Five Times I Was Amazed by the Films of Wim Wenders

As I did in yesterday’s post, today I am commemorating the birthday of a genius in the history of world cinema: German writer-director Wim Wenders turns 70 today. For nearly half a century Wenders has dazzled viewers with drama, comedy, romance and adventure presented in both fiction and nonfiction filmmaking. Here, to give you some samples of his craft, are five scenes that I love – it goes without saying that these films are all highly recommended.

Kings of the Road (1976) is perhaps Wenders’ definitive German “road movie,” the crown jewel of the genre that made him famous in the 1970s. This scene, in which the two main characters (played by Rüdiger Vogler and Hanns Zischler) listen to a record of Improved Sound Limited’s “If I Could Read Her Mind,” exhibits a combination of music/no dialogue that allows the audience to focus on the winding road, the stark landscape (photographed by co-cinematographers Robby Müller and Martin Schäfer) and the open sky above. The scene also reminds us of Wenders’ sublime ear for which kinds of rock music sound best on the highway, an element that he has incorporated into his features and short films since the late 60s.

When Paris, Texas (1984) starts, these first images exemplify the spectacle of the great American nowhere, as I like to think of it, which showcases the loneliness of the wide expanse that rolls on and on for who-knows-how-many miles. Our introduction to the film’s main character, Travis Henderson (played by the wonderful Harry Dean Stanton), tells us little except for one crucial point: he is a man of few words. Even once he finally begins to open up and talk in the film, his words come out with the sound of a man who is unsure about whether he is saying the right things. In the first few minutes, though, all we know is that our protagonist is a most unusual fellow. Robby Müller’s cinematography and the blues twang of Ry Cooder’s guitar complete Wenders’ unique picture.

In Wenders’ magnum opus Wings of Desire (1987), Peter Falk, who plays himself, boils the beauty of human existence down to the essentials when he extrasensorily perceives the presence of angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) on the street. For a wandering immortal, the advice of a man who does not take little pleasures like coffee and cigarettes for granted means a lot; later on in the film, Damiel will “take the plunge” and become human. Falk’s lines underscore the strange, unexpected joys of what it means to live on Earth.

Trying to make a sequel to Wings of Desire sounds impossible, doesn’t it? And yet Faraway, So Close! (1993) achieves so many moments of grace, even if the product as a whole does not measure up to its predecessor. Take, for instance, this scene when the angel Cassiel (Otto Sander) invisibly observes Lou Reed in his hotel room. Reed sings about the city of Berlin as only he can in that gravelly baritone of his, reflecting on the loss of a memory as he tries to reconnect the fragments of his recent actions and retrieve a forgotten lyric. When you watch Faraway, So Close! with an audience, particularly now that Reed is no longer with us, you can feel a ripple of awe pass through the crowd. There is something undeniably magic – whether movie-magic or music-magic or both – in this brief segment.

The documentary The Salt of the Earth (2014), which Wenders co-directed with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, profiles the life and career of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado (father of the film’s co-director). The film opens with this montage of images shot by the film’s subject, images which resonated with Wenders so much when he discovered them that he was immediately inspired to learn more about the man behind the camera. In Wenders’ hushed narration we come to understand why he was so moved to make this film; Salgado’s photographs are aesthetically pleasing but they also capture the many plights of the human condition, literally shedding light on warfare and genocide as well as providing ethnographic studies of cultures from all over the world.

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