The Northwest Film Center’s retrospective of the work of German filmmaker Wim Wenders, which runs from Friday, March 5 through Sunday, April 3, is called “Portraits Along the Road.” It’s an apt moniker for a series devoted to a director known for his peripatetic characters and his fascination with character studies and photography as a medium. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Wenders was born in August 1945, barely three months after the surrender of Nazi Germany. Like the other standard bearers of the New German Cinema who emerged in the late 1960s, being a member of the first German generation to have little or no memory of the war shaped his work in significant, not always readily apparent ways.
His characters are more likely than not to be uprooted souls travelling through a world they struggle to make sense of, and the temptation would be to describe them as symbolically running away from the past. Instead, though, it’s more like they’re on a railroad track parallel to history, where it can be contemplated but remains forever out of reach.
Wenders was one leg of a triangle–with Werner Herzog, born 1942, and Rainier Werner Fassbinder, born in May 1945—who played a huge role in revitalizing German film. (Other notables included Margarethe von Trotta and Volker Schlöndorff.) If you ever want to impress someone with your knowledge of New German Cinema, be sure to drop the phrase “Oberhausen Manifesto” into the conversation. It was a 1962 document, signed by 26 German filmmakers, that promised a new style of film “free from all usual conventions by the industry.”
Wenders didn’t sign the Oberhausen Manifesto (neither did Herzog nor Fassbinder), but he did graduate from high school in Oberhausen the year it was signed. Coming from a presumably comfortable background—his father was a surgeon—Wenders may seem an unlikely radical. And in fact his films demonstrate a more detached, ironic perspective than Herzog’s operatic portraits of derangement or Fassbinder’s overheated queer melodramas. But he was a quiet revolutionary in his way.
After studying painting in Amsterdam, he returned to Germany and graduated from the University of Television and Film Munich. His thesis film and first feature, completed in 1970, took its title from the Lovin’ Spoonful hit “Summer in the City.” In the early years of his career, at least, Wenders shared the simultaneous sense of fascination and repulsion towards America that has animated so many European artists of the postwar era.
This is especially evident in “Alice in the Cities,” the 1974 film that’s the best and most significant of the three early Wenders features screening during the retrospective’s first weekend. In its first act, a German journalist named Philip Winter (Rudiger Vogler) has been travelling around the U.S., taking Polaroid photos of its highways, byways, and forgotten souls. He smashes a hotel TV at one point, enraged at the commercial interruptions to classic Hollywood movies, and attends a Chuck Berry concert later on.
The homeward-bound Winter is delayed in New York by an air traffic controller strike, and he strikes up a friendship with a single mother about to return to Germany with her ten-year-old daughter. The mother abandons Alice to Winter’s care, and they spend the rest of the movie meandering around Germany in search of her grandmother.
This familiar set-up—grouchy adult man bonds with precocious young girl–often leads to either quirky sentimentality (“Paper Moon”) or queasy subtext (“Taxi Driver”). But in the hands of Wenders, Vogler, and juvenile actress Yella Rottländer, “Alice in the Cities” is a refreshingly unadorned story of unlikely friendship and a man reconnecting with the world. It also continued fruitful, long-lasting artistic relationships among Wenders, Vogler (who played characters named Philip Winter in several later films), and Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller, whose black-and-white images in “Alice” are a direct antecedent to his work on Jim Jarmusch’s “Strangers in Paradise.”
“Alice” is often cited as Wenders’ first “road movie,” the first in an unofficial trilogy including “The Wrong Move” and “Kings of the Road.” But his second feature, “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick,” also stars Vogler as man on the move. Here he’s a soccer goalie who abruptly shoves a referee during a match and is ejected. He then begins an aimless, amoral journey across Germany, committing an emotionless act of violence at one point that seems to neither haunt nor hinder him. It’s the sort of depiction of existential malaise that a 25-year-old who grew up in a society haunted by unspeakable violence might make, and I mean that in a good way.
“The Wrong Move,” like “Goalie,” is based on the writing of experimental novelist Peter Handke, and it’s the least audience-friendly of these opening three films in the Film Center’s series. Volger again stars, again as a writer wrestling with how to engage with the world, and the people, around him. Travelling from his hometown to Bonn, he assembles around him, without trying, a makeshift crew of eccentrics that includes an aging athlete who competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, the mute young acrobatic woman accompanying him (Natassja Kinski, in her film debut), and the beautiful object of our hero’s desire (Hanna Schygulla).
There’s something Pirandellian about this random, allegorical group, although Handke’s screenplay is actually adapted from Goethe’s “The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister.” Even with very little real narrative to cling to, it remains a compelling experience, though not Wenders’ most memorable.
“Portraits Along the Road” will continue to trace Wenders’ career over the next few weeks, from the peak of his art house popularity in the 1980s and 90s with “Wings of Desire” and “Until the End of the World” (presented in its rarely seen 5-hour director’s cut!) to his Oscar-nominated documentaries: “Buena Vista Social Club,” “Pina,” and 2014’s “Salt of the Earth.” Along the way, there will be opportunities to see rarities including 1977’s “The Left-Handed Woman” (directed by Handke and produced by Wenders), 1982’s “The State of Things” (co-starring Sam Fuller), and 1985’s “Tokyo-ga,” a worshipful meditation on the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu.
The final moments of “Alice in the Cities” were shot from a helicopter, starting out focused on the face of Vogler in the window of a train and then rising into the sky. The opening of “The Wrong Move” is another helicopter shot, traversing the rooftops of a small town before settling on Vogler, again behind glass. He immediately shatters the window he’s looking out of, and soon embarks on his journey. These are the sorts of synchronicities that become apparent when you immerse yourself in the work of a film artist of Wenders’ caliber. There should be plenty more.
(“The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick” screens at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 4; “The Wrong Move” screens at 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 5; “Alice in the Cities” screens at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 6; all at the Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. For a full schedule of “Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road,” visit www.nwfilm.org)