Guest post by Chris Forrester.
As the early days of pandemic-necessitated isolation stretched into weeks and the weeks into months, and as it gradually became clearer and clearer that life as we knew it would never return and whatever semblance of it we could return to remains far out of reach, I found a degree of comfort in the films of the German director Wim Wenders, who in the early days of his career (1970-1991, roughly) became known for his mastery of the road picture.
Perhaps there’s no better movie for the stifling nothingness of isolation than the road movie: a quaint and comforting genre wherein the journey is as much a character as the people who embark on it.
In the films of Wenders, and indeed in any great road movie, that voyage is physical, but also emotional, spiritual, personal. A person embarks on a great journey and in doing so bridges not only the distance between places, but also between themselves and something greater. In the films of Wenders we see that as many things: the space between one person and another (Paris, Texas; Alice in the Cities; The American Friend), this world and the next (Wings of Desire), a bygone era and an uncertain present (Kings of the Road), the desire to understand the world and the ability to render that as art (Pina; The Wrong Move).
And then there is 1991’s Until the End of the World, a perfectly massive and dizzyingly epic vision of the future that marks a sort of culmination to Wenders’ obsession with the road movie. Conceived of as the “ultimate road movie,” it was largely dismissed upon its shortened initial release, but Wenders’ 287-minute director’s cut offers a more definitive version of the same story, wherein the journey is allowed the time to feel epic and the characters are given room to breathe and grow alongside one another.
Set in a vaguely dystopian, futuristic vision of the year 1999, it follows Claire Torneur, a Parisian woman in Venice, as she flees the city in the midst of mass panic over an out-of-control nuclear satellite, meeting an unruly set of criminals and hitchhikers on her trip home. Despite the incidental natures of their meetings, their journeys will be forever entangled.
Key among them is Trevor McPhee (whose real name is later revealed as Sam Farber). On the run from a trenchcoat-clad assassin and government agents the world over, he’s come into possession of a singular device that can let the blind see, and with it he, Claire, and a slew of other key characters embark on a journey that takes them from country to country, continent to continent, and ultimately into the depths of the mind itself.
In that regard, the film becomes something more than just an epic road movie; like the best of Wenders’ prior work (especially his masterful city symphony, Wings of Desire), it is also a portrait of the places to which it takes its characters. And beyond that, maybe, it is a plea for a better world, and a world without boundaries. The end of the world merely provides a chance to start anew.
The first half of the film takes them every which way, from Venice to Paris to Berlin, then to Portugal and Moscow, through China to Tokyo and the Japanese countryside, briefly to San Francisco and ultimately the Australian Outback. That variability of place, particularly in conjunction with its dystopic future setting, provides much visual excitement (lensed by one of the all-time great cinematographers, Robby Müller, it serves a bountiful feast for the eyes), but also thematic and stylistic richness as Wenders studies (sometimes briefly, sometimes intimately) facets of those settings and channels the oeuvres of some regional greats: Godard in the early European settings and Ozu in a short segment in Japan.
As a journey, it is sweeping and epic beyond the wildest of dreams, and a sort of perfect balm for this stifling moment; a freewheeling odyssey of love and desire, about (among other things) the power of stories, the majesty of the cinema, sight as experience and memory, the beguiling intensity of loves lost and found, the desire for reconciliation, the power of compassion in a desolate future where connection seems inessential, and the fleeting intensity of the wildest days of our lives, wherein the characters travel around the globe freely and boundlessly.
The true purpose of Sam’s quest is not revealed until well into the film, realigning its focus and complicating its relationship to previous Wenders films and the other greats he channels: having come into possession of a device that lets the blind see, Sam sets out to use it so that his blind mother can see her family for the first time. Particularly vital is the way that this machine works — it records image, but also experience, presenting to the blind woman not only the sight but the experience of seeing it. Buried in his ultimate road movie is Wenders’ love for the cinema itself.
That echoes, for me, his 1976 masterpiece Kings of the Road, a soothing road film that follows a movie theater technician and a suicidal loner down the East-West German border and surveys the state of the national cinema. But now, some fifteen years later, Wenders has moved past the present state of the cinema to exalt its infinite capacities. And what better place for such a fascination than at the heart of the culmination of the first decades of his career?
Rarely has such a piercing metaphor for the cinema been presented on film, and rarely has it been so stirringly presented. The most thrilling, and indeed the most profound stretches of the film are at its center, as the orbiting nuclear satellite that sets the characters on their paths explodes, destroying the world order as we know it and trapping the characters indoors as their own journey reaches its apex.
It’s here, too, that in the confluence of its two most vital arcs — the impending destruction of a world order already on the brink of collapse and the perfection of this scientific wonder that allows the blind to see — the film becomes a solemn reflection of this (present) moment, its characters trapped inside, away from the expansive beauty of the earth around them, reckoning with the end of a normalcy they can never return to.
And for me, it’s here that the film is at its most emotionally resplendent. In uniting all of his characters to observe the wonder of this gleaming sight-as-memory-as-experience metaphor for the cinema just as they must also approach an uncertain future, Wenders has offered his most stirring idea yet: the cinema as a conduit for shared experience, and as a reminder of the vastness of the world and of human experience, even as it remains locked away and out of sight for the present.
And what’s more, the film then becomes not only about the end of the world, but about moving on. About what we take with us from one world order to rebuild it anew, and to rebuild it better. Of course, the answer he provides is wholly centered on the power and vitality of stories, but its understanding is of stories and culture — written, remembered, sung, painted, filmed — as objective memory and subjective experience. As a conduit for empathy, a vehicle for change, an invitation for the betterment of everything.
It’s no surprise, then, that the film begins with a shot looking down on the decaying Earth and ends with one looking up to it. All that separates them is five hours of resplendent filmmaking, a journey around the globe and into the mind, and a chance for things to start anew.
Wenders’s Kings of the Road and the film To Each His Own Cinema, which featured a segment directed by the filmmaker, were both screened at IU Cinema in February 2020 as part of the series For the Love of ‘The Cinema.’
Chris Forrester worships at the church of Claire Denis (and really wants you to reconsider High Life). Also a devotee of Michael Mann, Dario Argento, Wim Wenders and Andrea Arnold, he’s a journalism undergrad, a film student at heart, and a lover of genre movies.