As humans needing a sense of understanding, we often trick ourselves into thinking we know more than we actually do, but the world will always be profoundly occult and strange. I’m not talking about metaphysics, but about the peculiarity of different cultures, the strangeness and meaninglessness of being. Perhaps you may have traveled extensively and think you’ve reached a conclusive comprehension of our surroundings, but German filmmaker and photographer Wim Wenders is still roaming the earth to excavate the unknown. A nomadic soul, he believes that his life is an everlasting road movie, with several stops along the way.
With films such as Buena Vista Social Club (1999, Cuba), Wings of Desire (1987, Berlin) and Paris, Texas (1984, U.S.), Wenders exposes the existential topography of the milieu he’s trying to capture, whether it’s in a barren desert or overlooking the multitude of city dwellers in the German capital.
Even more, the Oscar-nominated Buena Vista helped resuscitate consciousness to the sultry sounds of Afro-Cuban jazz lead by Ibrahim Ferrer and Ry Cooder. Also, Wenders has gathered a collection of photographs throughout the years, which he has taken during his travels around the world (America’s West, Cuba, Israel, Australia). Many of these are shot in locations (bereft of people) that resemble movie sets where one senses a premonition that something is about to or has already happened.
Since there will be a photographic exhibit in New York at the James Cohan Gallery of his work in early November, L&A recently spoke to Wenders in case you may be journeying there in the winter.
Q: Why are some of your images in large format (e.g., 7 to 9 feet) and mostly without any people?
WW: The size is strictly in reverence to the places that are represented in my pictures. They were awe-inspiring to me and I wanted to do them justice by printing them so big that the spectator could feel like he or she could walk right into them. I carried this big and heavy camera with me for 20 years knowing that one day I would produce prints that would make the effort worthwhile.
Q: In general in your work there seems to be a dichotomy between the bustle of urban life and the emptiness of the open wildland. How does that come into play for you?
WW: In spite of all the bustle, urban life can be emptier and more desolate than any desert and the desert can leave you with a sense of completeness and fullness. These are just my two favorite landscapes and I can’t get enough of either one.
Q: Are you an existentialist or what themes do you like to explore the most?
WW: I was impressed by [French writers] Sartre and Camus when I grew up and when existentialism was a hip culture. But that was quite an eternity ago. Later on, when I started to make movies, they seemed to always evoke the same press reaction, especially in the States, and I called them my “Triple-A-reviews” because they always boiled my subjects down to Angst, Alienation and America. I feel I’ve grown out of these themes a while ago. Angels have appeared in my movies since (more As), but lovers too and a lot of music, and all sorts of cities. If anything, there’s still a quest for love and for identity in them. And I’m still attracted to working on the road…
Q: How does your film and photography correlate with each other and what role does each play in your aesthetic view?
WW: Both were more influenced by painting than by the respective history of film or photography. I wanted to be a painter when I grew up and I loved Dutch landscape painters and Vermeer, Rembrandt, Kaspar David Friedrich and Klee. My sense of framing, in photography as well as in filming, comes from them. When American painters started to pick up 16mm cameras in the Sixties (Andy Warhol, Michael Snow and others), I felt that was a very logical step to continue painting with other means. I did the same and my first short films were really a continuation of painterly efforts for me rather than any storytelling. But that changed after a while. Storytelling is my main concern now. In film, it seems obvious and it is done mainly via characters and dialogue. In my photographs, I try to let places tell their stories. Places have an amazing amount of story and history to convey, if you’re willing to listen (and watch at the same time). They can become wide-open books, not just telling about themselves, but also about all the people who came by. You might observe the absence of people in my pictures, but after a while, you see nothing but the traces they left behind. My aesthetic view? That is dwarfed by a sense of necessity or an urgency for “truth.”
Q: In what way do you consider yourself to be a nomad?
WW: Traveling is my main profession. In the 19th Century, I would have been an etcher and a travel writer. Obviously, today, most of the great journeys have been made, so the greatest remains the one into the human heart. And my access route to that goes through the cities and the deserts…to come back to one of your initial questions…
For more info, check www.wim-wenders.com.
Omar Sommereyns can be reached at SOASIS@aol.com