One of Germany’s greatest filmmakers takes a glimpse in the rear-view mirror for “Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road.” The retrospective at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring showcases a dozen features and documentaries by the director, from his most popular and successful — including “Wings of Desire” and “The Buena Vista Social Club” — to the 1970s films that established his love of road movies.
Wenders, 70, spoke about his experiences making selected films in the series, which opened July 11 and runs through Sept. 14 and features many new digital restorations. Three peripatetic titles, “Alice in the Cities,” “Wrong Move” and “Kings of the Road,” also have been reissued on the Criterion Collection as “The Road Trilogy.”
“Kings of the Road” (1976)
Vogler is a film projector repairman who visits decaying movie houses as he travels the ghostly border zone between West and East Germany. He’s joined by a new friend, after he rescues a psychologist (Hanns Zischler) from a failed suicide attempt.
Wenders: It was a strange country that our movie roamed through at the time. It was neither East Germany nor West Germany. People didn’t really live there anymore, and theaters were closing. It was probably something like the Depression in America. Walker Evans was our hero for how we were going to shoot the movie. We felt we were traveling through very similar territory. The border is such a strange metaphor for what happens at a certain moment in our life. It gave you the feeling that these two characters were somehow living on the edge the whole time and somehow outside of time. It was strange to be exposed to it again for weeks and weeks when we restored it. It felt like we had been on another planet.
The story seemed to announce the death of movies.
Wenders: We felt the art of cinema was going down the drain and somehow coming to a grinding halt, and little did we know that 30 years later, we’re going to talk about it and have a landscape of cinema that is completely different and still very much alive.
It was also an unlikely buddy movie.
Wenders: One model for me was [John Ford’s] “Two Rode Together.” Of course, that was a western. In a way, it felt like we were doing a western. Of course, we didn’t have horses, we only had this truck. But somehow the empty country we drove through, and these two men riding side by side, it was very much “Two Rode Together.”
“The American Friend” (1977)
The adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s “Ripley’s Game” stars Dennis Hopper as the psychopathic Tom Ripley in a tale of art forgery, bad company and murder. It also is a tribute to another Hopper, the painter Edward, whose work influenced its visual design. But not all of such planning went so well.
Wenders: We had a whole color theory, [cinematographer] Robby Müller and I, and we had marks in our script in which scenes we would have more orange and which scenes would have more red and blue. To tell you the truth, I think we were imagining it, and when you see the film, you don’t have to know it, and I refuse to explain what we meant because it sounds a little stupid now. When we started the film, we said we would do every shot like a painting, so we wouldn’t move the bloody camera. We shot for two days and then we got the first rushes. Then Robby and I looked at each other and said, “We have to do it again.” The concept was useless. We started to move the camera, and we were happy like clams.
In the first moment of the film, you have Dennis Hopper and [“Rebel Without a Cause” director] Nicholas Ray, who plays an art forger, in the same room together. If you love movies, it’s really moving to see this many years later.
Wenders: Dennis helped me get in touch with Nick. He was a great hero of mine, and I loved his movies. “Rebel Without a Cause” more than anything. Dennis had told me all these tall stories about the shooting of “Rebel Without a Cause.” At the very end, when we were going to shoot all the New York elements of the film, there he was: Nicholas Ray. It was a reunion for Dennis and Nicholas after a long, long time. The first scene, when Dennis Hopper enters the studio of the painter that Nicholas Ray played, Sam Fuller also came to visit. That was the first time these two masters ever met in their lives. We have these pictures of the two of them. For me, that was really a very, very emotional moment. These were my great masters. They had been making author-driven movies in a system that didn’t allow for much freedom at the time. To be able to introduce the two of them to each other was one of the highlights of my life.
“Until the End of the World” (1991)
This all-star science-fiction thriller starred William Hurt and Solveig Dommartin as lovers on the lam. It was shot all over the globe, during a year-long production, but has rarely been seen in the U.S. in the 270-minute version intended by Wenders.
Wenders: That’s such a great relief for me that the film finally sees the light of the day. The Reader’s Digest version that I was forced to release at the time was such a far cry from the ambition of the film and what we actually did. It didn’t get good reviews. I always felt so bad. My actors had worked with me for one whole year. They had neglected their families; they had really made a lot of sacrifices.
The film was prophetic. It features a lot of entertaining versions of what we now recognize as search engines, the iPad and video calling, among other things. There’s also technology we haven’t quite seen yet, like a machine that replays your dreams.
Wenders: It was really an effort to imagine our visual culture in 1990 and imagine what the 21st century would be like. I think some of our predictions were pretty right on the money. Even the selfie culture was predicted. Watching your dreams is almost like watching yourself on a camera.
“Paris, Texas” (1984)
The grizzled character actor Harry Dean Stanton found a new stature as Travis, a seeming amnesiac on a mission to reunite with the wife (Nastassja Kinski) and child he left behind. The film’s closing scenes have an emotional resonance that makes them much-beloved in Wenders’s work.
Wenders: During the shooting of the film, you rarely think you’re doing something that’s going to be successful. You’re so busy doing it and we had so many problems. We ran out of money. We ran out of script. It was only when we shot the last few scenes, when Travis meets Nastassja Kinski in this funky peep show, that it dawned on me that we were going to touch people in a big way. I was a little scared by the idea.
It was ambitious, because these scenes Sam Shepard had written almost like two one-act plays. We treated it like that. We shot it always as a whole. The last scene is 20 minutes long and that’s the maximum length of the film stock. We always started from scratch. If I or any of the actors [screwed] up, then we would begin again. We had to always do it from A to Z.
Harry Dean Stanton seems to erase any distance between himself and Travis.
Wenders: Harry invested his entire life in the part. It’s the first time he did a leading part after hundreds of supporting parts. It’s almost a little tragic. It’s almost a little late for him to become a romantic leading man. It was his anxiety through the film that he was too old. Every night, he had the same question to me: “Look at Nastassja, how beautiful she is. Don’t you think I’m too old for her?” I always assured him. But he was scared until the very last day. Even when we went to Cannes, he thought he couldn’t possibly go to Cannes. I finally said to him, “Well, Harry, it is your one chance. Why don’t you get yourself an assistant and you bring somebody with you so you don’t have to worry about logistics and the tuxedo. Get somebody who can be there for you and hold your hand.” He said, “Okay, that’s a good idea.” He brought a young man to Cannes who was with Harry selflessly every day, brought him coffee and held his hand. And that young man was Sean Penn.
WIM WENDERS: PORTRAITS ALONG THE ROAD runs through Sept. 14 at AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring. Visit afi.com/silver for a schedule of screenings.