Wim Wenders

Interview & Photography by: Mart Engelen

Wim Wenders, Lisbon, Portugal 2017
 

Wim Wenders, Lisbon, Portugal 2017


 
 

Time for a talk with Wim Wenders, the Award-winning filmmaker, writer and photographer, about life, photography, film, politics, religion and his wife, Donata. He currently has an exhibition at C/O Berlin called Wim Wenders, Instant Stories, which includes a selection of 240 Polaroids from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Polaroids were Wim’s visual notebook, a field of experimentation and a photographic road-movie. Along with those photographs, the exhibition includes excerpts from films in which he used the medium of instant photography as part of the narrative.
 
 

Mart Engelen: How did photography enter your life? When did you first pick up a camera and do something with it?
Wim Wenders: When I was six years old, my father thought his son should have a camera. It had a plastic body and it took roll film. It was like a Rollei; I had trouble looking down onto the viewfinder and keeping the image straight, but I took lots of pictures. Taking pictures became a habit and I felt privileged to have a camera. I slowly moved to more professional ones after the first cheap one. But I never considered myself to be a photographer; photography was just part of my everyday life.
ME: But the medium fascinated you?
WW: (Laughs) I didn’t even know it was a “medium”. I just took lots of pictures. And yes, I loved it.
ME: So you used it as a tool.
WW: Yes. I shot hundreds of films, but I printed practically nothing. I had the contact sheets and that was fine. I did this for the longest time. And even more so when I started making movies. I needed to take pictures as preparation and during a shoot, but still I never thought of myself as a photographer, so I never made prints. It was too much part of my life to think of it as a profession of its own.
ME: So we cannot say that you were inspired to take photographs at that time? Because now, with your beautiful landscapes in your photographs, you must be inspired.
WW: I am, and I was then. But it was a very specific time in my life when photography finally found its own place. In early 1983 I was in Tokyo to shoot a documentary called Tokyo Ga, about my favourite director and master, Yasujiro Ozu. On the last day of shooting, I treated myself to my first mid-sized camera, a second-hand Plaubel 6×7. I bought it strictly because of its great looks and because it was foldable, so you could easily carry it. Until then I had not used ‘professional’ cameras. Sure, I had Leicas and other cameras before, but this was my first mid-size camera. The next day, I went back to America and started to get ready for Paris, Texas. But because the shooting was delayed, I found myself with several months to go. So I travelled on my own throughout the American West, all by myself, zig-zagging through Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. I took hundreds of photos every day as preparation for the film. Not just to look for locations—in the end I photographed practically none of the locations where we actually filmed—but rather to get ready for the light of the American West, and for its unbelievable colours. I wanted to make a movie there without owing anything to the great directors who had shot there—like John Ford, Anthony Mann, Raoul
Walsh. I needed to find my own relationship to that landscape, its horizon, its colours, its light. So I took pictures for three months or so on my own. And then I again ended up with only contact sheets…
ME: You did all the shots with that mid-size camera? WW: Yes. All in colour and all on negative film with my Plaubel. We were going to shoot the movie in colour and wanted to get used to those wild primary colours of the West which you don’t see anywhere else in the world. Two years after the film I was contacted by the Centre Pompidou; they had heard that I had taken all these photographs and were wondering if I could show them any. I said, “I don’t have any prints”. When they insisted on seeing some, I produced about a dozen and sent them to them. They got excited, asked for more and eventually wanted to make an exhibition. And that even lead to a book Written in the West. So that was my beginning as a photographer. I was practically “discovered”, even if I had taken photographs for my entire life.
ME: What is the main difference for you, nowadays, between making a movie and taking photographs? WW: These days, I do either one or the other. I either make a movie or I make a photographic journey. I cannot really combine the two anymore. I have taken so many photos as a photographer since 1983 that by now it has become a second profession. I make many journeys only as a photographer, and the pictures I show in galleries or museums are work that I separate from my film work. I used to take stills myself on my films, as I was always unhappy with the still photographers on the set. Usually, after the second or third day, they lose interest. (Laughs) Until Donata arrived and started to do the still photography, and then I was utterly happy. She takes great photographs which —and this is important— represent the film! Most still photographers want to do pictures of their own and that’s not “still photography” that you can use in the end to represent the film. I don’t need any fancy pictures of my actors and actresses. ME: For their benefit…
WW: Exactly.
ME: I have noticed that your earlier work includes portraits and pictures with people in the shots. What made you move to landscapes and buildings?
WW: I have never been so interested in taking pictures of people. Even as a little boy, I didn’t want to take pictures of my parents or my family on vacation. I thought of photography as a way to discover the world. The last thing I wanted to photograph were people in front of famous places or monuments. I still don’t understand this urge. People stand in front of an attraction and want to have their picture taken as a proof they were there. That’s useless photography.
ME: Now of course we’re in a ridiculous era when people with telephones take millions of useless pictures of themselves. But we must admit that there is also a difference between putting someone in front of the Louvre and taking a serious portrait…
WW: True, but I was just never attracted in taking portraits.
ME: I feel an undertone that even a serious portrait doesn’t interest you at all.
WW: Maybe because my films are mainly about people. Even if the places in which I shoot are very important to me and I look at them like characters, because of the stories they mostly turn into “background”, so to speak. I can never really reward the places in a movie the way I would want to. The characters and the plots always demand more attention. So I can finally pay the places the main respect in my photography …
ME: Which they deserve.
WW: Absolutely. For example, when you see a picture with one person in it, even if it’s only a small figure in the background, all the attention will go to that person. Look at that picture on the wall with the Ferris Wheel. I went there several times, but there were always people. First kids, then a strange cowboy with his herd of sheep. I took pictures when the kids were playing near the wheel, with the result that everybody only looks at the kids. Same with the cowboy. Finally I got the Ferris Wheel on its own, as a monument in time that is only really relevant when nobody is around. Then, the Ferris Wheel can start telling its story, can talk about all the people it saw.
ME: You moved back to Germany after living in the US for quite a while. Why was that?
WW: I moved back to Germany twice. The first time in 1984.
ME: After Paris, Texas?
WW: Yes. I had lived in America since 1978, in NY, San Francisco and LA, and I came back for a very simple reason: I was pissed off with Reaganomics. Seriously. In New York in ’83 and ’84 you saw for the first time a whole wave of homeless people. People who were kicked out of asylums and God-knows-what on to the streets, as the direct effect of Reaganomics. It was appalling that a country as rich as America left all these people to their own devices on the streets. I thought it was immoral. Then I moved back to the States in 1996, with Donata. We moved there because here in Berlin everything was so negative after the first euphoria of unification. The mid-nineties were terrible. People from the East felt exploited, and people from the West felt that they had to pay for everything to rebuild East Germany. Nobody was happy. You couldn’t even take a taxi in Berlin without being confronted with all the misery and unhappiness of the world. We were sick and tired of this lack of perspective. And we felt there was such a positive attitude in America, especially in Los Angeles, where everything you do is great. (Laughs) ME: I was living in New York at the time, during the Clinton years, and indeed there was an incredible positive vibe.
WW: Absolutely. We felt we needed such a positive ambiance. We left Berlin in 1996 and came back again in 2005.
ME: So you stayed after 9/11.
WW: Yes! But we really decided to come back after the beginning of the Iraq war.
ME: So there were always political reasons for you taking such a decision.
WW: The second time even more so. The Germans and French were called “The Axis of Weasels” in the headlines of American newspapers because Schröder and Chirac didn’t want to take part in that dirty war that was founded on lies, as we all know since then. They were very smart not to. I was really pissed off and I thought at the time that America, in those Bush years, was going down the drain. The day they re-elected him, Donata said we have to get out.
ME: What’s actually left of the American dream? WW: The American people! Not all of them, but a lot of them still believe in the ideals of America. And those ideals are not bad at all. I love those ideals, I defend them. I think the ideals of America are still valid, even if they’ve been trampled upon and turned into the opposite.
ME: So how do you look at the world of today? Do you still see some light at the end of the tunnel? Please include Europe in this…
WW: Europe is still a civilised place. Germany is indeed a civilised place, France is, England is. Most of Europe is. But we have also seen rising nationalism and populism in Europe in the last few years. When we came back in 2005 or so, we returned to a very healthy and strong Europe. And now in Europe, too, we have all these people who are longing for “the good old days” to come back. But those good old days were the worst of all times. There were lots of wars in Europe, and nationalism is the worst idea of them all. I guess nationalism even started in Europe. We thought we were over it, we thought we had left it behind, and now it’s coming back. In Germany, you are very much exposed to it, because we are the one country in Europe with more borders than anybody else.
ME: Let’s change the subject, you have made a movie/ documentary with Pope Francis—not about him, as you say—which was first shown during the Cannes film festival.
WW: Yes. The film is now out in the US, Germany, Austria and Switzerland and will come out in other European territories in the fall.
ME: Did the Pope offer you insights you’d never thought of before? And do you consider yourself a religious person?
WW: I believe in God, yes. Which is not necessarily identical with being a religious person. Often religion, or let’s rather say “religious institutions”, can get in the way of faith. Don’t forget that Christ was in straight opposition to the organised church of his time. Pope Francis has an incredibly open mind; much more open than we generally think of for the Catholic church. And this is not “a film for Catholics”. It is being seen by Protestants, too, in fact, by people of all religions, atheists as well. And I have witnessed people with a very critical attitude to the church who were impressed by this man.
ME: More than Catholics?
WW: Most Catholics have been extremely supportive. But what I want to point out is that the film had a wide appeal to people who thought they didn’t really consider Christianity as relevant any more. The film tells them something very different.
ME: In what way do you consider yourself a religious person?
WW: I believe in the God that the New Testament shows us. A loving God who doesn’t make differences between people, and who doesn’t judge us for our religious zeal, but for who we are, and for how we treat others.
ME: Are you Protestant?
WW: I grew up Catholic and became Protestant much later.
ME: When?
WW: In my fifties.
ME: Why?
WW: I had my share of problems with the Catholic church; well, with lots of aspects of the Catholic church. There are still things I like about it, but also things I don’t. There are more things I would like if only this Pope could have his way of transparency, equality and mercy. It’s my guess that he has more enemies inside the Catholic church than anywhere else.
ME: Let’s go back to photography. Should we consider photographers as artists and can photography be art? WW: I have just seen this incredibly beautiful Irving Penn show at C/O Berlin. I saw it when the curator was hanging it and it was maybe the first time in my life that I actually felt proud to be a photographer. And I was proud of Penn, because this is truly tremendous work. And if anybody doubts that photography is an art form, they should just go and see an Irving Penn exhibition.
ME: Being together so long as a couple, but also as artists, do you and Donata influence each other artistically?
WW: We share everything together, and we are each other’s toughest and best critics. And certainly the first ones. Donata is the first one to help me with my contact sheets, but also with my films. She is the only one who is always there, from morning to evening, because she is usually the still photographer on the set. And as such you get to know more than anybody how the actors and the crew feel. Nobody else on the set sees so much first hand. She’s very open, and in the evening she knows more than anybody else about what went wrong or what was good. ME: What is the strength in Donata’s images for you? WW: I think Donata has an incredible eye for people. She has really good intuition to see their condition, get into their minds and share the way they feel. And she knows how to show that and bring that out in her photography. She’s a great psychologist and has a very tender and modest approach to her work. She never directs anybody; instead, she’s very observant. Of course, photographers can be very observant and a pain in the arse at the same time, but Donata manages to be observant in a way that allows people to remain themselves. And she still, in her lovely way, succeeds in being very insistent. And when it comes to printing, she’s a perfectionist.
ME: I remember shooting analogue. You had to wake up at 5 am to catch the early morning light. Today you hear young photographers saying “We’ll go out with the team at nine o’clock and Photoshop that beautiful morning light into the picture”. What do you think about this development in photography? Maybe also in film? WW: (Laughs) I am of the serious conviction that this should not be called photography. We have to find another word for the act of dealing with pictures digitally, and for this whole approach to represent (better ‘reinvent’) the world afterwards from scratch. The art of photography was invented in the early nineteenth century with certain ethics and morals, but we have left them so far behind that we should reconsider a new name for it.
ME: One day you won’t be here anymore. How would you like to be remembered?
WW: Mostly by the people who know me and who I have loved. But as a writer, filmmaker and photographer I have the chance to also be remembered for something I have done. Not necessary for all of it. (Laughs) Then again, I often feel that things from the past can weigh us down and nobody should be burdened by too much of it. And some things just don’t age well, books, paintings, music, architecture, movies and photographs among them. That is one of the reasons we created the Wim Wenders Foundation, so that at least some of the things I created will be well preserved, so they can survive on their own and be seen for what they are.
 
—Copyright 2018 Mart Engelen

 
 

Wim Wenders, Lisbon, Portugal 2017
 

Wim Wenders, Lisbon, Portugal 2017