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Wim Wenders

Biography from Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film

Occupation: Director, screenwriter
Also: Producer, author, photographer

Birth Name: Ernst Wilhelm Wenders

Born: August 14, 1945, Düsseldorf, Germany

Education: University of Freiburg (philosophy, medicine); Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich


    One of the best known directors of the New German Cinema, Wenders is often characterized as the "existentialist" of the movement. Stylistically, his films blend Hollywood forms and genres with elements of counter-cinema. Thematically, his films attempt to disclose states of consciousness - loneliness, irresolution, anxiety - and explore the ambivalent impact of American culture on post-WWII German life. "All my films," Wenders claims, "have as their underlying current the Americanization of Germany." No other German filmmaker has dealt more extensively or more obsessively with the American presence in the European unconscious.
    Wenders's fascination with American culture began in his childhood. He grew up at a time when American culture provided a diversion for West Germans eager to forget their own past. Extremely shy and introspective as a teenager, Wenders planned to study for the priesthood, but this desire soon gave way to an interest in American music and American film. After studying medicine and philosophy at the University of Freiburg and painting in Paris, Wenders enrolled in Munich's film school, where he made several student films between 1967 and 1970.
    His first professional feature, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1971), attracted considerable critical attention. The film is based on a novel by Peter Handke, a Wenders friend who would write Wrong Move (1975) and collaborate with Wenders on Wings of Desire (1988).
    After The Scarlet Letter (1973), his least satisfying work, Wenders made Alice in the Cities (1974), Wrong Move (1975) and Kings of the Road (1976) - a trilogy of "road movies" that exemplifies his formal and thematic concerns. The best of the three, Kings, focuses on the relationship that develops between two men as they travel in a van along the border between East and West Germany. Lonely and introspective, they both long for the company of women. By the end of their journey, they derive comfort from the fact that "in the course of time" (the film's German title) their lives have taken on some shape and some significance. Kings of the Road is a quiet, almost lyrical film that disdains psychological motivation, suspense and dramatic tension. In that sense, it reflects Wenders's admiration for the films of Yasujiro Ozu. But in its intricate allusions and resonant implications, it evokes Wenders's favorite themes: the difficulties of communication, the Americanization of German life ("The Yanks have colonized our subconscious," one of the characters says) and the fate of German cinema.
    In The American Friend (1977), a film that won Wenders international attention, the director continues to explore these themes. Based on Patricia Highsmith's novel, Ripley's Game, the film depicts the last few weeks in the life of Jonathan (Bruno Ganz), a picture restorer and frame maker living quietly in Hamburg. The real interest of the film, however, is the friendship that develops between Jonathan and Ripley (Dennis Hopper), an American underworld figure who manipulates Jonathan into committing a series of murders. Jonathan finds himself irresistibly drawn to Ripley, even as he is gradually corrupted and destroyed by the friendship. This story allows Wenders to focus on German/American cultural tensions and to explore the exigencies of international filmmaking dominated by Hollywood and American interests. (Two of Wenders's American idols, directors Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller, play minor roles in the film.) In 1978 Wenders came to the United States under contract to direct Hammett for Francis Ford Coppola. After numerous problems with the script and conflicts with Coppola, less than 30 percent of Wenders's original film was retained in the final version, released in 1983. Wenders indirectly documented his problems with Hammett in The State of Things (1982), a self-referential film that contrasts European and American ways of making films.
    Paris, Texas (1984), based on a script by Sam Shepard about a reunion between a drifter and his family, won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1984 and represents in many ways the culmination of themes that run through Wenders's earlier films. Wenders returned to Berlin to make Wings of Desire, a lyrical, largely black-and-white meditation starring Bruno Ganz as an angel who wanders the city, yearning for a physical, human existence. The relative commercial success of the film, which earned Wenders the Best Director Award at Cannes in 1987, led to the production of a sequel in 1993. Until the End of the World (1991) is a metaphysical detective romp of global dimensions, with William Hurt, Sam Neill, Solveig Dommartin and others pursuing each other around the world in search of a camera that enables blind people to "see." Half a post-modernist road movie, half self-indulgent meditation on the nature of the recorded image, the result is a disappointingly banal exploration of some of Wenders's most cherished themes. Wenders's Wings of Desire sequel, Faraway, So Close! (1993), proved to be even less coherent, running well over two hours with little of the lyrical elegance of Wings of Desire. Coming after the disappointment of Until the End of the World, Wenders's recent films have represented a significant downturn in the director's critical and audience reception.

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