Wim Wenders on Salt of the Earth and What Happened to Until the End of the World

Wim Wenders. Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images

This Friday, the IFC Center begins the monthlong series Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road, a career-spanning retrospective of the director’s work. This past March, we spoke to Wenders about his career and what was then his latest release, the documentary The Salt of the Earth. We are republishing that interview now.

In the late 1970s and ‘80s, if you were into serious cinema, you had to be into Wim Wenders. The German director of Paris, TexasAlice in the Cities, and Wings of Desire was the international poster-child for artful ennui and existential despair. But his films were also remarkable for the way they mixed a very continental brooding with a love of pop culture, usually American. That’s what made his films so brilliant, in a way — they were serious, but accessible. As evidenced by his triumphant recent MoMA retrospective, which screened brand-new restorations of his films, Wenders has proven to be a remarkably resilient and adaptable filmmaker over the years. He still makes narrative films, but he is now known as much for documentaries like The Buena Vista Social Club and Pina as he is for his earlier classics. This week sees the release of the Oscar-nominated Salt of the Earth, a documentary about the famous Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, directed in collaboration with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the photographer’s son. As Wenders tells it, the collaboration was not an easy one — taking many years to finally settle on a finished film. In this wide-ranging interview, the director discusses his new film, how filmmaking has changed over the years, his love of new technologies, and what exactly happened with his ambitious, ill-fated 1992 epic Until the End of the World.

Your documentaries have tended to focus on other creative people — from directors like Nick Ray and Ozu, to the Cuban musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club, and now, the legendary photographer Sebastião Salgado in Salt of the Earth. Was it a conscious decision to focus on these types of figures in your nonfiction?
My main impulse to approach a documentary has always been: I liked something so much that I wanted to share it with other people. Pass on a (good and healthy) virus, so to speak. And what I wanted to share most happened to be the work of other artists. Like the films of Ozu, or the music by these amazing old men in Havana, or the work of the Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, or of German choreographer Pina Bausch. In each case, I wanted to find out who the people behind these amazing artistic achievements were. What was driving them? Where did they get the inspiration from, the energy? To make a long answer short: I probably think that the last great adventure left on our planet is the creative process. And no, none of these choices were “conscious decisions.” I’ve made all my documentary work pretty much from the guts, and quite spontaneously.

This is not the first time you’ve taken a shared director credit. How did you come to work together with Juliano?
With Juliano, we decided to work together because we had the vague feeling that we could draw a more complete picture of Sebastião Salgado if we looked at him from our two points of view that were so drastically different: Juliano as the son who wanted to finally get to know his father, and me as a stranger who had declared for years already that this man was his favorite photographer, except that I had never met him. And now was a chance to really find out why his photographs had always touched me so much.

How did that collaboration work?
Juliano and I, we never shot together. We knew what the other one was up to, but we never shared a set. Juliano went to these remote places with his Dad, to New Guinea, or Siberia, or the Amazon, and I shot my long interviews with him in Paris, and I went to Brazil with him several times to see and film that miraculous forest at the Instituto Terra myself. It was only in the editing process that we really started to work together. And that was tough. For a few months we worked separately, in adjoining editing suites, with two editors. Juliano produced a rough cut of the hundreds of hours he had shot during their journeys. And I produced a rough cut of my interviews.

Then we tried over a certain period of time to combine and de-combine all this footage, with the result that we did not see a light at the end of the tunnel. These compilations didn’t amount to anything that promised a film. We were quite desperate, and for a while seriously considered abandoning our common plan and making two separate films. Both of us had enough material to edit a film of our own. But in the back of our minds, we both knew that the film we could possibly make together would be superior to each of our efforts.

So we eventually went to drastic measures. I let Juliano sit down with my material for a while to see what he would make of it, and vice versa; I edited his. That created a hell of a tension, but it was also an eye-opener for both of us. But still, our next efforts to combine something out of these versions failed just as miserably. And only then, a year later and deep into the editing process already, we realized we both had to give up control and do the hardest thing: forget who had shot what, sit down together, and edit together to make one film out of all of it. We worked with one editor — our heroine, Maxine, who had been an assistant on Pina and was as young as she was brilliant. And that finally produced results: We slowly saw the film we had dreamed of [appear]. But boy, had it been hard! We both had to overcome a lot of pride and ego problems.

What was your collaboration with Sebastião himself like?
Sebastião himself never got involved in the editing process. He and Lelia wanted to see the final film. They just wondered why it took us so long. And Sebastião and myself, over the almost two years of shooting, we got to know each other quite well. He was extremely camera-shy in the beginning, but he then simply decided to trust me — and his son as well — and be as truthful and honest as he could be. And reveal what a great storyteller he was, and that he had remained the economist who knew so much about the political, financial, and social context of all the places he had traveled to, but had also become a great artist in his own right.

Your work has often been done in collaboration — for example, with Peter Handke, or Sam Shepard, or Nicholas Ray. Do you feel, though, that sometimes, film culture gives too much value to the idea of the “auteur”? Do we value collaboration enough?
Good question. The “auteur” in the classic sense, as writer, director, and producer in one person, is hugely overrated in my book. And it’s more of a myth than a reality. Sure, I did a few of those, especially in the beginning of my career. And I made one film for a studio, American Zoetrope and Francis Ford Coppola, where I was a hired director. But I decided afterwards to never, ever do that again. All other films I made before or afterwards, I produced with my own companies, most of them with Road Movies. But I quickly got tired of being the only engine. Filmmaking is a hugely collaborative effort, and the thing is, people do their best if they are given a certain autonomy. In those lonely nights I found myself writing or rewriting the scripts alone in order to find out what I was going to shoot the next day, I was desperately longing for a companion, a co-author, and from Paris, Texas on, I always wrote with somebody else. Yes, with Peter Handke and Sam Shepard a few times, and with Peter Carey, and these were all “writers,” not “screenwriters.” But I also worked with Nicholas Klein on two scripts, with Michael Meredith, and with others.

The auteur theory has done a lot of damage, really, to ruin that triangle of writer, director, and producer. At least in Europe, we had to struggle to reinvent that cooperation and reinstall the magic triangle.

Your early films were marked by a fascination with American culture — with American music, American movies, the American landscape. How has your relationship with American culture changed over the years? Do you still have this fascination?
Yes. And no. I lived in America for 15 years altogether, two times, seven or eight years, in fact. So I managed to exorcise that initial fascination for the promised land that America was for me when I grew up. Comic strips, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Westerns, blues, spirituals, rock ‘n’ roll, fantastic cars, skyscrapers, pinup girls, chewing gum, you name it: All the good things came from that mythical place over the ocean. I grew up with a counterculture that presented fun as the great alternative to the droopy and utterly materialistic reality of postwar Germany. Anyway, not all of it lived up to its promises when I could finally make a reality-check, but I still keep a great love for the American landscape and a huge respect for the American people. I still subscribe to what the country stood for. (Even if it is now often struggling with that, and even if conservative American politics have often driven me crazy with anger.)

You once specialized in road movies, which was such an important genre in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and even ‘80s. Today, in our increasingly hyperconnected world, can the road movie have the same currency?
The genre doesn’t quite have the same appeal anymore, mainly because everybody travels now. Traveling was once a privilege, and being on the road was a state of grace, and not that many people dared to take that liberty. But today, anybody can book a flight to the U.S. and rent a car or bike and go down Route 66 or feel like in Easy Rider … I made a film in 1990 called Until the End of the World, which was really some sort of ultimate road movie. It was a journey through four continents and a dozen countries. But then it turned into some sort of an “interior journey” into the souls of our central characters. And those journeys into the mind are definitely more dangerous and revealing today …

You have in the past spoken very articulately about style and about your influences. How do you feel your style as a filmmaker has changed over the years? If you were to shoot a film like Kings of the Road or Alice in the Cities today, how would it be different, do you think?
I just wouldn’t (or couldn’t) make these films anymore. It’s that simple. When I shot that Road Movie Trilogy with AliceWrong Move, and Kings of the Road, there was only film as a medium to do that. Even “video” didn’t exist yet, neither as tools to shoot with or as a means of distribution. There was only theatrical and TV exploitation. And in my country, you could count the number of independent productions like that on one hand every year. Today, there are more movies made than ever. The entire landscape has changed. Viewing habits have changed, pacing has changed, commercials and music videos and now internet platforms have changed all the rules and the language. If I’d make a film like Wings of Desire today, it would go unnoticed because it could only stay on screens for a few weeks, and then be replaced by something else quickly, before it could establish an “aura,” for lack of another world.

Today, the challenges are so different. The entire process is different. When I started in the ‘70s, I made a film every year! I was really able to learn, always together with the same key people, and develop a sense of my own handwriting. Today, anybody who makes his first feature has to wait years to move to the second. I could never get a film financed today without a script. Kings of the Road was financed with a half page of exposé. Unthinkable today.

Not that I’m complaining — I was privileged then and I feel privileged now to work in that period of complete upheaval, or transformation, of the entire film business, art, language, whatever you call it. It is so exciting to work today! Our tools are constantly improving and our possibilities are widening, both in storytelling as in documenting. (Until the End of the World was the first film ever to use digital-HD elements, Buena Vista Social Club the first all-digital music documentary that made it to a screen, [and] Pina the first documentary feature in 3-D …) I wouldn’t want to have started earlier or later, and I’m happy I can still work now. I have actually still worked with craftsmen or actors who had started their career in the silent era, and now I’m working with kids who have never even touched film stock!

Do you still look at your old films?
I restored a lot of my old films over the last two years, in 4K, so I had a close look at some of them. Sometimes, I wondered: Would I still be able to do that, would I still know how to fly without instruments, come up with recipes that I don’t even remember anymore how they were cooked up then? And of course I saw lots of mistakes and bad choices, too. And of course I would direct and cut differently now. Forty or 30 or 20 years have passed, in which all of us learned to see differently. I watched some of these films with audiences at the MoMA in New York at my recent retrospective there. Quite often I was cringing in my seat, I must admit. And quite often I also sat with my head high. And the one thing that counted more than anything, in the end, was that I recognized I did all these films with conviction, and because I wouldn’t have wanted to do anything else, and I did stick to my guns. And maybe that’s the toughest thing today, if you start working as a young filmmaker: [to] find out what your guns are, find out what you can do better than anybody else. I was given the chance to do that. I knew only with my fourth film, with Alice in the Cities, that I was going to be — and remain — a film director.

Many of your films seem interested in the idea of healing — whether it’s the angels who listen to our inner torment in Wings of Desire, the drifter who tries to reunite his family in Paris, Texas, the idea of helping blind people see in Until the End of the World, or in Salt of the Earth, the idea of both reclaiming and repairing the environment, as well as the notion that photography re-creates the world. Is this something you’ve noticed in your work? Do you consciously seek out these types of stories? And do you think art can have a healing quality?
Yes. I do think so. I know from experience, from films by Ozu, Truffaut, Tarkovsky, Ford, Ray, Fuller, you name it, that you can walk out of a theater and see the whole world with different eyes. Films can heal! Not the world, of course, but our vision of it, and that’s already enough. I was more conscious of that than ever before in my last fictional work, Every Thing Will Be Fine — and the title already indicates it. I believe in this very function of cinema, of instigating change, or at least of making us open for the possibility of change. In the new film, the subject is the overcoming of a trauma. How even a dark cloud hanging over your life can disappear and fade away.

You once made a fascinating documentary called Room 666, in which a variety of filmmakers at Cannes discussed their ideas about the future of cinema. Now, decades later, whose responses are the most surprising to you? The most prophetic? 
That short film was made in the early ‘80s, at a time of a general depression of cinema, in some sort of hole when not only I thought that the seventh art might not see the end of the millennium. Boy, was I wrong. Were most of us wrong! But some of my fellow directors saw the future quite clearly, and nobody more positively and accurately than Michelangelo Antonioni. He realized that all the rules would change, that film was going to disappear and be replaced by something else, and that all our living conditions would change as well. We would become a different humanity. He was quite on the money.

Can you tell me what happened with the different cuts of Until the End of the World? Was it always your intention to have a shorter cut and a longer cut? The shorter cut disappointed many, while the longer cut has been hailed as a masterpiece. Do you wish you’d tried to release the longer cut to theaters at the time?
The film was the most ambitious thing I ever did, and also probably the most expensive independent-auteur film ever, at least at the time. It was an epic adventure, and we shot for one year. In the editing process, it became obvious that I could never deliver the two and a half hours that I had promised and that all distribution contracts were based on. The ideal film, the one I had wanted to make, came in at just under five hours. I tried in vain to convince my co-producers and distributors to agree to a two-part release. They all insisted on their contracts. I had to agree to deliver what I knew was going to be a disastrous Reader’s Digest of my film. But I decided [I’d] rather do it myself than let somebody else butcher it. And that was helpful. Because when my editor and I had that ideal version, we kept it, made a contact copy of that work print, and then continued to cut the film to pieces until we got to the accepted length.

And then we did the smartest thing I ever did in my life: We did not cut the negative! Instead, we produced, at my own cost, a duplicate positive of all the shots that were in that “short version” (which cost a fortune), and then cut that duplicate positive instead of the negative. From that, we then produced the many internegatives that went everywhere, to all the partners, and satisfied everybody’s needs. And nobody noticed.

A few years later, we went back to that original work print, fiddled a bit with it, and finally brought it to four and a half hours, and then we could cut the original negative! This way, my “director’s cut” finally saw the light of day. But because the Reader’s Digest had been so flawed and done so poorly at the box office (except for the soundtrack that sold like hotcakes), nobody really wanted to release the longer version. I showed it a handful of times, and that was it. And we just showed it at the MoMA as well. It is, in fact, a whole different ballgame. All the work we invested, my team, the actors, the musicians, finally paid off. The funny thing is, though, that what I had envisioned as a science-fiction film once, and written in the mid-’80s to take place around the turn of the millennium, is now just as much removed from that time as it was then, only that it is now in the past. I think that must be a rather unique experience for a filmmaker: to see his film turn from science fiction into a period movie.

Until the End of the World’s vision of the future now seems so prophetic, with its in-car navigation systems, its portrait of constant electronic connection, web browsers, and even people addicted to mobile devices. How did you develop these ideas? Were there current technologies you based these on?
No. It was strictly fantasy. The only technology that actually worked and that we used was digital HD. That didn’t really exist yet. We produced the dream sequences of the film in the only prototype HD-editing suite in the world, at NHK in Tokyo. Nobody had ever produced anything on those machines. Sony and NHK let us fool around with that technology and come up with things that nobody had ever seen before. We were supposed to work in there for three weeks, and we stayed for three months. We ended up living there. Today, any gifted kid can produce that stuff on a computer, but then, we were the first to lay eyes on the digital future of images. And that was what the film was all about, in the end: trying to come up with a vision where our visual culture was going to take us.

You have never shied away from embracing new technologies — whether it was HD cinematography or 3-D. Do you feel that filmmakers are too suspicious of “new” technologies?
I wouldn’t generalize that. Many people are keen to try out advanced technologies and find out what you can do with it. Most of that, though, happens first today in commercials. But as far as 3-D is concerned, I’m very disappointed that it has remained a tool for action and fantasy and hasn’t really crossed over into other realms, like dramas or documentaries. Maybe I was a bit naïve, when we had done Pina, when I envisioned that 3-D was going to be accepted as this great new tool and actually as a whole new language of cinema, and was soon going to be accepted in many other fields. Look, that’s exactly what happened to “digital tools” in the beginning: They first were used in very expensive music videos and commercials, and then slowly found their way into studio movies. In the beginning, “digital” was a word for bad effects that you could blow up the whole world with. And then, only a few years later, that devilish tool single-handedly reinvented the documentary genre! And saved independent production by making shoots much more affordable.

So I figured something similar was going to happen with 3-D. I was wrong — at least so far. I still think it needs to happen. It would be an enormous scandal, a monstrous sin, if this fantastic language that cinema was dreaming of since its beginning was going to be wasted and discarded before it could show its real potential. And that potential, in my book, is not in animation or in action and in roller-coaster rides, but in representing “reality,” and in bringing people closer to us — more emotionally and more present than cinema was ever able to [be] before. I mean it! So far, audiences, and maybe most filmmakers and producers, don’t have a clue what 3-D can actually do, if only it was taken seriously, not just as a milk cow to generate more ticket sales, but as a new frontier of storytelling.

Wim Wenders on Salt of the Earth