One sure way to confound Hollywood execs: make a film that mixes Christian characters with liberal politics. At least, that's what the recent plight of would suggest. Widely regarded as one of the world's most important filmmakers, Wenders spent over a year seeking U.S. distribution for The Land of Plenty, a film about a liberal missionary girl reunited with her paranoid, right-wing uncle. Though the film reached theater screens around the world, it was never picked up domestically, despite the popularity of films like .
Wenders was raised Catholic, and his early films are road movies and stories of characters in search of something, reflections of his own spiritual quest. In the early '90s, he found what he was looking for, returning to Christian faith. Wenders is perhaps most familiar to U.S. audiences for , his masterpiece about trench-coated angels who dwell unseen among the inhabitants of Berlin, as well as his Oscar-nominated Cuban music documentary .
In the summer of 2003, Wenders was preparing to shoot , a movie he co-wrote over three years with his collaborator (who is also a Pulitzer-winning playwright). When the financing fell through at the last minute, postponing the shoot until 2004, Wenders took a second look at his "Axis of Weasels" t-shirt, and realized he was meant to make a movie in the interim about what he calls the "climate of paranoia and fear" in America following 9/11. The Land of Plenty was shot on digital video, in just 16 days, on a budget barely worthy of the word "shoestring." U.S. audiences will finally be able to see the film—on DVD—this June, some three months after Don't Come Knocking's release a month ago, on March 17.
America had a huge influence on me. I learned my craft from the classic American cinema…
Wenders recently corresponded with me via email from his native Berlin.
GODSPY: Your most recent films, including The Land of Plenty and the upcoming Don't Come Knocking, are English-language films, set in America, which are also to some extent thematically about America. Why are you, as a German, interested in making films about and for America?
Wim Wenders: I have lived in America for a long time already. It's not by exile; it's my free choice. The United States is my country of residence. As a German and a European filmmaker, and as somebody who constantly travels around the world, I have a different perspective of the country than people living here all the time. I'm not an American, but I love America, its culture, and its ideas. As a boy growing up in post-war Germany, I sucked up everything "American," starting with books and comic strips, and then continuing with movies, and then finally with music and art. So America had a huge influence on me. As a film director, I learned my craft from the classic American cinema: Howard Hawks, John Ford, Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller. Yet, looking at the U.S. today, even if I'm very familiar with its every day life, I still have the point of view of a visitor, or a stranger, which can be a privilege. Right now, for example, I'm utterly concerned about the path America is taking, into a self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world. Americans still tend to believe they are living in the center of the world. The truth is that a huge part of the country has become totally provincial, without information
and knowledge of the rest of the world.
You have said that your interest in making The Land of Plenty was in the Lana character, and that the Paul character didn't become real for you until later. What was your inspiration for Lana? How did the Paul
character develop from how he was originally conceived to what ended up on screen?
Lana is a young American woman who has lived the last ten years abroad, in Europe, Africa and Palestine, as the daughter of a missionary. Now that she is 21, she wants to start her own life and returns to her home country. As she lived in remote foreign places, she has learned to see America from outside, and she is quite shocked when she returns. Los Angeles, for instance, is not the capital of glamour, as she expected. She learns that this is the "Hunger Capital of America" instead. In Downtown LA, where she arrives, she enters the Third World again that she just left behind.
I travel a lot, and it is amazing how much the image of America has changed over the last few years.
I imagined her as a highly curious, intelligent and liberal woman, with a burning heart and true Christian convictions. I know young people like Lana. They are positive and passionate, and they still believe that it is up to them to take their lives into their hands. They are not afraid of considering change. Actually, they see clearly that the world NEEDS to be changed. Her uncle Paul, her only living relative in America, whom she finally tracks down, is the very opposite. "Change" for him is already a dangerous word. He wants to preserve everything as it is. His religion is "America," and he wants to protect it with all he has. As a Vietnam veteran, all his old wounds and traumas have come back after 9/11, and he becomes some sort of a self-employed home security officer. Lana recognizes his paranoia and his pain, but she accepts him as he is, and it is her gentleness and love that in the end save him. When I wrote the first draft of the story, I wrote it just for Lana, but then I realized that her point of view alone would give me a very limited vision of America as a whole, so I came up with the character of her uncle. There couldn't be two people more different. But Paul was more of a construct, and not as much alive in my mind as his niece. It was sheer luck, then, that I found a co-writer for the script in Michael Meredith. It turned out that Michael knew a lot about somebody like Paul. His own uncle with whom he had grown up for some time, was a Vietnam veteran who had suffered from Agent Orange. So Michael could fill Paul with as much experience and life as I was able to invest in Lana. And during the shoot, largely due to the immense effort of John Diehl, who played Paul, I slowly learned to like Paul, even love him, and see how much he was trying to be good and do his best. I understood how much Paul was a victim. He was exploited when he was sent to the war as a young man; he was doubly deceived when he returned home and had to realize he was not welcome. And then the post-9/11-politics really woke up all his paranoid propensities.
In the U.S. media, there is a stereotype of Christians as these kind of cold, judgmental, right wing zealots. Lana is somewhat of an unexpected character, in that she doesn't at all fit that stereotype. Was it your intention to contradict that stereotype, to show a side of Christianity we aren't used to seeing?
The most urgent reason for me to want to make this movie was that I felt my religion was somehow hi-jacked. All of a sudden, "Christian" meant right-wing, conservative, even fundamentalist. A total perversion of all Christian values had taken place. For instance: The one thing Christ repeated more often than anything else, time after time after time, was his solidarity with the poor and underprivileged. In today's America, the rich get richer. Politics, budgets and laws are not in favor of the poor. On the contrary, poverty is constantly ridiculed, overlooked, downplayed. That's not Christian, at least not in my book. Starting a "preventive war" (unheard of in the history of America) cannot be Christian, either, and nothing in the New Testament, not one word, justifies it. But even worse, bluntly and deliberately lying to the American people about the very reason to start such an ugly war, that is definitely not Christian! You see, I had to show another idea of Christianity, and I did so in Lana. She's not Mother Teresa, she's neither a saint nor an angel, she has no "power" whatsoever, but in her life, her faith and her actions coincide. That's what I reproach to the "Christians" governing the country. They use the words, but their actions speak the opposite, and much louder.
You've said that many young people in Europe today see America as the enemy, and that you made The Land of Plenty for them, to help them to understand America. What is it about America that you wanted to help them understand?
If today, as it is my conviction, American values and ideas are perverted and turned into their opposites, that doesn't mean that these very ideas are wrong. America is built on principles and ideas that I still cherish, and that the world needs more desperately than ever. What the world doesn't need are the fake substitutes. You cannot export freedom and democracy into the world, if at the same time you reduce these at home. That's absurd. America can be so generous and compassionate, and as a German, I witnessed that. But right now, it rather shows its greedy and self-centered side to the world. I travel a lot, and it is amazing how much the image of America has changed over the last few years. For the majority of young people out there, in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, in South America, "America" has indeed become some sort of an "enemy". For me that is utterly painful. I love America. And with Land of Plenty I wanted to encourage people to differentiate. To see a different side of America, and also to understand why somebody like Paul has become who he has become.
For an artist, to avoid spirituality would be like avoiding the very essence of what you do.
You've also said that Paul and Lana represent different aspects of the American soul. So, from an American point of view, could the film be seen as an appeal for understanding between the Pauls and Lanas in this country?
Absolutely. There is such a painful gap going right through the country. The Lanas and Pauls are not communicating. There's a lot of hate and plenty of lies. The right wing agenda is full of it. They have even usurped the Christian faith and turned it into some sort of intolerant machine. Martin Luther King, if he were still living, could have made that more apparent than anybody else. His words still ring true: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that." There's a lot of darkness today that prevents people from even trying to understand each other.
Your films frequently acknowledge the spiritual dimension of life, whether very directly and overtly, as in Wings of Desire, , or in a more indirect way, in or in The Land of Plenty. Do you think it is natural for artists to address spirituality? Or, to put it another way, is there a relationship between spirituality and art?
Sure. Art—and cinema as well—have tried to explain the world, ever since their beginnings. And the world is not just what we see. Movies, in spite of what you might think at first, can very well show the invisible. Actually, a lot of films do that, only they use the scary side of the invisible world. There's multitudes of evil spirits, devils and monsters in the history of cinema. The "good forces" are relatively sparse in comparison. I mean, the most successful series deal with metaphysics, like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Not necessarily in a "spiritual" way, but at least you see the deep craving that people have for the "invisible." For an artist, to avoid spirituality would be like avoiding the very essence of what you do. As an industry, cinema has to be entertaining, more than anything else. As an art, as our common language, as the most popular form of expression, cinema has to address all issues of life, including metaphysics.
How do you think your progression as a filmmaker relates to your own spiritual journey?
My own spiritual journey is recorded, and can be deciphered, in my movies. Filmmakers (like myself) reveal so much of their lives and of their feelings and their convictions, that I feel it would be wrong to also talk about it. All of a sudden, that would become private. And there is that precious line between "personal" and "private" that I want to respect.
The works of many of the great filmmakers—Dreyer, Kieslowski, Bergman, etc.—have dealt with spirituality and religion. We don't see this as often in contemporary film, though. Do you agree, and if so, why do you think that is?
Today's cinema is so much more entertainment-oriented than cinema in the past. People are made to believe that "going to the movies" is synonymous with "having fun." Well, there's nothing wrong with having fun, but unfortunately, for a whole generation other notions of cinema seem to be getting lost in the process. Films can be windows into the world, amazing discoveries of the physical world as well as of the psychological one. Then again, I'm an eternal optimist, so I believe that also those films that deal with religion, metaphysics, morals etc will find their place again in the future. Just because there's a need for that which won't be erased. The "digital cinema" of the future will again include all possible definitions of the seventh art.
As much as I have come to respect (and prefer) the sobriety of Protestantism, I can still easily detect the romantic Catholic boy in myself.
I understand that you were raised Catholic, and at one point had considered becoming a priest. I wouldn't be the first to note that there are a staggering number of filmmakers with Catholic backgrounds—Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Frank Capra, Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Robert Altman, Leo McCarey, David Lynch, Brian DePalma, Andrei Tarkovsky, Lars Von Trier, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Jean Renoir, Francois Truffaut, Werner Herzog, Luis Bunuel, Federico Fellini, Jean Cocteau, Buster Keaton, Vittorio DeSica, Roman Polanski, and on and on. One could see how Catholics might be at home with the old filmmaking axiom "show, don't tell," since their sacraments, iconography, liturgy, etc., emphasize images and actions as signs of an unseen reality. Do you see your own Catholic background as having influenced your work?
Yes, sure. Catholicism is all about mysticism, imagery, imagination. It wouldn't be hard to guess that Bergman is a protestant... As much as I have come to respect (and prefer) the sobriety of Protestantism, I can still easily detect the romantic Catholic boy in myself. Anyway, I don't consider myself belonging to any denomination. As a Christian, I can go to a Catholic service or to a Baptist one. I've come to accept my Catholic "roots" and my Protestant tendencies as part of one and the same faith.
If I understand The End of Violence, you were dealing with how Hollywood movies use violence to exploit Americans' fear of what they don't understand. Similarly, in Land of Plenty, Paul is constantly listening to a conservative talk radio show that exacerbates his fear of liberals and terrorists. How has your understanding of this tactic, this tendency of Hollywood and the media to create "boogeymen," influenced the way you make movies?
I'm not into bogeymen of any sort. I can't even watch a horror film, and I can't watch a cynical film, either. So Hollywood has influenced me only in so far as it increased my eagerness to reinforce the armies of the more friendly spirits. That's why I introduced the guardian angels in Wings of Desire or Lana in Land of Plenty. I'm not into stereotypes. I hate being typecast myself...
On that same note, what do you think about the kinds of movies Hollywood is currently making and the system that makes them?
It's an industry that is running itself into the ground. It is simply not healthy to produce films that get so ridiculously expensive to make. As a consequence, they have to please so many people that in the end they are about nothing any more. The interesting films today, more than ever, are the small ones, the cheap and dirty ones. In these "poor movies" you can still say something. If you have a hundred million dollars, you can DO a lot with it, but you can't SAY anything anymore...
Though Land of Plenty is clearly meant to promote understanding, did you consider that some Americans might not be receptive to this message because their point of view is represented by a man who is borderline delusional? How do you strike a balance between the need to portray your characters as real human beings and the need to portray their flaws or failings? Or, to put it another way, do you ever find it difficult to keep the flaws from obscuring the character's humanity—to keep that character from becoming another "boogeyman"?
Paul is broken. He has been victimized, he has been exploited, he has been outcast. It is not easy to like him in the beginning. But seeing him through Lana's eyes makes you discover a whole different person. One who is trying to be good, after all, to be of service. I can identify much more easily with somebody who suffers than with any of the supermen that most movies present to me. Paul is real. Real people have flaws. Only my guardian angels in Wings of Desire were flawless. But that's why they dreamed of becoming human. Christ, when he walked "among us", preferred the company of whores and crooks to the company of hypocrites. As a filmmaker, I couldn't agree more.
I can identify much more easily with somebody who suffers than with any of the supermen that most movies present to me.
Wings of Desire paints such a beautiful portrait of the invisible, spiritual dimension of life. I'm sure there are many people who saw that movie who said to themselves, "I'd like to believe that." You've said that at the time you made the film, you intended for the spiritual world to be a metaphor for life. But that world is such an attractive one, I can't help but suspect that you fell in love with it a little bit. Was this the case?
Sure. That film, believe it or not, was made without a real script. It was written on a day-to-day basis. But the plan was, vaguely, to dedicate half of the film to my two angels' "angelic life" and the second half to their adventures as new-born people, But I spent my entire schedule and almost all the money on that first half, because it was so endlessly fascinating and attractive. We just couldn't stop exploring their invisibility, their goodness, their capacity to watch people unobserved and to even listen to their thoughts. That was a sheer endless pleasure. So we finally just had one short week left to dedicate to the "human life."
Wings of Desire and Faraway, So Close! portray two angels with very different personalities: Damiel, who longs to experience life through the senses, and Cassiel, the lonely melancholic who is not at all at home in the world. Are you more of a Damiel or more of a Cassiel?
I'm most definitely of the Damiel tribe.
Your latest movie, Don't Come Knocking, was released here on March 17, after its premiere at Sundance. Are you pleased with how the film turned out?
I couldn't be more pleased. I had the greatest cast I could have dreamed off. With Sam Shepard playing the lead himself, I have Jessica Lange play the love of his life, Sarah Polley as his daughter and Gabriel Mann as his son. Then there is Eva Marie Saint as his mother, Tim Roth as a bounty hunter chasing him, Fairuza Balk as a crazy chick and George Kennedy as a Western movie director. Hey, what more can you want?!
Don't Come Knocking reunites you with Sam Shepherd, who you collaborated with some 20 years ago on Paris, Texas. How did this reunion come about?
Paris, Texas was such a great experience and achievement for us both, not just as a result, but also in terms of a writer/director relationship, that we were both weary to repeat that collaboration too quickly. You can easily ruin a glorious memory by trying to redo it or to top it. So we waited for 20 years. A sufficient period of abstinence, we both felt. I had an idea for a film and had written a story that nobody in the whole wide world could write better than Sam Shepard. So I gave him a call. He asked me to come see him right away. Well, we started talking and very soon, there was nothing left of my story, because together we had come up with something even better. We wrote Don't Come Knocking over a period of three years. You might say we tried to stretch the experience. It just felt so good again and so right. Not that it owed anything to Paris, Texas. We didn't want to repeat ourselves.
How do you think this film fits into your overall body of work?
I'm not sure if it's up to me to state that. I'm utterly pleased, that's a fact. When I was asked that question in Cannes, I said spontaneously: "I can't do much better." I guess I still feel like that.