INTERVIEW WITH WIM WENDERS: ON THE DOCUMENTARIES

What is the attraction of the documentary form for you?

Wim Wenders: First of all the spontaneity it allows for. All my documentaries have opened up and presented themselves to me on very short notice. And then you’re confronted with the reality of a situation, and you try to find the form for it. You “react”. Fiction usually works the other way around. You act.

Were your influences for documentary the same as fiction film or did you look to other filmmakers for inspiration?

My fictional work always included a “documentary tendency”. I was always happy to let as much “reality” as possible enter my stories. I base my work on a strong sense of place, and that applies to fictional as well as documentary films. But while I learned a lot about the language and grammar of filmmaking from the American Cinema (Ford, Mann, Ray, Fuller, Hitchcock…), I can’t really quote “documentary influences”. That is more a self-made form for me, and was initially leaning more to diary-films or essays than to “classic” documentaries. I do admire some documentary filmmakers, though. Pennebaker, Chris Marker, just to name two.

From Nick's Film to A Trick of the Light, an overriding concern of your documentaries has been the death of a kind of cinema. And yet, these films see you exploring new forms of visual representation and technology. Was the documentary the only way through which to balance these approaches?

In Lightning Over Water (Nick’s Film) I used video for the first time (in the very rudimentary applications that technology allowed in 1978). It turned out to enrich the film, almost against my original intention. Those lousy VHS images became something like the cancer inside the film, and as the movie dealt with Nick dying from a tumor, these video images almost contained more truth and showed our common experience with more clarity and honesty than our 35mm film. Notebook on Cities and Clothes became a reflection on my tools as a filmmaker. As I was observing a designer, and learning about his tools in the process, I was both filming on 35mm (as a one-man crew) and on video-8 (which was the best possible consumer technology then) and the two different cameras produced two very different points of view. The documentary form simply gave me the freedom to “test” all my options and find out which one was better suited to do justice to the situation at hand. A Trick of the Light presented yet another way of approaching our subject, as it was done with the oldest available technology, a hand-cranked camera from the Twenties and opposed that to present-day film equipment. Another reason I love documentaries so much is that you are so flexible. You look at whatever reality you will have in front of you, and then you let that reality dictate how it wants to be captured. Last year I shot in the Congo for Doctors Without Borders, and we worked with very light HDV cameras. The film dealt with violence against women in areas of conflict. So we were shooting interviews with women for several weeks. After a while we were wondering where the men were. We didn’t seem to see much of them. And then we found them. They spent most of their time on a make-shift “Cinema” where they watched war movies, almost exclusively. After 50 years of civil unrest and all sorts of war, this was their very first year of PEACE, and they spent it watching war. There was no way to shoot that, in that dark theatre, except with my tiny little consumer DV camera that was able to film in an infra-red mode…

Do you see making documentaries as a cathartic release from fiction film?

Absolutely. They put you back in touch with how people live today, on our planet. If you have a hundred people behind you, and 20 trucks, you easily forget that. Documentaries are also great lessons in modesty.

The term documentary is itself a misnomer in a number of these films. Nick's Film and A Trick of the Light in particular blur the line between documentary and fiction film. Do you think that such categories are too rigid?

They are totally misleading. There is every possible variety between the extreme poles of “pure fiction” and “pure reality”. (Both are very rare…). An apparently straight music documentary like Buena Vista Social Club is at the same time really a fairy tale. And Room 666 a study in psychology.

What is your relationship now with these films, compared with how you relate to your fiction work from the same period?

Some of these are very personal films, almost like diaries. So I am quite attached to them. Or Lightning Over Water, for instance. In my mind that film counts much more as the experience we went through together, Nick Ray, myself, the crew. It still amazes me that you can actually watch it. We would have done it without film in the camera…

Would you have liked to change anything in them, if not in content, in the way you employed new technology?

No. The technology each time belonged to that era, was part of the thinking process, expressed its “Zeitgeist” as well as it could. And you are not in control of the “content” anyway. It is there, and you try to be there at the right time and in the right place to witness it.

Music remains as important an element in your documentaries as it is in your features. Is your approach to music the same when you are making them?

The strict “music documentaries” I made, like Soul of a Man, BVSC or Ode to Cologne demand a different approach to music than the score or soundtrack in fictional work. You’re filming the music itself, so it dictates your shots, your rhythm, the editing, the very spirit of the piece. In fiction, you hope that between the image and the music something happens so that the result is not just the sum of the two, but more, “a third thing”, so to speak, that quite often you can’t really put into words. In a music documentary, that “third” is already in front of you, and if you’re lucky, you mange to capture it on film…

Returning to the question you asked in Room 666, do you think that cinema has become a moribund, if not dead, language, which has past the point of no return?

On the contrary. Now, a quarter of a century later, I think that cinema is well and alive, and that the quantum leap into the digital age has done it a lot of good. Both in fiction AND in documentary. Look at the whole new emergence of the documentary genre due to those light and affordable and intimate tools we have today. Looking back at my own “cultural pessimism” of 1982, when we made Room 666, I can only smile. It’s so good that you can be wrong sometimes…

Do the films of Yasujiro Ozu remain as important to you now?

Oh yeah. They do not change their place in my mind. They still represent today what they represented to me when I first discovered them: the lost paradise of filmmaking. An incredible encouragement to strive for a peaceful, transcendent, tender cinema.

How did the project A Trick of the Light come about?

I started teaching at my former film school, in Munich. We wanted to do a practical work together, the group of 12 students or so and myself. The year was 1994, a year before the 100th anniversary of cinema, and the idea came up to dedicate our film to the invention of cinema in Germany. Everybody talks about the brothers Lumière as the inventors of cinema, nobody ever mentions those German brothers, the Skladanowskys, who actually showed their films to a paying audience a few weeks before the Lumières had their historic “first screening” in Paris. The Skladanowskys were self-made-men, without an industry behind them, not even engineers. Their background was variety shows and the circus. They were as “un-German” as you can imagine. Certainly not “effective” and well organized. The machine they invented, the “bioscope” was a very rudimentary projection machine, and clearly inferior to the Lumière’s “Cinématographe”. But it worked, even if the images were quite jumpy, and it did project little scenes of actually moving images of about 10 seconds. Their approach to cinema was truly poetic, for lack of a better word. So we decided to make a little film about them. The fun thing was: we wanted to do it as a silent film, and shoot with a hand-cranked camera from the early Twenties. We actually produced a twenty minute film in that semester, and we enjoyed ourselves so much that the next year we added another chapter of the Skladanowsky saga, and then we had 40 minutes already, and another semester later we figured we could now turn it into a feature film by shooting a framework, with the last surviving member of the Skladanowsky family, Lucie. So in the end we had a film of 75 minutes. It was no longer strictly a silent film. It had sound elements, a narration, and certainly a lot of music. Was it a documentary? Sure, some of it certainly was. Other elements are taking more liberties than “documentaries” should…

Did you know that Lucie Hürtgen-Skladanowsky was still alive when you embarked on the project and how did she react to the invitation to become involved?

We only found out that Lucie was still around after we had already produced 2 segments of our film. She was very open to our invitation and agreed immediately. Anything that would bring the memory of her father and his brothers to a broader public was fine with her…

It is the only documentary you have made that looks fondly back on a medium, rather than to the possibilities afforded by technological developments. Along with The End of Violence the following year, it can be seen to draw a line under one stage in cinema's evolution. Did you feel this sense of finality, or farewell, when you were making it?

That was in then air, of course. But an era never ends from one day to another. There are always slow transitions rather than abrupt changes.

At the same time, it did provide an opportunity for a new generation of filmmakers to work with you. Was it an easy process?

I love teaching. And I teach “Digital Cinema”, so it is clearly directed towards the future, not into the past…

Do you see documentary as a thriving medium or has its means of expression reached a limit and its course is not dissimilar to that of the cinema you refer to in Room 666?

The documentary today is almost more interesting to me that fiction film. If I stand in front of a multiplex cinema, not knowing what to see, and among the 10 films offered there is one documentary, I do not hesitate to pick that film. The documentary has completely reinvented itself, I feel, through the use of digital technology, and a new-found interest in “the real world”, maybe because cinema for so long, all through the Nineties, it seemed, was getting more and more into fantasy and into areas that had very little to do with the worries of our present late consumer age of globalization.

Wim Wenders' Documentaries collection is available on DVD through our shop and all good retailers.