Film Interview: Director Wim Wenders Talks About Reinventing Filmmaking

By Peter Keough

Director Wim Wenders discusses two new films about art and toilets.

Director Wim Wenders — two fresh samples of the unique sensibility of one of the greatest living filmmakers. Photo: A. Frame

As prolific and indefatigable as the subject of his new documentary Anselm, 78-year-old Wim Wenders has in the past year released not just that 3D epic but another lyrical masterpiece, Perfect Days, the limpid tale of a Tokyo toilet cleaner. Between the monumental vision of the artist Anselm Kiefer and the Zen-like, quotidian humanism of the fictional Japanese custodian of the latter film lies the unique sensibility of one of the greatest living filmmakers.

I had the privilege of interviewing Wenders via Zoom while he was in New York promoting both movies. Our conversation ranged from his enthusiasm for 3D since his first use of it in Pina in 2011, to his renewed zest for the freewheeling filmmaking he engaged in five decades ago, from his ongoing acceptance of his German identity to his recovery from recent ophthalmological surgery.

Anselm opens January 6 at the Kendall Square Cinema. Perfect Days opens February 7 at the AMC Boston Common 19.

Arts Fuse: I heard you were having problems with your eye.

Wim Wenders: Yes. It’s just been operated on. I had a cataract operation 30 years ago. A month ago in the middle of traffic my eye dropped out, the artificial lens dropped into the bottom of the eye. I just had a blank screen on one eye. It had to be taken out, and a new one had to be put in..

AF: You had a chance to join the tradition of great one-eyed filmmakers such as Fritz Lang and John Huston.

WW: Some of the great ones had one eye. I had an eye patch and looked like them for a short moment of one-eyed glory.

AF: But then you probably wouldn’t be able to see in 3D. What do we gain from watching Anselm in that format?

WW: From my own experience of producing it and editing it in 3D, but also after putting great care in producing the 2D version and having seen both with audiences, I know that the 2D version is much more like a movie. You see the structure. You take away a lot about the man’s history, the man’s work. But it’s a film. And if you see it in 3D it is more than a film — it’s an experience. Some people just like one experience better than the other. Some people I know feel overwhelmed by 3D. Myself, I like it a lot. Seeing the work of Anselm Kiefer and these landscapes in 3D I find more satisfying as an experience, but as a film you’re well off if you see it in 2D.

The eponymous artist in action in a scene from the documentary Anselm. Photo: Everett Collection

AF: Have there been changes in the process since you first used it in Pina?

WW: I’ve been quite busy in 3D. Anselm was my 10th effort but only the third feature film. I’ve made a number of shorter films and installations in 3D. All I can remember from Pina was that I was so happy to lay my hands on a way to have space as a tool. I took 3D mainly as a tool to allow me to explore space, and dancing is a spatial expression.

But the technology was prehistoric. The equipment was all prototype and partially self-made by my 3D professor [Alain Derobe], with whom I made this film and who had already worked on 3D for 20 years. He had never made a film with it but he had developed the technology and he was very knowledgeable about the physiology of seeing. He was obsessed with the idea of doing in 3D films exactly what two eyes are doing when you are watching something. So I had a very good teacher. In the end Pina was the only film that Alain Derobe made in his life because he died two years later, but he was happy that he actually had one film to his credit as a stereographer.

The equipment was very heavy. One person could not carry the 3D rig. So in order to move onto the stage with the dancers it was on a giant dinosaur of a crane that could move in and out and telescope. We filled one half of the auditorium with the crane and we had to actually choreograph the crane’s movements to follow the dancers.

12 years later with Anselm my DOP could dance with the equipment. He could handhold it because it was not heavy. It was basically just the lens and the capturing system and everything else was carried by somebody else. He could handhold it next to Anselm and, like in any good old documentary shoot, the cameraman became invisible. And because Anselm and Franz [Lustig] my DOP got along very well — they are both from the South of Germany and speak with the same heavy duty accent — they became good friends. Franz could shoot like a fly on the wall while I was in a dark room watching my 3D screen. And that would have been completely unthinkable with Pina.

AF: Even without the 3D I found the artwork immersive and on a gigantic scale that dwarfs the human figure. Also it mixes a tactile realism with a dreamlike quality. Are these the traits that attracted you to Kiefer’s work in the first place?

WW: Some of Kiefer’s work is big not just to be big, but because of what he is representing — the universe and mythical stories. Some of it has a poetic quality and he’s incorporated a lot of poetry into his paintings — some handwritten on it. I feel that 3D is a language that has access to texture, has access to time. Anselm’s work is very often time-based: he manages to really incorporate time into his work. So 3D had the capacity to enter into this dimension. And 3D also in my book has a poetic dimension and especially with nature scenes is able to capture something that film as such sometimes cannot do. It has a quality that hasn’t been tapped in movies so far. 3D gave me access to his work, that sort of detail, and that sort of texture. Not just the space but also the presence and the way you immerse yourself in his work. Sometimes you need the extra dimension — you need to see how tall the painter is as opposed to the painting to understand it.

AF: The two of you were born in the same year and had similar experiences growing up. Do you feel a kinship with Kiefer? Do you feel like he is a kind of alter ego?

WW: We do have a very similar upbringing. Just the fact that we were born in this country that no longer existed. And when we grew up pretended to invent a future on the condition that it had no past. As a child you feel that. You can’t put your finger on it but it’s in your genes and soon you realize that there is a lie here. And only later when you get older do you understand better and better what’s happening, and you understand the betrayal around you. And you understand the necessity to uncover this past that has been stashed away.

I did have a different reaction to it when I grew up, I must say. In talking with Anselm and also in making this film it came back to me in a big way that I was so scared of this hidden history and I was so repulsed by it the more I understood it. My own reaction was that I just wanted out. And that’s what I did with my work — I went out to the world. I shot in America, Australia, and Japan. I left Germany behind only to accept that history and come back much later in my work with Wings of Desire (1987). It was my way of facing the German past.

But Anselm did the opposite. He never left. From a very early age as a young painter he already pointed his finger at and actively worked against this cultural forgetting. And poked deep into the wounds that were also his own wounds because children born in those surroundings are wounded and you only found out later. I very much respect him for digging so deep. Sometimes at great expense and sometimes at the cost of being misunderstood and being bashed.

AF: He finally did leave in 1991 after his German critics attacked his Berlin show.

WW: Well, you know he just had a triumphant tour of America, he was in Chicago at the Art Institute, in LA at the LACMA, he was at MOMA, and to American critics he was the greatest painter alive. And when he comes to his own country and has his first really big show and people just totally do not get it. He was appalled because he was bashed and insulted and misunderstood and he just couldn’t believe what was happening to him and as a result — maybe there are other reasons, what do I know — he left Germany and started to live in France.

AF: He kind of built his own world in Barjac. The surreal realm we see in the movie.

WW: That’s what started the film. He called me in 2019 and he said Wim, you have never seen Barjac. You should come some day, because we had been friends for around 30 years already and I had seen his studios and I had seen his work all over the place but I had never been to Barjac. So he invited me in 2019 and he left me all on my own and I walked around for a full day just with a map in my hand to discover it on my own and I was so entranced and so impressed that at the end of the day I said okay, let’s do it now. And we started it a few months later.

A scene from Perfect Days.

AF: Do you mind if we talk a bit about Perfect Days?

WW: Yes. Gladly.

AF: It was a quicker turnaround than Anselm. Can you describe how it came about?

WW: In 2022 I was already involved for more than two years on Anselm and had shot the bulk of it. Early that year I got a letter from Tokyo with an open invitation to come and look at something. That they wanted me to see if it would inspire me. It involved 15 architects who normally built skyscrapers and stadiums, banks and museums, and all 15 had built something tiny — toilets. And I was interested. I was happy to get the invitation because I was going to take a break from editing Anselm. So in May I said I can come to Tokyo and look at this and see if it is down my alley.

I went and saw these toilets and really liked them. They were at beautiful locations in an area where I had already shot. I didn’t feel like doing a documentary feature about the architects and their creations, these little toilets, as beautiful as they were. I felt while I was in Tokyo there was a bigger story to tell. And I honestly told them — even though I thought I probably talked myself out of a job — I said, there is a story to be told here about Tokyo and the sense of the common good and about social responsibility.

This was the end of the longest lockdown in history in Japan. Tokyo was the city with the longest lockdown. They were locked away forever. The Olympics that should have taken place in Tokyo in 2020 took place in 2021, and even that was in a lockdown. But the Japanese were very patient and when I was there to look at these toilets it was just when they had come back. And I was so moved by the civilized and orderly way they took possession of the city again. They had parties in public places and in parks. But afterwards they picked up every cigarette butt. It was immaculate. And in my own city of Berlin after the lockdown the little park near where I live was basically destroyed. It was a huge garbage heap after two weeks of partying and nobody cared to clean it up.

I felt a big victim of the pandemic was the sense of the common good and of social awareness. So seeing that happen in such a different way in Tokyo, in such an endearing way, I suggested that I do a film that would be about a man who takes care of them. Because I did meet in my one week there the crew who was cleaning these toilets. I liked these men and I liked these public workers.

When I suggested this they were amazed and said, can you do it in such a short time? You need a script, you need actors. I said, we can handle all this. I described my ideal actor for it and the next day they called Kôji Yakusho because I said I dreamt of working with him. They called him and he said if Wim is going to do this movie — I mean we never met — unconditionally I’m in it.

So we had an actor and all I had to do was write a script. The man who invited me in the first place [Takuma Takasaki], he was a writer and a poet and he knew I loved Tokyo and loved architecture — that’s why he had the idea to invite me. So I took him with me and we wrote the script in Berlin in three weeks. I came back in October and we shot the damn movie in 16 days. Which, believe me, is very, very fast. Nobody interfered. They left me completely free to do it.

We shot at lightning speed and it was very spontaneous. No thinking twice. We almost shot it like a documentary because Kôji Yakusho became the character. We gave up rehearsing after a while and just shot because he knew exactly what the life of this man was and how he worked. And that’s how you do a documentary. It was a documentary about a fictitious character.

A scene from 1976’s Kings of the Road.

AF: It reminded me of your earlier films like Alice in the Cities (1974) and Kings of the Road (1976). Did you find yourself returning to that sensibility when you were making it?

WW: Absolutely, Peter. It did feel like I could reinvent filmmaking. I could do it with the same innocence as I did with Alice in the Cities. I could basically shoot for a few days in chronological order. It felt very organic and I love shooting fast because I don’t like shooting for two minutes every day and the actor sits in his trailer for an entire day and doesn’t do anything. After the very last shot when Kôji did the Nina Simone song in his car and we wrapped and we were all happy he said, “Wim is it true you had a trailer for me the entire time?” I said, “Yes, it’s true, it’s around the corner.” He said, “I’ve never seen it.” And he laughed.

AF: This looks like it might be your biggest feature hit since Wings of Desire. Are you surprised?

WW: I felt so good about doing it and I loved working with Kôji Yakusho so much that I’m not surprised he’s connecting with an audience.

Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts