatever their native tongue happens to be and then dubbed entirely into German. Needless to say, none of this works particularly well.


In fact, the whole enterprise seems so ill-advised that it's somewhat astonishing any of it works at all. Senta Berger's performance as Hester Prynne almost makes the film worth watching on its own. It's a strong piece of acting and you keep hoping that the rest of the movie will rise up to her level. Unfortunately, that never quite happens. Hans Christian Blech makes for an interesting Roger Chillingworth but Lou Castel is far too much of a limp noodle to be a believable Reverend Dimmesdale. Possibly the worst element of the movie is the awful, cloying music by Jürgen Knieper, worth noting because Wenders' use of music in film is usually impeccable. In the end, the best that can be said of Wenders' Scarlet Letter is that it's better than Demi Moore's version twenty years later.

Happily, things improve with Wrong Move, the second disc of the set. Released in 1975, Wrong Move finds Wenders back in familiar territory, telling the story of Wilhelm (Rüdiger Vogler), a wannabe writer sent out into the world by his mother to find himself. His aimless journey brings him into contact with an old man with a secret (The Scarlet Letter's Blech), his silent teenage daughter (Nastassja Kinski in her first film), an actress (Hanna Schygulla), a young amateur poet (Peter Kern), and a suicidal industrialist (Ivan Desny). The group goes for long walks, stays up late into the night and discusses dreams, philosophy and abstract thought.

If Wrong Move doesn't exactly sound like an action-packed thrill-ride... well, it's not. It's a slow, often difficult movie to wrap your head around. It's an extremely talky movie and not all of the conversations are equally compelling. For that matter, Wilhelm is not a particularly sympathetic central character. Even so, the movie is worth watching. Most of Wenders' films are road movies. In fact, you could probably make the argument that they all are on some level. Wrong Move is a prototypical Wenders road movie, so it's interesting to compare it to later films like Paris, Texas and to see how he and frequent cinematographer Robby Müller shoot their native country. Later films would examine the globalization of different countries but Wrong Move focuses exclusively on Germany, giving us a snapshot of the country and its people in 1975.

The American Friend, the third disc of the set, is the best-known film here and also the best. Based on Patricia Highsmith's novel Ripley's Game (remade in 2002 under that title), The American Friend casts Dennis Hopper as Tom Ripley, an amoral American living in Hamburg making a dishonest living selling paintings by an artist believed dead who now lives in seclusion in New York forging his own work. Ripley meets a picture framer (Bruno Ganz) at an auction who refuses to shake his hand. He remembers the insult later when an associate from Paris pays a call looking for an assassin. Ripley sets the Frenchman onto the German and the game is afoot.

Hopper wasn't the first or the last actor to play Ripley. Alain Delon preceded him in the terrific Purple Noon and years later, John Malkovich and, most famously, Matt Damon would take on the part in Ripley's Game and The Talented Mr. Ripley. But Hopper plays the part differently than anyone before or since. So differently, in fact, that author Patricia Highsmith at first hated this film (she later reconsidered according to Wenders' commentary track). But Hopper's interpretation works beautifully. His Ripley is nuanced and complex. He's smart and cultured enough to fit in with the art world but has a wildness lurking just behind his eyes at all times. With his cowboy hat and pack of Marlboros, he epitomizes the European image of Americans, simultaneously attractive and dangerous.

Ganz is also outstanding as the artisan Zimmermann, carrying a sense of doom about him throughout the entire film. Wenders populates much of the supporting cast with other filmmakers including Nicholas Ray as the supposedly dead artist, Sam Fuller as a gangster, and Gérard Blain as Ripley's French associate (of course, Hopper himself is a celebrated director in his own right). On one level this is just stunt casting but the directors fit perfectly into the film. Wenders also proves himself to be a skilled director of suspense, not losing sight of the story's thriller aspects in two key sequences. The American Friend is ultimately one of Wenders' best works, a taut suspense thriller that works on multiple levels, working in his recurring themes and motifs.

The success of The American Friend led Wenders to America where he spent many years working on the film Hammett for Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope company. During this time, Nicholas Ray, who had befriended Wenders during the making of The American Friend, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Frustrated by the slow development of Hammett and prompted by a desire to spend time with his dying friend, Wenders collaborated with Ray on what would turn out to be his last work, the sort-of-documentary Lightning Over Water. Ray hadn't worked in Hollywood since 1963 and wanted to spend his last days making a film... any film. So he and Wenders started shooting with no script and only the vaguest idea what their film would be about. As Ray's health quickly deteriorated, the movie took on a life of its own.

Too staged to be a documentary but too real to be considered a work of fiction, Lightning Over Water is a difficult film to watch. For fans of Nicholas Ray, it's particularly painful. He often appears very frail and, especially in his last scene, there's no escaping the harsh knowledge that we are watching this man die before our eyes. But it is ultimately rewarding. It's a very intimate look at the relationship between these two friends and their shared love of film.

Death and dying hover over the next film in the set as well, the short documentary Room 666. At the Cannes Film Festival in 1982, Wenders ponders the future of cinema, if any. He wonders if cinema is a dying art-form about to be swallowed by television and other emerging technologies. To explore this question, he set up a camera and a tape recorder in a hotel room and invited a number of filmmakers to come in alone and give their thoughts. The resulting 45-minute film is often fascinating, especially now, 25 years later.

The filmmakers interviews in Room 666 include the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Michelangelo Antonioni and Steven Spielberg. Some, like Paul Morrissey, are ready to lower the coffin of cinema into the ground while others, like Spielberg, remain optimistic. In many ways, technology has evolved much faster than any of these filmmakers dreamed possible at the time, so some of what they say now seems curiously naïve and quaint. But some, like Herzog, now seem remarkably prescient. Either way, Room 666 is a valuable document and a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of film greats.

Wenders' experiments with the documentary form continue in Tokyo-Ga, his appreciation of the films of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. In theory, the idea behind this film is Wenders' quest to discover for himself the Tokyo he became familiar with in the films of Ozu. This never really seems to happen but the images of Tokyo he does capture are often fascinating in their own right. Wenders hangs out in pachinko parlors, pays a visit to a factory that specializes in creating food replicas out of wax, and encounters some rockabilly kids dancing in the rain. He ponders Ozu's films in voiceover and interviews two of his collaborators, actor Chishu Ryu and cameraman Yuuharu Atsuta.

The interview with Atsuta is very moving and is more of a tribute to Ozu than anything else in the film. Tokyo-Ga rambles a bit and if you're expecting a straightforward documentary about Ozu, you'll be sorely disappointed. But it's engaging and enjoyable. More than anything, it's like taking a vacation to Tokyo with Wim Wenders with no real set agenda.

Wenders continues to explore Tokyo in Notebook on Cities and Clothes, a documentary on fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto. Like its title suggests, Notebook has a loose, improvisatory feel about it. Wenders freely admits that he has little interest in fashion and uses the movie primarily as an experiment in combining film and video and exploring his own interests in the similarities between fashion and film.

I perhaps might have enjoyed this film more if I had a deeper interest in fashion design myself. As it is, it's easier to admire the movie's technique than to embrace the thing itself. After the gloom and doom scenarios threatened by video in Room 666, it's interesting to watch Wenders experiment with the technology and ultimately grow to embrace it. Notebook is as much about Wenders as it is about Yamamoto, although scenes showing the designer at work definitely hold some interest.

The final film in the set, A Trick of Light, is a real buried treasure. Made in collaboration with Wenders' students in Berlin, the film pays tribute to the Skladanowsky brothers, a trio of German inventors and entertainers whose Bioscope projector was unveiled at the Wintergarden weeks before the Lumière brothers premiered their Cinematographe in Paris. The film begins in the style of an old silent film with Udo Kier playing Max Skladanowsky. It then switches to the present with Wenders and a film crew interviewing Max's daughter Lucie, then in her 90s. The past intrudes on the present as we ultimately switch back to the silent film style.

A Trick of Light is an affectionate and playful movie. The spot-on silent sequences display a genuine love of filmmaking rarely seen in similar recreations. Even Wenders' best films often feel deathly serious so it's a delight to see him having fun here. It's not a perfect film, by any means. In an attempt to pad the film out to feature-length, the movie ends with a seemingly endless credit sequence. But even this feels light and amusing, as it's so immediately transparent why these credits are taking so long to unfold. A Trick of Light is a respectful and light-hearted tribute to the early days of film and an appropriate capper to this set.

Anchor Bay's previous Wenders collection included only The American Friend, Lightning Over Water and Notebook on Cities and Clothes. Those discs seem to be identical to those found here. All the films look remarkably good with vibrant colors and clean transfers that are too often atypical for movies of this vintage. Audio options are equally fine with unspectacular but effective 5.1 remixes given to the three films mentioned above.

Wenders provides a commentary on each disc and they're all worth a listen. He's upfront about his displeasure with The Scarlet Letter, provides insight into the making of his skeleton-crew documentaries, and fills in the blanks that show how each of these films influenced later movies like Wings of Desire and Until the End of the World. He's joined on The American Friend by Dennis Hopper, who clearly still holds a special place in his heart for the film. The American Friend and Notebook also include a selection of deleted scenes with optional commentary by Wenders. The American Friend also includes the original trailer and bios for Wenders, Hopper and Bruno Ganz. Lightning Over Water includes Nicholas Ray's lecture at Vassar College (shot on video) and bios for Wenders and Ray. Notebook on Cities and Clothes throws in a short featurette called Twelve Years Later reuniting Wenders and Yamamoto and Wenders' bio. The box also includes a booklet with informative, well-written liner notes by Godfrey Cheshire.

My only complaint with this set comes on Tokyo-Ga. Despite what it says on the back cover, the disc does not include subtitles. For the most part, this isn't a problem as Wenders narrates the film in English. But the clips from Ozu's Tokyo Story are taken from a print with French subtitles and Werner Herzog appears briefly, speaking in German. So unless you speak Japanese or French and German, you're out of luck with those scenes.

The Wim Wenders Collection is a fantastic set, reminiscent of Anchor Bay's great work with Werner Herzog's films. I hope they can do a follow-up including such films as The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road and The State of Things. Until that happens, this box is a treasure trove for Wenders' fans, including one of his best films and some that you are almost guaranteed to be discovering for the first time.



FILM RATINGS:

The Scarlet Letter: C-
Wrong Move: B-
The American Friend: A
Lightning Over Water: B+
Room 666: B-
Tokyo-Ga: B
Notebook on Cities and Clothes: C+
A Trick of Light: B+

DISC RATINGS (Overall - Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/A-


Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


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