Sunday, 30 March 2014

Wim Wenders: Impossible Stories

The American Friend (Directed by Wim Wenders)
German filmmaker Wim Wenders came to prominence in the 1970s with his acclaimed trilogy of road movies, Alice in the Cities (1974), The Wrong Move (1975), Kings of the Road (1976), and his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game as The American Friend (1977). After the documentary Lightning Over Water (1980) about the final days of director Nicholas Ray, Wenders embarked on Hammett (1982), a fictional account of the life of writer Dashiell Hammet, for producer Frances Ford Coppola. Friction with Coppola led to a break in the production in order for the script to be rewritten. In the interval Wenders returned to Europe to film The State of Things (1982) about a film crew stranded in a seaside hotel waiting for the missing producer to come up with the finance in order for the film to be completed.

The following talk from 1982 by Wenders was given at a summer film colloquium in Livorno on narrative technique. It documents his loss of faith in film images and his subsequent resolve to find a new, more viable relation between images and narrative. 

Where French and German each have a single word for it, English has only a two-part phrase: to ‘tell stories’. That hints at my difficulty: the man you’ve invited to talk to you about telling stories is a man who over the years has had nothing but problems with stories.

Let me go back to the very beginning. Once I was a painter. What interested me was space; I painted cityscapes and landscapes. I became a film-maker when I realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere as a painter. Painting lacked something, as did my individual paintings. It would have been too easy to say that they lacked life; I thought that what was missing was an understanding of time. So when I began filming, I thought of myself as a painter of space engaged on a quest for time. It never occurred to me that this search should be called ‘storytelling’. I must have been very naive. I thought filming was simple. I thought you only had to see something to be able to depict it, and I also thought a storyteller (and of course I wasn’t one) had to listen first and speak afterwards. Making a film to me meant connecting all these things. That was a misconception, but before I straighten it out, there is something else I must talk about.

Alice in the Cities (Directed by Wim Wenders)
My stories all begin from pictures. When I started making my first film, I wanted to make ‘landscape portraits’. My very first film, Silver City, contained ten shots of three minutes each; that was the length of a reel of 16 mm film. Each shot was of a cityscape. I didn’t move the camera; nothing happened. The shots were like the paintings and watercolours I’d done previously, only in a different medium. However, there was one shot that was different: it was of an empty landscape with railway tracks; the camera was placed very close to these. I knew the train schedule. I began filming two minutes before one was due, and everything seemed to be exactly as it had been in all the other shots: a deserted scene. Except that two minutes later someone ran into shot from the right, jumped over the tracks just a couple of yards in front of the camera, and ran out of the left edge of the frame. The moment he disappeared, even more surprisingly, the train thundered into the picture, also from the right. (It couldn’t be heard approaching, because there was no sync. sound, only music.) This tiny ‘action’ – man crosses tracks ahead of train – signals the beginning of a ‘story’. What is wrong with the man? Is he being followed? Does he want to kill himself? Why is he in such a hurry? Etc., etc. I think it was from that moment that I became a storyteller. And from that moment all my difficulties began too, because it was the first time that something had happened in a scene I had set up.

Alice in the Cities (Directed by Wim Wenders)
After that, the problems came thick and fast. When I was cutting together the ten shots, I realized that after the shot where the man crosses the tracks hell for leather there would be the expectation that every subsequent shot would contain some action. So for the first time I had to consider the order of the shots, some kind of dramaturgy. My original idea, simply to run a series of fixed-frame shots, one after another, ‘unconnected’ and in no special order, became impossible. The assembling of scenes and their arrangement in an order was, it seemed already, a first step towards narrative. People would see entirely fanciful connections between scenes and interpret them as having narrative intentions. But that wasn’t what I wanted. I was only combining time and space; but from that moment on, I was pressed into telling stories. From then on and until the present moment, I have felt an opposition between images and stories. A mutual incompatibility, a mutual undermining. I have always been more interested in pictures, and the fact that – as soon as you assemble them – they seem to want to tell a story, is still a problem for me today.

My stories start with places, cities, landscapes and roads. A map is like a screenplay to me. When I look at a road, for example, I begin to ask myself what kind of thing might happen on it; similarly with a building, like my own hotel room here in Livorno: I look out of the window, it’s raining hard and a car stops in front of the hotel. A man gets out of it and looks around. Then he starts walking down the road, without an umbrella, in spite of the rain. My head starts working on a story right away, because I want to know where he’s going, what kind of street he might be turning into.

The Wrong Move (Directed by Wim Wenders)
For a writer, a story seems to be the logical end-product: words want to form sentences, and the sentences want to stand in some continuous discourse; a writer doesn’t have to force the words into a sentence or the sentences into a story. There seems to be a kind of inevitability in the way stories come to be told. In films – or at least in my films, because of course there are other ways of going about it – in films the images don’t necessarily lead to anything else; they stand on their own. I think a picture stands on its own more readily, whereas a word tends to seek the context of a story. For me, images don’t automatically lend themselves to be part of a story. If they’re to function in the way that words and sentences do, they have to be ‘forced’ – that is, I have to manipulate them.

My thesis is that for me as a film-maker, narrative involves forcing the images in some way. Sometimes this manipulation becomes narrative art, but not necessarily. Often enough, the result is only abused pictures.

I dislike the manipulation that’s necessary to press all the images of a film into one story; it’s very harmful for the images because it tends to drain them of their ‘life’. In the relationship between story and image, I see the story as a kind of vampire, trying to suck all the blood from an image. Images are acutely sensitive; like snails they shrink back when you touch their horns. They don’t have it in them to be carthorses: carrying and transporting messages or significance or intention or a moral. But that’s precisely what a story wants from them.

Kings of the Road (Directed by Wim Wenders)
So far everything seems to have spoken out against story, as though it were the enemy. But of course stories are very exciting; they are powerful and important for mankind. They give people what they want, on a very profound level – more than merely amusement or entertainment or suspense. People’s primary requirement is that some kind of coherence be provided. Stories give people the feeling that there is meaning, that there is ultimately an order lurking behind the incredible confusion of appearances and phenomena that surrounds them. This order is what people require more than anything else; yes, I would almost say that the notion of order or story is connected with the godhead. Stories are substitutes for God. Or maybe the other way round.

For myself – and hence my problems with story – I incline to believe in chaos, in the inexplicable complexity of the events around me. Basically, I think that individual situations are unrelated to each other, and my experience seems to consist entirely of individual situations; I’ve never yet been involved in a story with a beginning, middle and end. For someone who tells stories this is positively sinful, but I must confess that I have yet to experience a story. I think stories are actually lies. But they are incredibly important to our survival. Their artificial structure helps us to overcome our worst fears: that there is no God; that we are nothing but tiny fluctuating particles with perception and consciousness, but lost in a universe that remains altogether beyond our conception. By producing coherence, stories make life bearable and combat fears. That’s why children like to hear stories at bedtime. That’s why the Bible is one long storybook, and why stories should always end happily.

Of course the stories in my films also work as a means of ordering the images. Without stories, the images that interest me would threaten to lose themselves and seem purely arbitrary.

Kings of the Road (Directed by Wim Wenders)
Of course the stories in my films also work as a means of ordering the images. Without stories, the images that interest me would threaten to lose themselves and seem purely arbitrary.

For this reason, film-stories are like routes. A map is the most exciting thing in the world for me; when I see a map, I immediately feel restless, especially when it’s of a country or city where I’ve never been. I look at all the names and I want to know the things they refer to, the cities of a country, the streets of a city. When I look at a map, it turns into an allegory for the whole of life. The only thing that makes it bearable is to try to mark out a route, and follow it through the city or country. Stories do just that: they become your roads in a strange land, where but for them, you might go to thousands of places without ever arriving anywhere.

What are the stories that are told in my films? There are two sorts; I draw a sharp distinction between them, because they exist in two completely separate systems or traditions. Furthermore, there is a continual alternation between the two categories of film, with a single exception, The Scarlet Letter, and that was a mistake.

The American Friend (Directed by Wim Wenders)
In the first group (A) all the films are in black and white, except for Nick’s Film (Lightning Over Water), which belongs to neither tradition. (I’m not even sure that it counts as a film at all, so let’s leave that one out.) In the other group (B) all the films are in colour, and they are all based on published novels. The films in group A, on the other hand, are based without exception on ideas of mine – the word ‘idea’ is used loosely to refer to dreams, daydreams and experiences of all kinds. All the A-films were more or less unscripted, whereas the others followed scripts very closely. The A-films are loosely structured, whereas the B-films are all tightly structured. The A-films were all shot in chronological sequence, beginning from an initial situation that was often the only known point in them; the B-films were shot in the traditional hopping-around way, and with an eye to the exigencies of a production team. With group A films, I never knew how they would finish; I knew the endings of B-films before I started.

Basically all the group A films operate in a very open system, the B-films in a very closed one. Both represent not only systems but also attitudes: openness on the one hand, discipline on the other. The themes of the A-films were identified only during shooting. The themes of the B-films were known; it was just a matter of deciding which bits should go in. The A-films were made from the inside, working out; the B-films the opposite. For the A-films a story had to be found; for the B-films the story had to be lost sight of.

The fact that – with the exception of the already-mentioned mistake – there has been a constant pendulum swing between A- and B-films shows that each film is a reaction to its predecessor, which is exactly my dilemma.

The American Friend (Directed by Wim Wenders)
I made each of my A-films because the film before had had too many rules, hadn’t been sufficiently spontaneous, and I’d got bored with the characters; also I felt that I had to ‘expose’ myself and the crew and the actors to a new situation. With the B-films it was exactly the other way round: I made them because I was unhappy that the film before had been so ‘subjective’, and because I needed to work within a firm structure, using the framework of a story. Actors in the B-films played parts ‘other’ than themselves, represented fictional characters; in the A-films they interpreted and depicted themselves, they were themselves. In these films I saw my task as bringing in as much as possible of what (already) existed. For the B-films, things had to be invented. It became ever clearer that one group could be called ‘subjective’ and the other ‘search for objectivity’. Though, of course, it wasn’t quite so simple.

In what follows I will talk about how the A-films began, and the role that story played in them. My first film was called Summer in the City; it’s about a man who’s spent a couple of years in prison. The first frame shows him emerging from prison and suddenly confronting life again. He tries to see his old friends and get into his old relationships, but he quickly realizes that nothing can be the way it was before. In the end he takes off and emigrates to America. The second film in the A-group, Alice in the Cities, is about a man who’s supposed to be writing a feature about America. He can’t do it, and the film begins with his decision to return to Europe. He happens to meet a little girl, Alice, and her mother, and promises to take her back to her grandmother in Europe. Only he doesn’t know where she lives; all he has is a photograph of the house. The remainder of the film is taken up by the search for the house.

The State of Things (Directed by Wim Wenders)
A man tries to kill himself – that’s how Kings of the Road starts. By chance, there’s another man watching, so he gives up his kamikaze behaviour. The other man is a truck-driver. They decide to travel together – pure chance, again. The film is about their journey and whether the two have anything to say to each other or not.

The last of the A-films, The State of Things, is about a film crew who have to stop working because the money’s run out and the producer’s vanished. The crew don’t know whether they’ll be able to finish the shoot or not. The film is about a group of people who’ve lost their way, particularly the director, who in the end goes to Hollywood to look for the producer.

All these films are about people who encounter unfamiliar situations on the road; all of them are to do with seeing and perception, about people who suddenly have to take a different view of things. To be as specific about this as I can, I’d like to go back to Kings of the Road. How did that come about? One answer would be: because I’d just finished The Wrong Move – it was a reaction to that previous work. I felt that I had to devise a story in which I could investigate myself and my country – Germany (the subject of my previous film too, though treated in a different way). This time it was to be a trip to an unknown country, to an unknown country in myself, and in the middle of Germany. I knew what I wanted but I didn’t know how to begin. Then everything was set off by an image.

I was overtaking a truck on the Autobahn; it was very hot and it was an old lorry without air-conditioning. There were two men in the cab, and the driver had opened the door and was dangling his leg out in order to cool off. This image, seen from the corner of my eye when driving past, impressed me. I happened to stop at a motorway cafe where the lorry also stopped. I went up to the bar where the two men from the lorry were standing. Not a word passed between them; it was as though they had absolutely nothing in common. You got the impression they were strangers. I asked myself what do these two men see, how do they see, as they drive across Germany?

The State of Things (Directed by Wim Wenders)
At that time I was doing quite a lot of travelling around Germany with my previous film, The Wrong Move. During my travels I became aware of the situation of the rural cinema. The halls, the projection booths and the projectionists all fascinated me. Then I looked at a map of Germany and I realized there was one route down through it that I barely knew. It ran along the border between the GDR and the FRG; not only down the middle of Germany, but also along the very edge. And I suddenly realized that I had everything I needed for my new film: a route and the story of two men who don’t know each other. I was interested to see what might happen to them, and between them. One of them would have a job that was something to do with the cinema, and I knew where the cinemas were to be found: along the border.

Of course that’s not enough to make a story. All the films in the A-group started off with a few situations that I hoped might develop into a story. To assist that development, I followed the method of ‘day-dreaming’. Story always assumes control, it knows its course, it knows what matters, it knows where it begins and ends. Daydream is quite different; it doesn’t have that ‘dramaturgical’ control. What it has is a kind of subconscious guide who wants to get on, no matter where; every dream is going somewhere, but who can say where that is? Something in the subconscious knows, but you can only discover it if you let it take its course, and that’s what I attempted in all these films. The English word ‘drifting’ expresses it very well. Not the shortest line between two points, but a zigzag. Perhaps a better word would be ‘meander’, because that has the idea of distance in it as well.

A journey is an adventure in space and time. Adventure, space and time – all three are involved. Stories and journeys have them in common. A journey is always accompanied by curiosity about the unknown; it creates expectations and intensity of perception: you see things on the road that you never would at home. To get back to Kings of the Road: after ten weeks’ filming we were still only halfway through, though I’d aimed to finish the film in that time. There was no money to go on filming, and we were still a long way short of an ending. The problem was: how should the journey end? Or: how might it be converted into a story? At first I thought of an accident. If it had been shot in America, it would certainly have finished with an accident. But thank God we weren’t in America; we were free to do otherwise and get to the ‘truth of our story’. So we broke off the filming and I tried to raise money for another five weeks’ shooting. Of course a film of that type can be literally never ending, and that’s a danger. The solution, finally, turned out to be that the men would have to realize they couldn’t go on like that; a break had to come and they would have to change their lives.

The State of Things (Directed by Wim Wenders)
But before that I had another idea, another ‘bend’ in the meander: the two protagonists look for their parents. I thought that might lead them to break off their relationship. So we filmed a long story about the first of them, how he visits his father, and then another long story about the second returning to the place where he grew up with his mother. Unfortunately, though, that only improved their relationship and left us even further from an ending than we were before. Suddenly, and for the first time, the two were able to speak to each other. We broke off the filming a second time. I thought the film might end with them both questioning what they had done before their relationship, and reconsidering their aims in life. The one travelling from cinema to cinema wonders whether there was any sense in keeping these places going, and the other goes back to his work as a paediatrician and speech therapist. In the end, that was how we shot it.

The State of Things is also about stories. Of course the director figure represents my own dilemma, to a certain extent; at one stage he actually says: ‘Life and stories are mutually incompatible.’ That’s his theory as a director. Later on, though, when he goes back to Hollywood, he himself becomes embroiled in a story, in one of those stories he never believed in, and in the end it kills him. Paradoxical, of course. And that’s really the only thing I have to say about stories: they are one huge, impossible paradox! I totally reject stories, because for me they only bring out lies, nothing but lies, and the biggest lie is that they show coherence where there is none. Then again, our need for these lies is so consuming that it’s completely pointless to fight them and to put together a sequence of images without a story – without the lie of a story. Stories are impossible, but it’s impossible to live without them.

That’s the mess I’m in. 

– Wim Wenders: Impossible stories. Talk given at a colloquium on narrative technique, 1982. In Wim Wenders: The Logic of Images: Essays and Conversations (Faber and Faber, 1992)


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