Wim Wenders: Road Movies, Documentaries And The Eternal Truth

“The world was such a better world in paintings than in reality.” Wim Wenders

Wim Wenders has always been an artist, a painter at heart. Only through playing with a camera as a teenager did he by chance begin to forge a career in film making, and was going to return to painting until he began to see that he could use film as a medium to paint a picture, and this aspect is reflected in the cinematography of many of his movies.

His first movies in the 1970s all seem to have some fascination about people traveling in a car, and the dynamism found with the element of time, space and motion in film, compared with the static picture of a painting, these ‘road movies’ culminated with the Palme d’Or award winning film Paris Texas (1984).

Paris Texas (1984) Road Side Diner
Paris Texas (1984) Road Side Diner

The 1980s seemed to be a decade in which Wenders was increasingly concerned with postmodernism, in particular abstraction and the roles that digital images play in altering reality, or creating an illusion. In Paris Texas (1984), a conscious attempt is taken to recreate scenes from the highway culture of the west realistically, but unlike the realism of a Edward Hopper painting, scenes are stylized or ‘hyperized’, to emphasize certain elements of Americana like the greenish parking lot florescent lighting, the emptiness and horizontality of the desert or the glare from pick-up truck headlights at a road side diner.

Paris Texas (1984) Wim Wenders
Paris Texas (1984) Wim Wenders

Unlike the ‘simulacra’ described by Baudrillard that produces hyperreality, this is not meant to fool you, but to express a point of view which is rooted in realism and shot almost documentary style, rather like Ed Ruscha’s photographs of Los Angeles roadside diners and gas stations.

Paris Texas (1984) Wim Wenders
Paris Texas (1984) Wim Wenders
Paris Texas (1984) Wim Wenders
Paris Texas (1984) Wim Wenders
Nighthawks (1942) Ed Hopper
Nighthawks (1942) Ed Hopper
Photo from 26 Gas Stations-1962-Ed Ruscha
Photo from 26 Gas Stations (1962)-Ed Ruscha

In  the documentary Notebook On Cities And Clothes (1989), Wim Wenders examines the international fashion industry, vis-a-vis, designer and fashion label Yohji Yamamoto and its relationship to the film industry; in particular how both industries are using images to manipulate reality.

Notebook On Cities And Clothes (1989) Wim Wenders
Notebook On Cities And Clothes (1989) Wim Wenders
Notebook On Cities And Clothes (1989) Wim Wenders
Notebook On Cities And Clothes (1989) Wim Wenders

In one scene, as he discusses how our identity, which should be fixed and immovable, has become something which can easily changed or be manipulated, by what we wear, Wenders has the camera focused frontally on a handheld camera with a screen displaying the front dashboard view of a car driving along a highway/bridge, with a partial view of the passenger window of the car moving along. As the car continues, it becomes increasingly apparent that the displayed image on the flat screen is not that of the same car the main camera is in, until finally, the flat screen starts displaying the video in reverse, confirming our suspicions that we have been fooled into thinking that the image on the flat screen was displaying reality.

In the recent documentary Salt Of The Earth (2014), which is the story of the world’s major famine, genocide, displacement of peoples and ends with the beauty of nature, Wenders seems to have gone back to the basics of story telling, dispelling consideration for abstract artistic theories in favor for the urgency in telling the people of the world whats really going on in some poor, developing countries. Even though most of the film is black and white, as the beautifully shot images as captured by photographer Sebastião Salgado are in black and white, it is also a stylistic choice, although an appropriate one for the subject matter.

Salt Of The Earth (2014)
Salt Of The Earth (2014)
Salt Of The Earth (2014)
Salt Of The Earth (2014)
Serra Pelada Gold Mine, Brazil 1986
Serra Pelada Gold Mine, Brazil 1986
Salt Of The Earth (2014)
Salt Of The Earth (2014)

There seems to be some guiding themes that run throughout all Wenders films; contrasting duality, whether its a contrast between foreground and background, horizontal and vertical, static and moving, being one and the other is time, space and motion of the camera. You won’t ever see the fake backgrounds used in car scenes of many hollywood movies (rear projection effect) used in Wenders films. Even the documentary Buena Vista Social Club (1999), a film reminiscing the past glory of Cuban jazz music and culture from the 1930s to 1950s, we see glimpses of the same car headlights lighting and camera techniques from Paris Texas (1984). In all, his films run at a different rhythm and pace from most hollywood movies and are a bit of an acquired taste.

Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
Buena Vista Social Club (1999)