As part of their expansive retrospective on the exceptional German director Wim Wenders, The TIFF Bell Lightbox delivers a rare opportunity to see the man’s early short films as one screening. Most of these films date back to the late 1960s when Wenders was a film student in Munich. The films are the collected diaries of a young filmmaker experimenting with the medium, searching for his voice. While many of the films feel like fragmented snapshots of little consequence, it is evident that a vision is starting to form. Viewing the compilation in the context of Wenders’ later work, it is miraculous to see the jump in craftsmanship in such a short amount of time.
The predominant themes of Wenders’ aesthetic are prevalent in each film. His infatuation with life on the road, rock and roll music, alienation from society, lack of memory, the value of art, poetry of life, and struggle for individuality all manifest themselves in this collection. His ability to capture dramatic sunsets and cloud formations is present, as well as his love for winding roads, busy intersections, and gas stations.
Of the six short films in the programme, half of them (Silver City Revisted, Alabama (2000 Light Years), and 3 American LPs) could be loose continuations of one another. While narratively thin, they possess great and unpredictable uses of music. A song will play and then abruptly end when you least expect it to. Where some directors will synch the music to the video footage, Wenders sustains his scenes in silence. Then, minutes later, the same song will play again. This unconventional use of both sight and sound is undoubtedly one of the indelible fingerprints Wenders has left on the history of cinema.
While there is minimal to zero dialogue in the aforementioned three films, as well as Same Player Shoots Again (a somewhat painful exercise of repetition), the two outstanding films from the collection are dense with both theory and monologue. Police Film, another student film, examines the relationship between the Munich police force and the city’s university students during a time of protest. In this darkly humourous portrait of the people versus the establishment, Wenders shepherds us through the rationale of a city’s law enforcement team when faced with dissent. At this time, in the late 1960s, Munich’s police department has moved to employing more “exacting police work” in order to fight crime. Rather than enforce legislation through totalitarian control, the police officers infiltrate civilian circles by building trust. They impose a calm and peaceful presence within a community, allowing them more access to “examine people’s behaviour in more detail.”
Even though this concept is of course a major trigger for anxiety, Wenders frames it in a “slapstick” way to lighten the mood. He captures police officers getting hit by protestors’ signs, playing soccer with little athletic skill, and generally looking dumbfounded when confronted by civilians. It’s a subversive look at the institution, especially when set amongst some of Munich’s most brutalist architecture. Police Film becomes especially absurd when he starts editing in cartoon footage of police officers in the middle of certain scenes.
Finally, comes 1982’s Reverse Angle: A Letter From New York. This is the major outlier of the bunch, because, technically it is more of a mid-career work by Wenders. He’s already been established as one of the top European filmmakers of the time, and has now entered Hollywood to make his first major studio release, Hammett.
Reverse Angle: A Letter from New York feels like a confessional from an artist in the middle of a crucial development. His greatest commercial and critical smashes are still ahead of him and he is growing restless by the position he is in. He sounds exhausted from traveling and frustrated by how the American audience and executives perceive his work.
Wenders has dubbed his voice over a variety of different clips from his travels through New York City as he is editing Hammett, and it’s evident that he’s shocked by how impersonal the whole experience feels. It’s fascinating to hear the perspective of an acclaimed European director entering the American industry. In a spliced-in clip from a television talk show, Wenders admits to the host that it’s easier to make more personal cinema in Europe. Thus, Reverse Angle: A Letter from New York becomes a meditation on creative control.
The major kicker here is that one of the producers of Hammett is none other than Francis Ford Coppola. It’s almost disorienting to see an artistic giant of Coppola’s stature sitting in a chair making business phone calls next to Wenders as he’s talking with the other people at the table about which scenes to cut. It’s a chaotic look at life for a newly Americanized director with so many interests at stake and, ultimately an essential statement from one of the greatest film stylists of all time.
On the Road: The Films of Wim Wenders is currently taking place at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. To purchase tickets for the 8:30 pm screening of Wim Wenders’ Early Shorts on Thursday, February 4th, visit the link here. To purchase tickets for other films part of the retrospective, visit the program page.
Additionally, be sure to check out the sidebar program, Wim’s Films: American Friends & Foreign Influences, running until March 17th. “This deluxe survey, curated by James Quandt, Senior Programmer, TIFF Cinematheque, spotlights fifteen of “Wim’s Films”—road movies and noirs, venerated classics and films maudits—gathered both from evidence (Wenders’ own list of favourites) and inference (of his obvious influences and affinities).” The full guide can be found here.
Here is TIFF’s trailer for the retrospective, On the Road: The Films of Wim Wenders: