Quick. Name Kurt Cobain’s favourite movie. Fight Club? BZZT! He was long gone by the time Fincher’s slacker opus came out. Quadrophenia? The Elephant Man? No doubt they’d have been right up his alley. But actually, Cobain’s on record that his favourite film is a little art-house flick called Paris, Texas, from the German director Wim Wenders. An intriguing film about an amnesiac Harry Dean Stanton slowly reconnecting with his family, Biff Bam Pop’s Daniel Reed will be looking at that one in an upcoming piece, and Andy Burns will be writing about Wenders’s sci-fi opus Until the End of the World. We’re taking a good look at the acclaimed German director, as TIFF mounts its retrospective On the Road: The Films of Wenders.
A perennial champion of the underdog, Wenders is best known as one of the pillars of the New German Cinema movement of the seventies. His movies are often slow and laconic, with equal doses of wry amusement and melancholy. His closest North American corollary would be Jim Jarmusch. In fact, it’s hard to imagine Jim Jarmusch existing without Wim Wenders (though Jarmusch himself disagrees). Coming on the heels of the French New Wave movement of the early sixties, the New German Cinema was an indie school of less-is-more featuring the likes of Wenders, Rainer Maria Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and many others. Wenders protagonists are invariably restless, out of sorts with the world, and as TIFF’s superb program trailer makes abundantly clear, always on the move. It’s amazing the consistency of his vision, over a career with several distinct phases. Starting out with his low budget German road movies of the seventies, Wenders had a big impact with his eighties films Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire. Like his compatriot Werner Herzog, more recently he’s turned to documentaries, including the great Cuban son music doc Buena Vista Social Club and the visually arresting The Salt of the Earth, focussing on photographer Sebastião Salgado, who has spent forty years documenting deprived societies in hidden corners of the world.
Kings of the Road is Wenders’s 1976 opus and the concluding chapter of his road movie trilogy begun with Alice in the Cities and The Wrong Move. A long ride at nearly three hours, the movie’s slow but the pace feels right as you trail along with its unlikely buddies. Rüdiger Vogler plays Bruno, a projectionist and mechanic driving from town to town servicing small theatres to keep their equipment running. A nomad at heart, he loves his craft, driving about and listening to American rock’n’roll singles while he complains that Hollywood pictures are slowly driving under his livelihood. Not that he talks much, most often wordlessly taking in his surroundings. In his travels, he happens upon a deeply depressed neurology researcher named Robert (Hans Tischler). Parked shaving in his truck, Bruno witnesses the man’s feeble suicide attempt as Robert drives his Volkswagen bug off the road and into a lake. The car just doesn’t quite sink, leaving Robert to contemplate his useless position while Bruno watches in disbelief. Robert swims ashore with a suitcase, and Bruno offers up a towel, a coffee and a change of clothes, laughing bemusedly at the stranger’s predicament. Lacking anything better to do, as his car finally slips under the water, Robert decides to ride along with Bruno.
Their lackadaisical journey is by turns wry and sad. Robert runs into a man whose wife has taken her own life by driving their car into a tree, the man in shock and unable to deal with it. Robert invites him back to Bruno’s truck and gives him the space to decompress. Most of the film’s characters are at a loss, uncertain how to react or what to do with themselves. It’s a pervasive motif emblematic of the lost generation after WWII that finds itself grown-up in a divided Germany, haunted by a terrible past they find impossible to reconcile. Much like the Beat poets of the fifties, they reject social conformity and turn to a nomadic existence. The problem is that living in the moment often feels like running away, a reality both Bruno and Robert are slowly forced to admit to themselves. It’s very much a guy-centric film, with only one significant female character, both Bruno and Robert incapable of maintaining long term relationships with women. Grappling with their own oppressive family histories, the two men are angry and out of sorts, but together realize they need to find a new way forward. That revelation comes in a dilapidated American army outpost near the East-West border, freighted with historical ambivalence but it’s all subtext. Wenders is exceedingly subtle with his oblique references to a Nazi past. Much of the film celebrates the breezy joy of being on the road, a superb rock soundtrack from Axel Linstädt underscoring the beautiful black and white cinematography by the renowned Robby Müller. There’s a couple of minor shockers courtesy of Wenders’s verité style: some male full frontal nudity (yawn whatever) but more particularly Bruno’s roadside defecation that might make viewers queasy. But with its itinerant beauty and flummoxed charisma, it’s a moving film. Just give into the meandering pace and go with the flow.
As much as Bruno and Robert are exemplars of a lost German generation, the Gen X of their time and place, Buena Vista Social Club celebrates another lost generation, in a very different way. The documentary is about a wonderful group of very old Cuban musicians being rediscovered. From the thirties to the fifties, before the rise of Castro, they were the leading lights of son music, a distinct Cuban music that would be hugely influential on salsa, featuring brass, percussion and infectious slinky grooves. The musicians often played in a hall called the Buena Vista Social Club, where Cuba’s well-heeled bourgeois would dance and party. While that club closed in the late forties, the rise of the communists in 1959 caused Havana’s decadent nightlife to disappear, as did the bourgeois, most of them on flights to America. The musicians were left behind and largely forgotten. Wenders’s doc follows the story of their rediscovery, largely through the observations and presence of American guitarist and composer Ry Cooder. Cooder was invited to Cuba to record a world music album featuring a collaboration between African and Cuban artists. Once in Cuba, it turned out the Africans couldn’t get their visas, so Cooder decided to record any of the Cuban musicians he could find. And boy did he get lucky. Languishing in the ramshackle neighbourhoods of Havana, forgotten by younger generations, these old codgers still had all their verve and talent. Their excitement at coming together to play music again is palpable, and the result was magic. The album came out in 1997, and was a massive hit. The documentary doesn’t show the recording of that unique album, but instead follows Cooder going back to Cuba to record Ibrahim Ferrer’s solo album in 1998. Still, it’s wonderful to see the joy these octogenarian musicians share as their music is rediscovered by a world that had forgotten them, and when they play Carnegie Hall, it’s a triumph.
On the Road: The Films of Wenders kicks off at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Thursday, January 28th with his first film, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. The program runs to the beginning of March, and there’s also a great sidebar program of films that have influenced Wenders, Wim’s Films: American Friends & Foreign Influences, including such greats as Breathless, Stagecoach, Easy Rider and Only Angels Have Wings. For more info on the Wenders program, see here, and for the sidebar of influences, see here.