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One of the more successful and prolific filmmakers to emerge from the New German Cinema movement, iconoclastic director Wim Wenders continually walked the line between art house aesthetic and commercial appeal with his vast body of work. Stark early efforts, such as the nihilistic "The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick" (1972) and road movies like "Alice in the Cities" (1974), led to more focused works along the lines of "The American Friend" (1977). Having gained international notoriety, Wenders indulged his fascination with Americana in the acclaimed "Paris, Texas" (1984) then returned to Berlin for his beloved fantasy-drama "Wings of Desire" (1987). He also broadened the scope of his artistic pursuits with forays into music video and television commercial directing, photographic exhibitions, authoring several essay collections and more. While later dramatic indulgences along the lines of "Until the End of the World" (1991) and "Faraway, So Close!" (1993), were viewed as less cogent works, the filmmaker nonetheless displayed his remarkable acumen with music documentaries like "Buena Vista Social Club" (1999). With "Don't Come Knocking" (2005) he returned to the well for another American road...
One of the more successful and prolific filmmakers to emerge from the New German Cinema movement, iconoclastic director Wim Wenders continually walked the line between art house aesthetic and commercial appeal with his vast body of work. Stark early efforts, such as the nihilistic "The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick" (1972) and road movies like "Alice in the Cities" (1974), led to more focused works along the lines of "The American Friend" (1977). Having gained international notoriety, Wenders indulged his fascination with Americana in the acclaimed "Paris, Texas" (1984) then returned to Berlin for his beloved fantasy-drama "Wings of Desire" (1987). He also broadened the scope of his artistic pursuits with forays into music video and television commercial directing, photographic exhibitions, authoring several essay collections and more. While later dramatic indulgences along the lines of "Until the End of the World" (1991) and "Faraway, So Close!" (1993), were viewed as less cogent works, the filmmaker nonetheless displayed his remarkable acumen with music documentaries like "Buena Vista Social Club" (1999). With "Don't Come Knocking" (2005) he returned to the well for another American road movie with "Paris, Texas" collaborator Sam Shepard, while the audacious 3-D dance documentary "Pina" (2011) proved the director still capable of pushing boundaries. Boasting a career that spanned more than 40 years and included over 50 highly personal, yet largely accessible films, Wenders was easily one of his generation's most appreciated independent filmmakers.
Born Ernst Wilhelm Wenders on Aug. 14, 1945 in Düsseldorf, Germany, he was the son of Heinrich Wenders, a prominent surgeon. Raised Catholic, Wenders briefly entertained the idea of entering the priesthood until his fascination with photography and Americana - in particular, B-movies and rock-n-roll - pulled him in a more earthly direction. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at schools in Freiberg, Munich and back to Dusseldorf, where he dabbled with studies in medicine, philosophy and sociology, before dropping out of school entirely in 1966. That year, Wenders made the move to Paris, France, where he attempted to enroll in art and film schools. Rejected by two separate institutions, he settled on an apprenticeship as an engraver at a Montparnasse studio and spent his evenings immersing himself in film after film at a nearby cinémathèque. The following year, he returned to Düsseldorf for an internship at the German offices of United Artists, an experience Wenders found more than a little disillusioning. In 1967 he entered the newly founded University of Television and Film Munich, at which time his career as a filmmaker began in earnest.
During his time in Munich, Wenders - greatly influenced by the experimental "New American Underground" movement - made several carefully composed, visually arresting student films, culminating in his final year project "Summer in the City" (1970), which also marked his first feature-length production. Dedicated to the Kinks, the film began associations with director of photography Robby Müller and editor Peter Przygodda, key players in Wenders' future development as a filmmaker. Both were present for his first professional feature, "The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick" (1972). A bleak, existential tale bearing similarities to Albert Camus' The Stranger, it was based on a story by Peter Handke about an alienated soccer goalie who, after losing a match, embarks on an aimless, self-destructive odyssey. Although not all of it was positive, it and his next film - an adaptation of Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" (1973) - did manage to bring Wenders to the attention of film critics outside of Germany.
Next for Wenders came a trilogy of "road movies," inspired largely by such American films as "Easy Rider" (1969) and starring frequent collaborator Rüdiger Vogler. "Alice in the Cities" (1974) - Wenders' first film partially shot in the U.S. - "Wrong Move" (1975) and "Kings of the Road" (1976) all act as explorations of rootlessness and disenfranchisement in the post-WWII era. His first English language feature film, "The American Friend" (1977), based on Patricia Highsmith's novel Ripley's Game, won Wenders international attention. Featuring appearances by several other filmmakers (including cameos by Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray, two of the directors most admired by Wenders), the atmospheric thriller recounts the unlikely and accidental friendship between Jonathan (frequent Wenders' player Bruno Ganz), a terminally-ill picture restorer and frame maker, and Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper), an American underworld figure who manipulates Jonathan into committing a series of murders. Well received by critics - and, after a second viewing, approved by the notoriously hard to please Highsmith herself - the neo-noir officially put Wenders on the radar of the international film community.
One person impressed by Wenders' most recent offering was American auteur Francis Ford Coppola, who enlisted the young German director to helm a fictional tale about pulp crime novelist Dashiell Hammett for his newly formed Zoetrope Studios. Although he initially viewed it as the opportunity of a lifetime, Wenders' experience on the production was ultimately one marked with frustration. Repeated disagreements with Coppola on the film resulted in its release being delayed by years. In the meantime, Wenders kept himself busy with work on German television and the documentary "Lightning Over Water" (1980), a collaboration with Nicholas Ray that intimately chronicled that final days of Ray's life as he succumbed to terminal cancer. When the film "Hammett" (1982) was at last released, the result was an uneven homage to the pulp novelist and the film noir genre he inspired. Apparently at an impasse with Wenders, Coppola reportedly reshot almost the entire film, leaving a mere 30 percent of Wenders' footage intact, as well as his largely superfluous credit as director.
The project, which cost Wenders nearly four years of creative energy, was briefly addressed in "Reverse Angle" (1982), a documentary short covering the filmmakers' disputes with Coppola during the tumultuous and protracted editing of "Hammett." Less literal in its deconstruction of the experience was "The State of Things" (1983), filmed, almost by happenstance, during a long hiatus in the troubled shooting of the detective picture. "Paris, Texas" (1984), based on a script by actor-playwright-musician Sam Shepard, told the story of a speechless amnesiac (Harry Dean Stanton), who, after being discovered wandering in the desert, is aided by his estranged brother (Dean Stockwell) on an odyssey to reconnect with his past and the family (Nastassja Kinski and Hunter Carson) he left behind. Benefitting greatly from the forward movement of Shepard's uniquely American story, the editing prowess of Przygodda, and the breathtaking cinematography of Müller, the film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1984. Over the years, "Paris, Texas" would be cited as a major influence by such artists as the rock band U2 and Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain, who hailed it as his favorite film of all time.
Wenders then returned to Berlin to make "Wings of Desire" (1987), a lyrical, mostly black-and-white fantasia (remade as "City of Angels" in 1998) starring Ganz as an angel wandering the divided city, yearning for a physical, human existence. Many of the best moments of the film had no particular dramatic purpose, other than to simply reveal what it is like to forever be an observer. A modest commercial success for an independently made foreign drama, the film earned Wenders the Best Director award at Cannes in 1987. It was a heady time for the filmmaker, who published his first book of photography, Written in the West that same year, and was given an honorary doctorate from Paris' Sorbonne University in 1989. By far his most ambitious and expensive project was the epic science fiction road movie "Until the End of the World" (1991), a metaphysical detective romp of global dimensions, boasting a massive cast that included William Hurt, Sam Neill, Max von Sydow and Solveig Dommartin. After being forced to cut the film's original running time from an astonishing 280 minutes to 158 for U.S. distribution, the disappointed German filmmaker vowed to eventually release a restored "director's cut" even as the movie met with mixed-to-poor reviews and a dismal theatrical run.
Two years later, Wenders released "Faraway, So Close!" (1993), a sequel to "Wings of Desire" which once again found Ganz's angel and others wistfully overseeing the humanity of a newly unified Berlin. Next came "Lisbon Story" (1994), a partial-sequel to "The State of Things," followed by a collaboration with the great Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni on "Beyond the Clouds" (1995). Wenders returned to America for the first time since filming "Paris, Texas" for "The End of Violence" (1997), a film that also marked his first foray into shooting in Cinemascope. Although it captured signature Los Angeles locales in a decadent beauty not seen in years, the film, a confusing meditation on the threat of violence and alienation due to increased technology, met with indifference critically and commercially. Faring much better was Wenders' moving Cuban music documentary "Buena Vista Social Club" (1999), which introduced audiences to a nearly forgotten generation of Havana musicians brought together by frequent Wenders musical collaborator Ry Cooder to record a CD and perform together in concert in the U.S.
Wenders was drawn back once more to Los Angeles, where he filmed "The Million Dollar Hotel" (2000), a patchy mystery-romance-comedy, based on an original story by U2 front man Bono. Featuring Jeremy Davies and Milla Jovovich as denizens of the titular run-down tenement and Mel Gibson (who also co-produced) as an intimidating FBI agent, the movie proved to be one of Wenders' less-cohesive efforts. "The Soul of a Man' (2003) was another music documentary, this time focusing on the careers of three classic blues musicians. Wenders and star Michelle Williams examined the social disparities of post-9/11 Los Angeles in the digitally-shot drama "Land of Plenty" (2004), before reteaming with Sam Shepard (who acted as well as wrote) for the comedy-drama "Don't Come Knocking" (2005). Another road movie, albeit one of Wenders' more successful in recent years, it featured Shepard as an hard-living, self-loathing movie star seeking out a woman (Jessica Lange) and a past he left behind long ago. After a number of smaller projects, the director delivered the full-length "Pina" (2011), a 3-D documentary about acclaimed Tanztheater pioneer, teacher and choreographer Pina Bausch, who died unexpectedly just prior to production of the film Wenders dedicated in her honor.
By Bryce Coleman
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CAST: (feature film)
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