Wim Wenders Retrospective at MoMA: March 2-March 17

The Museum of Modern Art is paying tribute to German director Wim Wenders with a retrospective of many of his feature films, short films, music videos and a film that he produced, Peter Handke’s The Left-Handed Woman (1978). The series plays between Monday, March 2 and Tuesday, March 17, and Wenders will appear in person at screenings for the first six days, speaking at introductions, post-screening discussions and one special interview with Peter Handke in connection with the film The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972; photo of Wenders from that film’s set, seen above). The festival will definitely attract many New York film buffs; the lone screening of the director’s cut of Until the End of the World (1991), showing next Saturday afternoon with an introduction and post-film talk with Wenders, sold out within hours of tickets going on sale today. More information can be found on MoMA’s webpage for the series.

The earliest part of Wenders’ career can be seen in five of his short films: Same Player Shoots Again (1968), Silver City Revisited (1969, pictured above), Polizeifilm (1969), Alabama (2000 Light Years from Home) (1969) and 3 American LPs (1969). Alabama marked Wenders’ first collaboration with cinematographer Robby Müller, who would make a name for himself with many of Wenders’ feature films, including Alice in the Cities (1974), Kings of the Road (1976), The American Friend (1977), Paris, Texas (1984) and Until the End of the World (1991). Wenders’ first feature, a student film called Summer in the City (1970) starring Hanns Zischler and photographed by Robby Müller, will also be shown. This is a particularly exciting prospect since the film will not be available on DVD until Wenders can buy the rights to all the music he used (The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” Bob Dylan’s “As I Went Out One Morning,” eight songs by the Kinks, three songs by the Troggs, etc.).

Wenders’ next two films – the products of continued collaboration with cinematographer Robby Müller – established him as a major force in the German New Wave. The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972), based on a novel by Peter Handke, was first shown at MoMA in the “New Directors/New Films” series back in 1972 and the film’s theatrical release in this country in 1974 brought Wenders to the US for the first time. His next film, Alice in the Cities (1974), was the first to star Rüdiger Vogler as an alter ego of Wenders, “Phillip Winter,” a character Vogler would continue to play for years. Yella Rottländer, who plays little Alice, only made two other films, both directed by Wenders – The Scarlet Letter (1973) and Faraway, So Close! (1993), the latter reuniting her with Vogler – but she found a later career in costume design for film and TV. Alice’s mother is played by Lisa Kreuzer, who was married to Wenders in 1974-1978 and who also has roles in Wrong Move (1975), Kings of the Road (1976) and The American Friend (1977). Lois Moran, an American actress of the 1920s and early 30s, has a small role as an airport hostess.

Rüdiger Vogler, Hans Christian Blech, Hanna Schygulla (one of Fassbinder’s favorite actresses) and thirteen-year-old Nastassja Kinski (in her film debut) star in Wrong Move (1975), one of Wenders’ many “road movies” besides Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road and Paris, Texas. The cast also includes Marianne Hoppe, a popular German actress of the 1930s and 40s, as Vogler’s mother. In Kings of the Road (1976) – clearly another story told on the road, Rüdiger Vogler and Hanns Zischler play two young men in search of new beginnings after Vogler loses his job as a projectionist and Zischler’s marriage dissolves. Robby Müller provides impressive cinematography in both color and black-and-white.

The American Friend (1977) is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Ripley’s Game (1974), resulting in a thriller with indelible images captured by Robby Müller. Wenders cast Dennis Hopper in the role of art dealer and criminal Tom Ripley while Bruno Ganz, who would later star in Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), has the other lead role. Other characters are played by famed American directors Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller, French director Jean Eustache, Colombian-Italian actor Lou Castel and American singer-songwriter David Blue. Because Wenders and Nicholas Ray were so close, Wenders chronicled Ray’s final days dying from lung cancer in Nick’s Film: Lightning Over Water (1980). Ronee Blakley, Wenders’ wife at the time (1979-1981), appears onscreen and also composed the film’s score, while young Jim Jarmusch, who got his start working with Wenders, has a screen credit as an “observer” on the film.

While Wenders struggled to make the American production Hammett (1982), on which he constantly butted heads with executive producer Francis Ford Coppola, he channeled his frustrations into The State of Things (1982), a drama about a film production run amok. Wenders cast his pal, Sam Fuller, in the role of cameraman, while Patrick Bauchau plays the director and the American B-movie auteur Roger Corman plays a lawyer. Other roles are played by former Warhol “superstar” Viva and young millionaire/famous kidnapping victim J. Paul Getty III (shortly before he suffered the stroke that would incapacitate him for the rest of his life). Jim Jarmusch and Jürgen Knieper composed the score, while Henri Alekan, best known for photographing Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946), was one of the film’s three cinematographers. MoMA is also showing one of Wenders’ most famous films, Paris, Texas (1984), a paean to the American West that won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and loved for the haunting score by folk-and-blues guitarist Ry Cooder and the desert landscapes photographed by Robby Müller. The sight of star Nastassja Kinski in a pink angora sweater dress is iconic; the cast also includes Harry Dean Stanton in perhaps his most notable starring role, as well as Dean Stockwell, Aurore Clément, Hunter Carson (the young son of Karen Black and Paris, Texas’s co-screenwriter, L.M. Kit Carson), Viva and John Lurie.

Wenders’ appreciation for Japanese auteur Yasujirô Ozu led him to visit Tokyo and interview actor Chishû Ryû and cinematographer Yûharu Atsuta, who worked on many of Ozu’s most highly-regarded films (Late Spring, Early Summer, Tokyo Story, Good Morning, An Autumn Afternoon, etc.), for the documentary Tokyo-Ga (1985). Wenders also interviewed fellow directors/cineastes Werner Herzog and Chris Marker. One of the film’s three editors, Solveig Dommartin, later starred in Wenders’ films Wings of Desire (1987), Until the End of the World (1991) and Faraway, So Close! (1993). Wings of Desire is possibly Wenders’ ultimate masterpiece, a supremely romantic fantasy in which Solveig Dommartin, the earthbound trapeze artist Marion, is destined to cross paths with kindly angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz). Otto Sander as fellow angel Cassiel, Curt Bois as aged scribe Homer and Peter Falk as himself round out the cast. Gorgeous cinematography by Henri Alekan (who filmed in black-and-white and in color), the original score by Jürgen Knieper and musical performances by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and Crime & the City Solution combine to make Wings an unforgettable, high-flying experience.

Wenders observes fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto as he travels to different cities in preparation for his shows in Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989). The study of the creative process is intertwined with Wenders’ fascination with emerging forms of digital technology. This interest continues in Wenders’ sci-fi odyssey Until the End of the World (1991), a drama about bank robbers on the run in 1999. Written in collaboration with star Solveig Dommartin, Australian novelist Peter Carey and American writer-director Michael Almereyda, the epic production – filmed in nine countries – has a huge, internationally recognized cast: besides Dommartin, other actors include William Hurt, Max von Sydow, Sam Neill, Jeanne Moreau, Lois Chiles, Rüdiger Vogler, Chishû Ryû, Adelle Lutz (whose husband at the time, musician David Byrne, appears in an uncredited cameo), Portuguese singer Amália Rodrigues and French singer Eddy Mitchell.

Faraway, So Close! (1993) is a companion film to Wings of Desire, this time featuring the previous film’s angel Cassiel (Otto Sander) in the lead role. Nastassja Kinski portrays another heavenly messenger, while Bruno Ganz and Solveig Dommartin reprise their roles as Damiel and Marion, Peter Falk again plays himself and a number of other actors of various backgrounds appear as well: Willem Dafoe, Horst Buchholz, Lou Reed as himself, Rüdiger Vogler (playing another iteration of “Phillip Winter”), Heinz Rühmann (a popular German actor of the 1930s, 40s and 50s), Henri Alekan as the leader of Marion’s circus troupe, Monika Hansen (Otto Sander’s real-life wife), Yella Rottländer (as mentioned earlier in the post – Alice from Alice in the Cities), Hanns Zischler and Mikhail Gorbachev in a brief cameo as himself. Wenders’ passion for cinema is further evident in A Trick of the Light (1995), originally titled The Brothers Skladanowsky, a part-documentary/part-drama retelling of early silent film pioneer Max Skladanowsky (played by Udo Kier).

Wenders has made documentaries chronicling the history of blues music. Buena Vista Social Club (1999), an Oscar-nominated film, follows Ry Cooder on his journey to bring retired Cuban musicians and singers like Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Pío Leyva and Manuel Galbán back into the spotlight. The Soul of a Man (2003), made as part of the Martin Scorsese-produced “The Blues” documentary series, celebrates the blues trailblazers Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson and J.B. Lenoir. Many modern-day musicians perform in concert segments, including Lou Reed, Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams, Nick Cave, Beck, T Bone Burnett, Los Lobos, Cassandra Wilson and Eagle Eye Cherry.

Wenders’ two most recent documentaries, Pina (2011) and The Salt of the Earth (2014), were both nominated for Oscars. Pina is an audacious experiment in 3D, paying tribute to the late German choreographer Pina Bausch with bold and memorably gravity-defying dances filmed by cinematographers Hélène Louvart and Jörg Widmer. Salt, a history of the life and work of Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado, was co-directed by the subject’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. At times it is a tough film to watch, given the horrific nature of some of Salgado’s photographs (like those of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda), but it is one of the best-made films of 2014 and I highly recommend it.

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