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Wim Wenders: We couldn’t continue living in a country without a past. We had to somehow face it

Eye surgery curtailed the German director’s appearances recently but he’s back on track with two films, Anselm and Perfect Days

I was supposed to meet Wim Wenders, durable survivor of the German new wave, at London Film Festival in October. At the last minute he had to cancel because of a medical issue. I was assured it was nothing serious, but I am glad to see him looking, in his own lugubrious way, as vital as ever. Now 78, the director of Alice in the Cities; Paris, Texas; Wings of Desire; and Buena Vista Social Club is a figure to be cherished.

“I had to undergo eye surgery,” he says. “I couldn’t change it. It had to be done. And afterwards I couldn’t travel for a number of days. So I missed the London Film Festival. Much to my dismay. I had to stay away. And it was a bit painful, because I had really been looking forward to seeing all my English and Irish friends.”

Wenders has had his ups and downs. But, ocular inconveniences aside, 2023 will surely count as one of his anni mirabiles. Back in May he delivered not one but two triumphant features to Cannes film festival. Anselm, a hugely immersive 3D documentary about the German artist Anselm Kiefer, played to hurrahs in the special screenings section. “Rich in ideas and breathtaking in technical execution,” Variety raved. Perfect Days, a gorgeous, restrained drama following a lavatory cleaner in contemporary Tokyo, propelled Koji Yakusho to the best actor prize. “Wenders’s best fiction film since Wings of Desire, 35 years ago,” I wrote in this newspaper. That still sounds about right.

“That doesn’t happen too often,” he says of the double whammy.


The first of those films arrives in time for Christmas. Perfect Days will be with us in February. Anselm Kiefer was one of the key forces in Germany’s cultural rearrangement after the second World War. Born in the Black Forest months before the surrender, he prolifically expresses his ideas through painting, sculpture and a class of performance art. An early shot in Anselm shows the artist cycling about the warehouse that stores his often enormous paintings. The 3D camerawork is vital in communicating the vastness of these spaces. Wenders has stayed with that technique despite commercial cinema largely abandoning it in the past decade. He used it for Pina, his Oscar-nominated documentary about the dancer Pina Bausch, and here again demonstrates that it is not good just for rocket ships.

“Well, I think it’s a little bit more than a tool,” he says. “I think it’s really its own language. It opened a whole path and answered the long desire of film-makers to include space in their realm of possibilities. Cinema came up with a lot of devices in order to pretend that we are in space, but basically it all ends up on a flat screen. So 3D is really a huge step. Even the pioneers already had patents on 3D cinema.”

It has been a few years since we last met, and I had forgotten Wenders’s tendency to meander. Ask him about 3D and you will get an essay on its virtues and how it is sometimes misused. He doesn’t like the tendency to engineer 3D on to conventional footage in postproduction. He stands up for James Cameron’s determination to shoot “native 3D” with two cameras.

“Cameron is one of the last of the Mohicans – who really likes native 3D and he has a good reason to do so. It is the real McCoy. And it is physiologically what 3D always wanted to be. He is still a great hero for me, and I like his movies.”

Wenders has a lot to meander about. Born in Düsseldorf the son of a surgeon, he studied medicine and philosophy before moving to Paris with thoughts of painting. This was the high period of the French new wave, and, while not quite becoming the next Braque, Wenders attended as many as five movies a day. He eventually headed for film school in Munich and, like many of those French directors, honed his theories writing criticism. Summer in the City, his graduation film – shot by the soon to be legendary Robby Müller – began his obsession with the existential journey. Three raw, arid classics then followed: Alice in the Cities (1974), The Wrong Move (1975) and Kings of the Road (1976). Produced on lowish budgets, the films conveyed the sense of a lively intellect in search of meaning.

This was a fecund period for German cinema. Compatriots such as Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlöndorff were finding ways of negotiating their nation’s collective amnesia. The Nazis were gone, but many party members were still in positions of authority. The generation that came of age in the 1960s – film-makers, musicians, novelists, activists – baulked at the acquiescent con. None was so explicit in his resistance as Kiefer. In a famous series, he photographed himself, dressed in his father’s Wehrmacht uniform, performing the Hitler salute in locations across France, Switzerland and Italy. Unsurprisingly, fury ensued. But the message was clear: we should not forget. Up to that point, few had dared address the silence.

“At that point it wasn’t a theme,” Wenders agrees. “At that point it was totally absent as a theme. When Anselm started to appear in the public eye, in the late 1960s, he was the one who brought it back, who put it back on the agenda – fascism and the Holocaust. The lid had been put on all of this. Germany was, still in the 1960s, progressing into the future under the pretext that the past didn’t have to be opened up. And Anselm was the first who really insisted on opening it up. He insisted on bringing it back on the agenda and looking at it. When he made the series of photos with the Hitler salute, that was only 25 years after everybody had done that salute. Now they were pretending they never had. ‘Oh, we had nothing to do with it.’ It was urgent and necessary.”

In Wenders’s film, Kiefer seems to deny he was trying to be provocative. But that’s nonsense. Isn’t it? Those actions were bound to irritate.

“Yes, of course he was. He couldn’t do it without provoking. So he published it. It was provocative. But he said he didn’t want it to provoke just for provocation’s sake. It was meant for a purpose. It was necessary to do it. We couldn’t continue living in a country without a past. We had to somehow face it. And I think Germans in the end did that in the 1970s and 1980s.”

I assume, during this period, that Wenders and Kiefer must have rubbed up against one another. Germany is a big country. But the cultural space is not so huge. While Wenders was gaining fame with his road trilogy, Kiefer was building on the work of Joseph Beuys with works constructed from less traditional media: straw, broken glass, dried flowers. Wenders and Kiefer were born just five months apart. Did they meet up at Can concerts or readings of Heinrich Böll novels? Did they know each other well?

“Yes and no. It took a while. Because I left Germany and lived in America. Anselm worked already for 10 years before he ever had a show. He really came to the public eye only with a big exhibition in Venice. That’s when I was living in America. We really met and became close to each other in the early 1990s, after he had a triumphant tour of America.”

They both ended up working in Berlin for a spell.

“He went out on his own to find a restaurant in Kreuzberg one day and ended up at the place where I went every evening. The only free table was where I was sitting. He sat opposite me. He wanted to know what was good in that restaurant, and I recommended some stuff. We had a glass of wine, we started talking and we were the last guests out that night. We did that for more than two weeks. We ate together for two weeks and talked a lot and became very good friends. We said we really needed to do something together.”

Wenders mentions his time in the United States. That nation has long been a theme in his work. The hero of Alice in the Cities broods on the US. The American Friend, his rough, gnarly adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Ripley’s Game, from 1977, starred Dennis Hooper as the worst sort of American abroad. There was a sense of a European trying to process the unavoidable – not always desirable – of a vast cultural shadow. The United States was over there. But in West Germany before the Berlin Wall fell it was also over here. Paris, Texas, his first US film, proved a triumph. Harry Dean Stanton, long a vital supporting player, finally grabbed an important lead as yet another of Wenders’s existential wanderers. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1984 and remains a durable classic. Wings of Desire, his beautiful (accidental) farewell to a divided Berlin, arrived to acclaim in 1988.

Thereafter, Wenders’s fiction films have struggled to win over audiences. He had a hit with the documentary Buena Vista Social Club – the soundtrack for every dinner party in 1999 – but dramas such as The End of Violence and (from a story by Bono) The Million Dollar Hotel were greeted with shrugs. Audiences at Cannes did not, as a result, approach Perfect Days with untampered enthusiasm. The film is a wonder. Yakusho plays an intelligent man with a regimented lifestyle. He travels each day into the city to clean an array of high-tech lavatories. He buys a book a week. He listens to carefully curated dad rock – Velvet Underground, The Kinks, Otis Redding – as he goes about a simple but apparently fulfilling day.

“I just have restaurant Japanese,” Wenders says. “I never mastered the Japanese language. Although I’ve been there very often. I made parts of movies there. A huge part of my cinematic upbringing was Japanese cinema – especially the films of Yasujiro Ozu. That opened my eyes to a more transcendental cinema. But I had never faced the idea of making a Japanese film with Japanese actors.”

He was invited to look at the work of 15 Japanese architects, who had each designed a suave lavatory. He knew there was a culture to such buildings there. The notion was that he would attempt a documentary on the public loos, but after a week in Japan he decided he might make a drama instead. He was mesmerised by how, after having a party in a public place, the Japanese would clean up after themselves.

“They don’t even have public garbage places, because you take your own stuff away with you,” he says. “In my own city of Berlin the park was destroyed by two weeks of partying.”

The appreciation of a different civilisation plays through the film. But it’s also an argument for an uncomplicated life, lived well. Do I have that right?

“Yeah, that was part of the character that we then invented to tell a story,” he says. “I needed somebody who would symbolise that approach that I liked in Japan – that love of detail. It seemed to me it was worthwhile inventing this postwar character who had maybe a little bit of utopian nature, who liked reduction and was happy with a little, instead of this strange adoration of growth, growth, growth.”

The annus mirabilis now moves into awards season. Perfect Days has been selected as the Japanese submission for best international feature at the Oscars and has an excellent chance of a nomination. Anselm could well be nominated as best documentary. That could be a record. Yet I get the sense that Wenders will remain stoic about it all. There is something of the protagonist in Perfect Days about his unhurried demeanour.

“Everybody always wants more,” he says, wagging his head. “We just can’t have enough in the end. We don’t even know what to do with what we have.”

Anselm is in cinemas from Friday, December 8th