Through the Eyes of Angels, Cowboys, and Christians: A tribute to Wim Wenders, and an appreciation of his films.
This interview was originally published at Looking Closer in 2006. An abridged version of this feature and interview was previously published at Christianity Today Movies.
A movie star is sitting on an old couch in the middle of the street in Butte, Montana.
His name is Howard Spence, and he’s run away from the set of his latest film, a Western being shot against the beautiful, desolate backdrop of Moab, Utah. Something has drawn him to Butte, where he once fell in love with a beautiful waitress.
As he sits there, troubled and alone, there’s a sense that perhaps he’s beginning to realize all that he’s been missing. His successes, his self-indulgence (which has landed him some impressive tabloid headlines), and his compulsion to escape into drugs or sex or the ego-boosting fantasy of the American Western… all of these things have proven powerful distractions. Maybe here, at “the scene of the crime,” drawn by the possibility of love and a family, he’ll find a chance to begin truly living for the first time.
Butte is almost a ghost town now, haunted with echoes of the past. It won’t be easy for Howard to re-enter relationships he left in shambles for so many years. That journey must begin with repentance and forgiveness. Is he up to it?
That’s the premise of Don’t Come Knocking, the new film directed by the great German filmmaker Wim Wenders, which reunites him with the American actor and playwright Sam Shepard. In 1984, the two wrote a legendary film called Paris, Texas, about another lost soul’s spiritual journey to mend what is broken. Now, more than twenty years later, they’ve revisited the theme. Where their first collaboration was a painful, mournful masterpiece, Knocking is a lighter, funnier fiction. But once again they’ve crafted an evocative, contemplative journey full of characters who are longing for wholeness.
Shepard brings rough authenticity both to the minimalist script and his performance in the lead role, and he’s helped by an impressive, eclectic supporting cast that includes his longtime love Jessica Lange, Tim Roth in another eccentric turn, and accomplished youngsters like Sarah Polley, Gabriel Mann, and Fairuza Balk.
But this is a Wim Wenders film through and through, characterized by his famously observant camerawork, meditative pacing, and an intuitive grasp of how this rugged landscape represents desolate spiritual territory.
Wenders has been doing this sort of thing for almost three decades of filmmaking. And since this is his first feature to receive distribution in the U.S. in a few years, it’s a fine time to look back at his memorable work.
When you watch a film by Wim Wenders, you’re asked to consider the world through starkly different perspectives. Each of his narratives focus on people whose views are limited, and who need to be reconciled into a more complete understanding.
In his beloved, Cannes-award-winning masterpiece — Wings of Desire (1987) — Wenders follows angels on their daily beat through the troubled streets of Berlin before the wall was torn down. There, an angel named Damiel (Bruno Ganz) wanders and listens to the needy thoughts of the despairing citizens, and he marvels at the faith of wide-eyed children. Damiel longs to know the joys of sensory experience. And when he encounters a human being — a beautiful circus trapeze performer named Marion (Solveig Dommartin) who longs for communion with a kindred spirit — he finds the provocation to “take the plunge” into human form and pursue her.
As her guardian angel, he offers almost imperceptible spiritual comfort. As his muse, Marion lures him to embrace the mystery of human experience, so that even the simple joy of holding a hot cup of coffee on a cold morning inspires him to reverence and wonder, revealing the sacred in the ordinary.
Peter Falk’s “special appearance” brings humor and a stroke of subtle genius to the proceedings. Falk plays himself, strolling around a Berlin movie set where he’s playing, of course, an investigator. Damiel takes a particular liking to Falk, for it seems that this beloved actor enjoys simple, ordinary pleasures more than most. And as fans wave and shout for “Columbo!”, Falk takes it in stride and leads Damiel — and us — to unexpected revelations.
By tuning our attention to the perspective of angels, viewers often find renewed appreciation for the incarnational nature of creation, and greater apprehension of God’s love in the highs and lows of daily life. Those rewards come from attentive viewing, but also through patient filmmaking, and Wenders has learned to be watchful and open to surprises in the course of a project. In a recent issue of MovieMaker, he volunteered a list of 50 tips for filmmakers. One in particular stands out: “Films can reveal the invisible, but you have to be willing to let it show.”
I asked Wenders what he meant by that during my recent interview with him for Christianity Today. “This is one of the amazing achievements of film,” he assured me, “that they can reveal something that you can’t actually see. When I started out as a painter, I strictly believed in the visible, and that the visible was it. And in the course of making movies, I realized that something I hadn’t actually seen in front of my camera was then there in the movie.”
This was especially true during the filming of Wings of Desire. While Wenders was, at the time, distancing himself from his religious upbringing, he found that filming from the perspective of imaginary angels caused him to discover and capture wondrous and meaningful things that he had never planned. “I never really thought that a film could deal with anything metaphysical…. And when we finished it, I thought, ‘How much help can I possibly get?’ It felt like I had almost made the film completely unconsciously, and that the angels that I had sort of ‘called’ had actually been there to help me.”
The audience’s enthusiasm for Wings of Desire around the world amazed Wenders, and the experience of making the film and observing its influence played a part in renewing his Christian faith. “There was no explanation for the powerful impact that these figures had on audiences,” he recalls. “What I had taken for a metaphor had, sort of miraculously, materialized. So I came to terms with the fact that the invisible was powerfully working in movies. I just had to let it happen. You can’t make it happen. I don’t think you can consciously evoke that. At least, I didn’t.”
A NEW KIND OF CHRISTIAN
In 2004, Wenders delivered another story of contrasting perspectives: Land of Plenty. (While it did not receive a wide release in the U.S., the film impressed film festival audiences, and will probably arrive on DVD by the end of 2005.) Wenders’ germ of an idea was crafted into a story by a friend, writer/director Scott Derrickson, the talented storyteller who brought us The Exorcism of Emily Rose. We can sense the strong Christian convictions of both artists in this tale, and yet, the film is free of the didacticism and preaching we find in so many films described as “Christian.”
In Land of Plenty’s exploration of life in America post-September 11th , the question is “plenty of what”? Trouble or goodwill? Evil or grace? Violence or healing?
A Vietnam veteran named Paul (John Diehl), haunted by the darkness he’s seen, is sent over the edge into paranoia, fear, and constant distrust by 9/11. He appoints himself as an agent for “homeland security,” lurking about the backstreets of Los Angeles in search of terrorist activity.
But when a young missionary woman named Lana (Michelle Williams of The Station Agent and Brokeback Mountain) returns to the U.S., she crosses Paul’s path and interrupts his determined vendetta. Together, they encounter a violent crisis and shoulder the burden of delivering a dead body back home to his family. Paul proceeds believing that he will find the core of a terrorist plot at the end of the road; but Lana is looking for peace, healing, and resolution. Their road leads straight to Ground Zero in New York, where Wenders strikes chords of profound hope in the midst of haunting, horrible memories.
Williams is radiant in the film, and it’s too bad that the large audiences who were impressed with her work in Brokeback Mountain missed out on this sensitive, memorable performance. Wenders sculpted Lana’s character specifically for Williams. “She had that beauty and simplicity … that inner light that a character like this would have to have.”
Wenders wanted Williams help in bringing a fresh vision of vital Christianity to the screen. “I was so appalled, when we made the film in 2003, at how Christian ideas has been sort of hijacked and turned into their very opposite. But I figured that compassion had all of a sudden left politics, and social conscience had left politics, and it was all talk, and the talk was mainly lying. Everything I subscribe to as a Christian had been strangely perverted. So I thought if ever I was going to create a character who was a Christian, she would live it and not talk about it or make a big deal about it. She would have a sort of childlike trust and belief. She was just going to live.”
And in the end, Lana’s childlike faith makes a difference in more lives than her own.
Wenders hopes his beliefs never come across in a heavy-handed fashion, hitting audiences over the head. He explains, “It’s the nature of Christianity that it needs to work through conviction, and because of the way you approach it, and not by trying to become a missionary through your work.”
Lana’s faith, he says, would not be effective if she was “preaching” to others in the film. “Her faith works strictly through the way she is acting.”
VIEWS FROM DIFFERING VANTAGE POINTS
Wenders was born in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1945, and earned attention internationally for the films he made there. Among his many notable early projects, he adapted two novels: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1973); and Patricia Highsmith’s novel Ripley’s Game, which became a film called called The American Friend (1977) and starred a young Dennis Hopper.
He went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1994 for Paris, Texas, which starred Harry Dean Stanton. These stories take place on the borderlands between territories, between men and women, between worldviews, and between generations. And because he is a Christian himself, Wenders finds glimmers of hope, reconciliation, and redemption in even the darkest places.
Until the End of the World (1991), his sprawling science-fiction love story, demonstrated that even the most promising technology can, in the hands of evil men, be twisted into unhealthy tools for self-indulgence. William Hurt’s understated performance contrasts nicely with Solveig Dommartin’s reckless energy. But it’s Sam Neil’s patient virtue and his thoughtful narration that provide an anchor for this meandering road movie about the future, the threat of nuclear apocalypse, and what happens when we become obsessed with our own dreams. (This film also featured the debut of U2’s famous song of the same title, and produced what many consider the finest various-artists rock soundtrack ever compiled.)
In Faraway, So Close!, 1993’s sequel to Wings of Desire, Damiel’s former angelic colleague, Cassiel (Otto Sander), “takes the plunge” and becomes a human being. But unlike Damiel, who finds the journey exhilarating, Cassiel falls in with gun runners, despairs of his own sinful nature and asks, in the words of a Lou Reed song at the heart of the film, “Why can’t I be good? Why can’t I act like a man?”
The End of Violence (1997) follows the fall of a narrow-minded moviemaker (Bill Pullman) from his Hollywood success — and excess — into encounters that change his perspective and give him a sense of what life is about. (Singer-songwriter Sam Phillips, another artist who has spent her career exploring the fringe territories of faith, makes a surprise appearance here.)
Mel Gibson plays a troubled policeman who wanders into bizarre society of misfits in The Million Dollar Hotel (2000), where a suicidal young man (Jeremy Davies) falls in love with a mischievous girl (Milla Jovovich) and learns that even lives of hardship are full of available grace and wonder.
In Wenders’ documentaries like Buena Vista Social Club (1999), his enthusiasm for music is contagious, and we come to learn how courage and love can produce beauty in the midst of hardship. In a sense, Wenders is a Cameron Crowe for fans of art movies — every film is propelled by its own mix-tape soundtrack, music that reflects his passion for great songwriting.
Each of these stories offers its own insights and haunting questions, but Wenders’ work requires a vigilant audience. Sometimes, his meandering journeys lead to profundity (Paris, Texas), and sometimes they remain a sequence of odd and interesting episodes (The End of Violence). His films can seem slow moving and discomfortingly quiet for viewers accustomed to action movies and slick Hollywood productions. That’s because the “action” in a Wenders film is mysterious and sometimes quite subjective. They aren’t for people who want things explained to them — they’re for viewers who know the rewards of getting involved in the film, considering a character’s relationship with others, the landscape, history, and faith.
“The blockbusters are at the end of the spectrum where what you see is what you get,” Wenders explains. “There is no other meaning than what they show you, and there’s no other message than what they tell you. … And sometimes you come out and you’ve forgotten what it was all about, because it is an aim in itself. It wants to take you by storm and that’s enough.”
He focuses his energies on making, and appreciating, a different kind of film. “People… and critics as well… have, in a big way, forgotten that there is another way of receiving a movie, one that asks you actively to be a part of it. The blockbusters don’t want you to be part of it. They just serve it to you on a plate and then you eat it and that’s it.” But art films, he says, work differently. “They’re telling you, ‘Here, this is just a suggestion, and if you come in, and if you let yourself be drawn into it, it’ll be the greatest dream you ever had.’ The blockbusters don’t let us dream — they make us dream.”
What’s his idea of a film that lets us dream? He recommends Terrence Malick’s recent masterpiece, The New World, which was sorely overlooked and misunderstood. “The New World made me dream like no other film. … I said to Scott [Derrickson], ‘The last time I saw a movie of these proportions was more than thirty years ago, and that was 2001: A Space Odyssey.’ I sat through the film with my mouth and my eyes wide open… amazed that the film would actually put me in a position to dream it up myself, so to speak. … I think eventually the film will go down as a classic, and we’ll remember 2005 as the year that The New World was overlooked, and we will not even know any more which movies got the Oscars.”
He explains that watching films like Malick’s and his own requires a different kind of attention, a vigilance and a participation, that blockbusters do not require. “You really have to add something on your own. It’s like when you read a book and you have to read between the lines. You have to fill the space. In The New World, you have to dream yourself into it — and then, all of a sudden, it is the richest film in the world, because it uses your own imagination, your own fantasy, your own dreams to make it complete. And then it is so complete, that you come out and say you’ve never ever experienced that in any movie.”
To describe the experience of “dreaming your way in” to a Wenders film, I turned to the filmmaker’s friend and colleague, Scott Derrickson. He responds:
“Chesterton wrote, ‘Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.’ There is a kind of ‘severe lightness’ in Wim Wender’s work — he manages to portray human angst and alienation without succumbing to morbidity or fashionable despair. His films are serious portrayals of human longing, and those films avoid the common movie extremes of brooding cynicism on one side, and facile sentimentalism on the other. He has always made films that capture the ineffable — films that allow viewers to experience the transcendent mystery of modern times and places. He has done this without resorting so much to the written word, but to images themselves. He understands what separates cinema from the other art forms, and he gives his audience experiences that cannot be found in any other medium.”
What would he recommend to viewers approaching a Wenders film for the first time? Derrickson says:
“My first recommendation would be to simply recognize that unlike Hollywood films, Wenders’ films assume that you will bring your own thoughts and feelings to the moviegoing experience. He won’t tell you what to feel, so when you watch his films, you have to think about what YOU are seeing, what YOU are hearing, and what YOU are feeling — in short, you have to interact with the film. Hollywood movies manipulate your emotions, but his films never do. I would also pay attention to Wenders’ great muse, which is ‘a sense of place.’ He understood that human longing drives us to travel — to move beyond our houses, into our own cities, and often across our countries and out into the world. He is more sensitive to ‘place’ than any filmmaker I know, and you must always pay attention to his locations and landscapes; try to see how his visual space ties in to his characters and stories.”
In that sense, Wenders’ latest release — Don’t Come Knocking — is a perfect summation of his strengths. The silences are as important as the conversations. The landscapes are as important as the characters in the foreground. They all contribute to questions that the viewer is encouraged to consider.
Wim Wenders had made his cowboy movie, and it’s the antithesis of the classic Western. How often have we seen the all-American cowboy win the heart of the girl, outwit and outgun the bad guys, and then, when the woman begs him to stay home on the ranch, he rides off with a tip of his hat, bound to wandering and seeking adventure? In Wenders’ perspective, that is a distinctly American impulse… and it lies at the root both of the new worlds we’ve conquered and the fulfillment we’ve never attained. He starts at the other end of the story, when the wanderer decides to turn back. (It’s a wonder Wenders didn’t cue up that great U2/Johnny Cash song.)
During his venture back to Butte, Howard the runaway actor stops in to see his mother (Eva Marie Saint). She welcomes him like a prodigal son, and only mentions the fact that his father had died. The fact that they say so little about this suggests that Howard’s father was not a significant, substantial influence or presence in his life. Perhaps Howard’s tendency to run from life and responsibility started with that example. In the meantime, his mother keeps his room just as it was when he was a kid, and you can see the signs of his dreams there. But there’s the sense now that the dream betrayed him, that he missed what he really needed.
Like father like son — Howard discovers that he has a boy named Earl (Mann) from that former fling in Butte. Earl’s on a rather reckless and drug-rattled ride, chasing his rock star dream. His girlfriend Amber (Balk) truly loves him, but she’s paying the price for it. It’s likely Earl will leave her in his dust, the way Dad left Mom.
And Dad sees this. The prodigal father has come home to see himself in the mirror, reflected in the image of his son. This only deepens his regret. The rejection of his former flame (Lange, in a delightfully spirited performance) doesn’t help, despite his appeal for reconciliation.
Is there any hope for Howard? Can he quit dreaming, quit thinking he can save the day, and admit that his actions have led to catastrophe? Howard wants to fix things, but like that Sam Phillips song says, he’s trying to fix them with “broken hands.” Redemption will have to come from somewhere else, and in the end, he may not get what he wants, but he might find what he needs.
THE PRODIGAL FATHER
Extraordinary moments are almost common in Wenders’ films, but they don’t come through special effects. Wenders gazes unflinchingly at the world in all of its beauty and ugliness. His human characters are never towering heroes. They are broken people, racked with and ravaged by sin. But occasionally, when they humble themselves, grace moves through them.
Sometimes, these visions are discomfortingly bleak. In fact, the reviewer at the prominent Christian film film review site Movieguide was so troubled by Howard’s journey through temptation, failure, and foolishness, that he rated Don’t Come Knocking as “abhorrent,” “boring,” and “trash.”
But that response reveals more about the reviewer than it does about the film. Wenders’ spiritual investigations lead him to observe and consider some severely misguided characters. So yes, there is a lot of “trash” to be seen along the way. But in Matthew 6:22-23, Christ says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” This verse, quoted prominently in Faraway, So Close, indicates that those who go seeking offense will find it, but those who seek meaning and beauty will find it. Some may steer clear of Don’t Come Knocking for personal reasons, but it’s ridiculous to condemn a film about the value of family and the rewards of responsibility just because the film reveals the unpleasant consequences of running from both.
There aren’t any Christian characters around in Don’t Come Knocking, as there were in last year’s Land of Plenty, to bring up Jesus’ name; nor are there visible angels as in Wings of Desire commenting on the work of the Holy Spirit. But we can see evidence of the spirit prodding those wayward souls toward redemption. The story reflects Christ’s own parables, where a gentle soul might help someone wounded, or the wages of sin might catch up with a fool.
Wenders calls this contemporary parable a “prodigal father” story. It’s a tale prevalent in movies today, as generations growing up fatherless are searching to fill that void, and as men who have run from family and responsibility begin to yearn for what they’ve missed. You can feel that ache in a wave of recent films: Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Hirozaki Koreeda’s Nobody Knows, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Return, and Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers.
And yet, the film is charged with personal passion. Sam Shepard has, in interviews, admitted that this story he’s written with Wenders reflects his own troubled relationship with his father. But Wenders hears echoes of his own past in the story as well.
“[My father] was a great father. I loved him very much. He was always there for me. And then … we sort of had a falling out when I was 16, 17, and 18 years old. We actually didn’t speak for a number of years. And then we slowly talked to each other again and became very good friends. … I spent his last six months with him on a day-to-day basis.”
The reconciliation clearly meant a great deal to the filmmaker, especially in view of the lack he has seen in others’ lives. “When I grew up I only had one friend who didn’t have a father — and that was always horrifying me. I had so much pity for the guy. … [The] fact that he didn’t have a father, and didn’t even know his father, was inconceivable for me.
“And then eventually it was as if this friend multiplied — I knew more and more people who grew up without a father. The absent father became a regular cultural and social phenomenon. … It almost seemed during the ‘90s that there were more people without a father than people with a father.”
Due to that precious relationship with his father, and to the “incredible lack” he would have felt without it, he says, “I was attracted to telling the story of that absence.”
But, of course, he tells it from different perspectives: “From the beginning I wanted to tell the story from both sides — the guy who missed being with his kids, and who missed being there for them and receiving their love and giving his love; and … from the perspective of these young adults who have this guy waltz in and say, ‘Hi, I’m your father,’ and how they feel about it.”
He was surprised at the correlation of this film with Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers. “I think it’s in the air. I think it shows how much it’s really relevant, exactly. Jim Jarmusch is one of my best friends. We are not in any way competitive. And the fact that Jim, unbeknownst to me, made a film about the same subject made it clear for both of us that we had hit on something that what of grave contemporary concern.”
A LIFE STORY
The polarized perspectives in films like Wings of Desire and Land of Plenty could represent Wenders’ personal history, growing up in a divided Germany, and struggling on the border between faith and doubt. (His Catholic upbringing, departure from the church, and return to faith are recounted in Image journal, in an interview performed by Derrickson.)
Wenders was not a social person when he was young, and he started his artistic journey intentionally seeking “a pretty lonesome life.” But when he discovered the excitement of composing images on film instead of a canvas, he was drawn into a world in which collaboration was essential. “I think that through the movies, and the work that I’m doing, I became somebody else. You’ll see a lot of traces of these characters in my films: Slowly they come to terms with the world, and they have encounters, and they are longing to belong to a different context, both physically and spiritually. I think as I look back at my movies, that is the story of my life right there.”
Don’t Come Knocking, like all of Wenders’ films, is a journey off the beaten path. It can take you to a view out over the rugged land of human behavior, where you can see both the damage of our choices and the work of grace. It takes dedication and hard work to reach views like that, but after a while, you learn that the journey is worth it, and it yields rewards that cannot be enjoyed any other way.