RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's been a big year for German filmmaker Wim Wenders - a lifetime achievement award at the Berlin International Film Festival, a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the release of his latest Oscar-nominated documentary, "The Salt Of The Earth." This past week marks the opening of "Wim Wenders: Portraits Along The Road," a nationwide traveling retrospective of his films, many of which have been restored after years of being out of circulation. Wenders began his career as a painter, doing watercolors and etchings - mainly landscapes. He told me why he was drawn to art.
WIM WENDERS: My first impressions of beauty was not in life but strictly in paintings because I was born right after the war. My hometown of Dusseldorf was in ruins. But there was a better world and that was all these cheap art prints my parents had on their walls. And there were some old Dutch paintings and French landscapes, Corot most of all. And these cheap prints gave me the idea that there was a different kind of world out there.
MARTIN: As someone who began his artistic life as a painter thinking about moments that are static, what was it like when you first realized that you could be an artist with moving pictures when you started to think about the possibilities of being in a more dynamic media?
WENDERS: I was very much encouraged by American painters who started to use camera - Andy Warhol, Stan Brakhage. These were painters I liked and all of a sudden they're all making movies. And I started to think that cameras were a logical next step for painters to hold onto. So I started to make little, short films but looked at them as painterly things. I didn't think of myself as a filmmaker. I made these movies as a painter.
MARTIN: So these were images that were meant to be absorbed one at a time, but you could string a few together say something different?
WENDERS: Exactly. All of a sudden, I realized filmmaking was something else than painting. And if I'm making - use montages and sounds and dialogue and music and slowly my totally non-narrative films became more and more narrative. Slowly but surely, I turned from a painter to a storyteller.
MARTIN: What kind of stories draw you in? I mean, if you go back and look at the entirety of your filmwork, are the stories that you're telling representative of where you were at in your life at those particular moments? Or do you just like a good yarn?
WENDERS: No, I always subscribe to the idea that storytelling is linked to experience and that you could only competently talk about anything if you had an experience to back it up. You see, I was aware of the stories I was telling when I first showed my films and all these critics started to write about them. And they wrote that this kid from Germany made all these movies about angst, alienation and America.
And I called them my triple-A reviews because they all said I was this guy specializing in alienation and angst and America. These were my themes and they came from my own biography. And alienation was certainly a thing that I knew a lot about, especially as a German kid growing up in postwar Germany under very heavy American cultural influences but still wasn't really at ease with his own upbringing and with his own culture and with his own past. So the big thing in my life was the discovery of America before I ever went there. These critics with their triple-A reviews had it right.
MARTIN: One of your most famous road films is "Paris, Texas," which came out in 1984, filmed in the American West. And you said of the American West that when you were a young filmmaker, it scared you, that part of world. Why?
WENDERS: The scary thing about it was it was difficult to film it because whatever you do, you'd fall into the trap of repeating something that you've already seen - all these Westerns, all these movies made in the American West. They seemed to limit the possibilities that you had of seeing it for yourself. So I swore to myself, when we finally started "Paris, Texas," that I wasn't going to imitate any film I'd ever seen and that I was going to film the West as if nobody had ever been there. And in order to do so, I prepared myself and I traveled for several months all on my own just to photograph the American West, in order to have the liberty see it from scratch and to see those colors in this incredible light that doesn't exist anywhere in the world, to just see it on my own and not be afraid I'd repeating something I know already.
MARTIN: You believe that it is possible to look at something anew, or to genuinely have an authentically new idea.
WENDERS: I do believe that. I think anybody who starts something - a musician, a poet - it's necessary that you believe nobody opened this territory before, even if you're wrong and if later on in hindsight, you realize this was touching on certain other ideas that you had before. There's only a limited amount things you can tell. And if you look at the history of filmmaking, most great filmmakers actually were working on one story for all their lives. I mean, John Ford or Hitchcock, they were telling one big story each time and no variations.
MARTIN: You made a shift in recent years. You shifted towards documentary filmmaking. Many of us will remember - hugely successful - "Buena Vista Social Club," was in 1999, but more recently you've done these artist profiles like "Pina," about the choreographer Pina Bausch and this year's "Salt Of The Earth," which is about a Brazilian photographer named Sebastiao Salgado. Why documentary? What do you get from it that you didn't get from narrative feature films?
WENDERS: Much more independence and freedom. You're not supposed to write a script for a documentary before. And I actually thought I was making a music documentary when I shot "Buena Vista Social Club." We went Havana and we shot there for a month, and I thought that was it. Amazing, these men who had been so truthful to their work and had been so forgotten by the world. And I went home and I started to edit. And four weeks later, Ry Cooder called me and said, hey, believe it or not but our men are actually traveling and they actually gave a concert for the first time in their lives in Amsterdam.
MARTIN: I should just say quickly, Ry Cooder was the producer on the film.
WENDERS: Yes, Ry Cooder was the driving force behind the music recording of "Buena Vista Social Club." So he said, our guys are actually performing. And of course I had to be there, so I called another team together and went to Amsterdam and shot the concert. And these old men were like teenagers. They had stage fright. They had to drink enormous amount of rum in order to be ready to go on stage because it was their first concert together. And again, I went home and said, oh, wow, I have more material than I ever dreamt of and I started to edit. And another month later, I get another phone call - believe it or not, Wim, but our guys will appear in Carnegie Hall.
MARTIN: (Laughter) This story just kept getting better.
WENDERS: It kept getting better and again, we shot more and then I went back and started to edit. And it slowly dawned on me that what I thought was a music documentary was really an unbelievably fairytale that I just happened to witness.
MARTIN: You said earlier that the big directors, ultimately, at the end of the careers, when you look back it's clear that these directors were just telling one big story about their life. So may I put that to you when you look back at your own work? Is there one story you're trying to tell?
WENDERS: There's a film of John Ford called "The Searchers," and sometimes I think that's the main topic of my story - searchers, those people who are searching, trying to define what they live for, trying to find meaning of their lives, trying to find their role in life, looking for love, searching. Searching seems to be the key thing my characters are doing.
MARTIN: Do you do that?
WENDERS: Yep, that's my middle name.
MARTIN: Wim Wenders. His new traveling film retrospective is called "Wim Wenders: Portraits Along The Road." And it opens this week in New York.
Mr. Wenders, thanks so much for talking with us.
WENDERS: Thank you so much for talking to me, Rachel, take good care.
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