Monday, 7 February 2011

An Interview with Wim Wenders

1. Until Alice in the Cities female characters in your films were few and far between. Why did you prefer to have a little girl rather than a woman interrupting Philip Winter’s plans?

WW: The idea for the film was based on a song by Chuck Berry. If you check out the lyrics for “Memphis, Tennessee”, you’ll realize that what sounds like a man’s urgent long distance call to a woman is really an effort to call his daughter. Anyway, I made a film before centered around a female character, after Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter”. Hester Prynne was the heroine of the story, and played by Senta Berger. I regarded the film as a failure, especially as I felt I had no insight (and therefore no right) to tell a woman’s story competently. Also, the film was a period piece, which I dreaded. Altogether, I only liked one little scene, and that was between Hester Prynne’s little daughter, Pearl, played by Yella Rottländer, then 6 years old, and a sailor, played by Rüdiger Vogler. I decided, already during the difficult shoot of “Scarlet Letter”, to make my next movies with these two people, Rüdiger and littler Yella, no matter what. And then the Chuck Berry song gave me an idea, together with the memory of my first visit to America, where I had been looking for locations to shoot “Scarlet Letter” in its proper location, in Salem, Massachusetts. (I ended up having to shoot it in Spain, in a village where they shot mainly Spaghetti Westerns….)

In later films you deal with the relationships between men and women. Is Alice in the Cities a stepping stone for this subject matter?

WW: I wouldn’t call it that. Alice was a kid. I continues working with kids. There’s a little boy playing an important part at the end of “Kings of the Road”. Another little girl is the hero of “In the family of crocodiles” which I did for TV. Little boys play important parts in “American Friend” and certainly also in “Paris, Texas”, where little Hunter helps Travis find his wife. This wife, though, Jane, played by Nastassja Kinski, SHE was my “stepping stone”, as you put it. That was the first female part I was happy with.

2. In your poem 'the American dream' you say:

A boy in the neighbourhood
was given a cowboy suit by relatives in America.
Real leather!
And the following year
an Indian suit.
Real feathers!
Dressing up for carnival
you only had that choice anyway:
cowboy or Indian.
My mother suggested
there were other possibilities,
clown or Chinese, for instance.
A laughable proposition.

Other than binary opposites (a cowboy or an Indian) there is no other option. A clown or a Chinese person has nothing to do with national identity. Your thinking here seems to be reduced to binary terms. It is interesting that the mother sees more options than the child does. Do you see this kind of polar/binary view as a masculine thing?

WW: I see it more as the result of an education and a childhood in postwar Germany. The world was governed by a dualism. There were only Americans (or “us”, the Western world) and Communists. Every little boy knew that. And in movies, too, the only real conflict was between Cowboys and Indians, i.e. between good and evil. Religion also confirmed that dualism. My mother was just trying to come up with something where she could produce a more fancy outfit. She just LOVED making dresses, and for a while she also made stuff for me which I utterly hated. I wanted to have “Lederhosen” and stuff like any boy, not self-made fancy suits by my mom.

3. It's well documented that there was an ambivalent attitude to American movie and cultural influence in Germany in the protest movements of the late 60s. What are your own memories of this time? Also what are your memories of the 1970s/1980s cold war?

WW: I was in prison twice for having taken part in Vietnam protest marches that turned violent. (Mainly because of the Police’s violent intervention.) I was a left-wing film student then, and bashed the war in Vietnam, much to my father’s chagrin who was rather conservative. It was a great satisfaction to me, and people of my generation, that the truth about the war in Vietnam finally came out and became common knowledge. The American people had been lied to by four legislations and had been dragged into an unnecessary an impossible misadventure.
The cold war was a given thing. I was one of the few who had traveled to the Soviet Union, to Poland, to East Germany. I lived in West Berlin, then, a city encircled in an “antifascist wall”, as they called it. I knew that communism was basically the reign of an ultra-bourgeois and mediocre class that stuck to an ideology long outdated. I knew that they had to suppress the working class they really pretended to represent.

4. You say of Hanna Schygulla, 'she was always very lively in Fassbinder's films, and visibly less so in mine. I was rather upset by that'. The style of your early road films, long panning shots, episodic narrative etc makes it more difficult to fully develop characters. For some reason this impacts more on female characters in your films.
Would you say that there is something about road movies that excludes women?

WW: Not necessarily. The character of Lana in my recent LAND OF PLENTY proves that women can just as well be characters in toad movies. But consider the Western as the predecessor to the genre of the road movie, and then you see how dominated by men this is. Actually, CINEMA itself was dominated by male characters, and still is today. You should really see my latest film DON’T COME KNOCKING, that has a Western movie star as his hero, who slowly disintegrates and is taken apart, while the women in the story take over. That film has a weak male character and THREE very strong women in it, and throws a very ironic look at the male domination of the Western genre.

5. The relationship between Ripley and Jonathan in The American Friend deepens as Jonathan becomes increasingly estranged from his family.
Do you see this as a reflection of the seductive yet corrupting relationship between America (capitalist/go-getting, travel, excitement, Ripley having a violent and dramatic death) and Germany (European culture, family – orientated, Jonathan dying slowly and steadily)?

WW: Already “The American Friend” was an ironic title. In “Kings of the Road” one of the characters says: “The Yankess have colonized our subconscious...” “The American Friend” can be seen as an illustration of that theory. But that is strictly a subtext of the film, not its main drift.

6. How do you account for the portrayal of men in your films?
How do you account for male friendships in your career?

WW: Male friendship was certainly an important subject in my earlier work. But already “paris, Texas” left that territory behind. And my last two films are taking place on a very different terrain, as far as men are concerned. In LAND OF PLENTY, the hero is a deranged, slightly paranoid and very lonely Vietnam soldier, and his counterpart, MY heroine, is a liberal young American woman, his niece. SHE really carries my point of view.
Same as in DON’T COME KNOCKING. The two men, father and son, are really rather helpless and unable to live out a conflict. It’s the women in the story who set things straight.
So altogether, my focus has shifted over the years, and I do not want to be reduced any more to narrative positions from twenty years ago.

I hope this is helpful, Suzy
All my best,