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March 23 – May 12, 2018

2018 Norton Lectures in Cinema: Wim Wenders

One of the three central figures of the New German Cinema alongside Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog, internationally celebrated director Wim Wenders (b. 1945) is also the movement’s romantic introvert—an artistic personality apart from Fassbinder’s feverishly industrious expressivity and Herzog’s philosophically tinged global ambition. Although Wenders’ artistic quest has taken him from his native West Germany to Paris, New York, Havana, Brazil, Indonesia, the American southwest, and Hollywood, his filmography has long evinced a process of private catharsis that maps a set of idiosyncratic curiosities and anxieties onto the wider world. Raised into a postwar Germany still reeling from the pall of Nazism and the partition of its eastern and western halves, Wenders’ sought an identity elsewhere—if not in the America that so fascinated and frustrated him, then at least in the constructed space of the cinema itself.

It was at one such space that a young Wenders, fresh off an aborted stint in medical school, found his calling. The Cinémathèque Française, home to programmer extraordinaire Henri Langlois and breeding ground for the innovators of the French New Wave, provided a third home for Wenders during a spell in Paris while apprenticing for a noted printmaker. It was there that he found influence in such Hollywood rebels as Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray and fringe New Wavers like Jean Eustache, all of whom Wenders would later cast in his commercial breakthrough, The American Friend, a film dedicated to Langlois. Formal technical training came later in Munich, but the Cinémathèque provided the education most critical to his earliest works, which blend an innately German sorrow with signifiers of globalized pop culture to achieve a unique push-pull between malaise and longing. 

This quality is at the core of Wenders’ “Road Trilogy,” a series of films that cemented his reputation on the international scene. In each of these formally assured and dramatically freeform road movies, Rüdiger Vogler plays a melancholy wanderer who could be said to stand in for Wenders himself, as his characters’ varying vocations—Polaroid-snapping journalist in Alice in the Cities, struggling writer in Wrong Move, and exacting film projectionist in Kings of the Road—reflect different shades of the director’s life experience. Shot by Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller in a boldly pictorial style as indebted to Depression-era American photojournalists like Robert Frank and Walker Evans as it is to painters like Edward Hopper and Caspar David Friedrich, the films earned critical attention for their sensitive portrayals of loneliness and rootlessness as well as their subtextual emphasis on Germany’s indeterminate historical position.

Wenders’ ascent in status through the 1970s yielded bigger budgets and major festival attention, but his ultimate trajectory as a filmmaker has continually skirted any stable studio involvement. Some of his greatest successes, such as the Palme d’Or-winning Paris, Texas or the metaphysical love story Wings of Desire,bucked traditional production methods and took on forms that resisted conventional dramatic catharsis at every step, while larger, more commercially oriented outliers like Until the End of the World were coolly received. Furthermore, like his colleague Herzog, Wenders pivoted early to nonfiction work and has maintained equal footing in documentary and narrative ever since—with the common denominator being that his subject matter always reflects his own idiosyncratic obsessions. Buena Vista Social Club and Ode to Cologne: A Rock ‘N’ Roll Film, about Golden Age Cuban musicians and the German rock trio BAP, respectively, flesh out a passion for music already evident in the director’s indelible soundtracks, while films like Pina and The Salt of the Earth explore the working lives of artists (choreographer Pina Bausch in the former, photographer Sebastião Salgado in the latter) for whom Wenders harbors great respect and professional curiosity.

Half a century into his career, Wenders remains on his own winding road, one as likely to detour to Japan for a feature-length tribute to a bygone master (such as the Ozu homage Tokyo-Ga) as it is to idle in Los Angeles for eccentric star-studded fare like Every Thing Will Be Fine. The director’s trail of disciples includes such figures as Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki, but his signature—that wistful disposition that’s rooted in a hyper-awareness of history’s echoes in the present and a concern for the material degradation of art—continues to be inimitable. It’s a trademark most easily attributed to his groundbreaking films of the seventies, but it’s really one that threads through his entire eclectic body of work and, given Wenders’ current standing as one of the actively working filmmakers left from the forerunners of the New German Cinema, one that’s worth reacquainting with. – Carson Lund

The Harvard Film Archive and the Mahindra Humanities Center welcome Wim Wenders who follows Frederick Wiseman and Agnès Varda as one of this year’s Charles Eliot Norton Professors in Poetry. In addition to the retrospective and appearances at the HFA, he will deliver two of this year’s Norton Lectures on April 2 and April 9 at Sanders Theatre.

Co-presented with the Mahindra Humanities Center, Harvard.

Film descriptions by Carson Lund, Haden Guest and Brittany Gravely.

Special thanks: Homi Bhabha, Steven Biel, Sarah Razor, Mary Halpenny-Killip—Mahindra Humanities Center; the members of the Norton Lectures Committee: Haden Guest, Sylvaine Guyot, Robin Kelsey, Robb Moss, Richard Peña, Eric Rentschler, Diana Sorenson, David Wang, Nicholas Watson; and Jennifer Ivers—FAS Office for Faculty Affairs, Harvard; Wim Wenders Stiftung and Neue Road Movies.


Friday March 23 at 7pm

Alice in the Cities
(Alice in den Städten)

Directed by Wim Wenders. With Yella Rottländer, Rüdiger Vogler, Lisa Kreuzer
West Germany 1974, DCP, b/w, 110 min. German, English and Dutch with English subtitles

The first film in what would become Wenders’ “Road Trilogy” is emblematic of the series as a whole: it stars Rüdiger Vogler in a story of commiseration between lost souls over the course of a wayward road trip, it’s brilliantly shot in off-the-beaten-path locales by cinematographer Robby Müller, and it’s strung together by somber musical leitmotifs. It’s also one of the strongest entries in Wenders’ early career, due in large part to the casual, tender rapport between Vogler’s creatively starved journalist, Philip, and Yella Rottländer’s pre-pubescent charmer, Alice. The former finds the latter in a New York airport after Alice has been abandoned by her mother, and somewhere along the way Philip’s mission to document America by endlessly snapping Polaroids yields to a duty to escort Alice to her grandmother in Europe. Alice in the Cities’ languid, episodic structure creates ample room for Vogler and Rottländer to develop their chemistry in sweet, sentimental bonding sessions, while their circuitous trajectory through graying European cities offers Wenders the ideal template to explore the influence of chance encounters on life’s ultimate path. DCP courtesy Janus Films.

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Free Admission
Friday March 23 at 9:15pm

3 American LPs (3 amerikanische LP's)

Directed by Wim Wenders
West Germany 1969, DCP, color, 13 min. German with English subtitles

DCP courtesy Janus Films.

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Friday March 23 at 9:30pm

The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter)

Directed by Wim Wenders. With Arthur Brauss, Kai Fischer, Erika Pluhar
West Germany/Austria 1977, DCP, color, 101 min. German with English subtitles

Considered his first significant work and a radical turning point in young German cinema, Wenders’ early feature follows the desultory wanderings of a goalkeeper whose ejection from a game eventually leads to his casually committing a motiveless crime. Adhering strictly to Peter Handke’s Existentialist novella, Wenders visually pays homage to Hitchcock, yet refuses crime narrative conventions, the satisfying revelations of psychological insight or a reliable protagonist. In addition to more partnerships with Handke to come, the film also marked the beginning of Wenders’ long collaboration with cameraman Robby Müller and editor Peter Przygodda. DCP courtesy Janus Films.

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Sunday March 25 at 4pm

Wrong Move (Falsche Bewegung)

Directed by Wim Wenders. With Rüdiger Vogler, Hanna Schygulla, Hans Christian Blechk
West Germany 1975, DCP, color, 103 min. German with English subtitles

One of Wenders’ most literary films, Wrong Move refracts the distraught temperament of the German soul through the bildungsroman trajectory of a stalled writer (Vogler again, goofily morose in his kitschy Nordic sweaters and brick-red varsity jacket). Playwright Peter Handke’s screenplay, a liberal adaptation of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, is a platform for the philosophical discourses of a band of intellects and oddballs who form around Vogler in his pilgrimage from the northern tip of Germany to the country’s southernmost alpine territory. The soul-searching impetus for the trip is summarized in a tormented speech delivered by Vogler midway through—“How can a person write if he’s alienated from politics?”—and the discussions follow suit, revolving largely around the dialectic of passivity and participation in life and art. Embracing the scenario’s abstract theatricality, Wenders stages much of the film in long, sinuous tracking shots and peppers the mise-en-scene with such surreal props as a television beaming out a static signal, a distancing element that reflects the protagonist’s mental impasse. DCP courtesy Janus Films.

Preceded by

Silver City Revisited

Directed by Wim Wenders
West Germany 1969, DCP, color, 25 min. German with English subtitles

DCP courtesy Janus Films.

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Monday March 26 at 7pm

Kings of the Road
(Im Lauf der Zeit)

Directed by Wim Wenders. With Rüdiger Vogler, Hanns Zischler, Lisa Kreuzer
West Germany 1977, DCP, b/w, 175 min. German and English with English subtitles

The shadow of Germany’s division in 1949 hangs heavily over Wenders’ final entry in the “Road Trilogy,” and the personal toll of the separation is etched on the face of Rüdiger Vogler, who once again embodies a melancholy romantic, but this time plying the unglamorous trade of film projector repairman in an era of declining theatrical movie-going. Working in the rolling expanses of the West German countryside along the border of East Germany, Wenders conjures a nation of crumbling institutions and adrift citizens, but one nonetheless defined by a ramshackle beauty (even a roadside bratwurst shack has a pristine design sense behind it). Vogler’s foil is a suicidal divorcé played by Hanns Zischler, with whom he shares a taciturn but therapeutic companionship as the two amble from one small-town handyman gig to another in a beat-up passenger van-cum-mobile home, all while the gorgeous slide-guitar balladry of Improved Sound Limited weaves in and out of the soundtrack like the favored mixtape of a fraternal road trip. A lovingly photographed time capsule of rural Germany in the 1970s, Wenders’ long, wandering ode to the healing nature of vagabondage excels in summoning an eerie nostalgia for all things irrevocably lost to history. DCP courtesy Janus Films.

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Friday March 30 at 8:30pm

The American Friend
(Der amerikanische Freund)

Directed by Wim Wenders. With Dennis Hopper, Bruno Ganz, Lisa Kreuzer
West Germany/France 1977, DCP, color, 125 min. German, English and French with English subtitles

Wenders’ breakthrough commercial production, an eccentric reworking of Patricia Highsmith’s tale of international crime, Ripley’s Game, is the work of a director infatuated with American movie lore yet still inextricably tied to his German roots. Two of the filmmaker’s homeland staples, Bruno Ganz and Lisa Kreuzer, star as a middle-class couple whose lives are upended when the former, believed to be suffering a terminal illness, is swindled by a smarmy continental art forger (Dennis Hopper) into an assassination scheme on the promise of a financial reward. The plot’s metafictional parallels to Wenders’ own assimilation into a larger, unknown market are not hard to detect, but the filmmaker exhibits none of his protagonist’s woozy trepidation in the altered territory. Shot in Hamburg, Paris, and New York City by Robby Müller and encompassing three different spoken languages, The American Friend is as much an evocative, painterly ode to its urban locales as it is an insightful dead-end portrait of a parasitic partnership, with Hopper’s manipulative crook gradually wringing the spirit from Ganz’s principled family man out of sheer lonely desperation. In a playful nod to his heroes, Wenders also casts Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, and Jean Eustache in bit parts, all of whom effortlessly exude world-weary intelligence. DCP courtesy Janus Films.

Preceded by

Same Player Shoots Again

Directed by Wim Wenders. With Hanns Zischler
West Germany 1968, DCP, color, 12 min

DCP courtesy Janus Films.

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Friday April 6 at 8pm

The State of Things
(Der Stand der Dinge)

Directed by Wim Wenders. With Patrick Bauchau, Samuel Fuller, Isabelle Weingarten
US/West Germany/Portugal 1982, DCP, b/w, 121 min. English and French with English subtitles

Fresh from the tangled dramas of two temporarily halted film productions—including his collaboration with Coppola—Wenders used the cinematic quagmires as fodder for a film about filmmaking. Patrick Bauchau, a Wenders-like German arthouse director, is in the midst of making a black-and-white existential science-fiction feature called The Survivors in Portugal when his funding from a US studio is suddenly cut. The lull in production allows the cast and crew—which features Viva, Robert Kramer and Samuel Fuller—to ponder their relationships to the film and indulge in philosophical rambles and wandering detours, biding their time as needs, both creative and practical, float to the surface. Austerely zooming in and out of narrative focus, with an eye on both Hollywood noir and European arthouse, The State of Things meditatively and wryly captures little truths of cinema’s strange dimension. As Fuller’s cinematographer states, “Life is in color, but black and white is more realistic.” DCP courtesy Janus Films.

Preceded by

Reverse Angle

Directed by Wim Wenders
West Germany 1982, DCP, color, 17 min

DCP courtesy Janus Films.

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$12 Special Event Tickets
Wim Wenders in Person
- COMPLETELY RESERVED / UNCLAIMED TICKETS AVAILABLE AT 6:45
Saturday April 7 at 7pm

Paris, Texas

Directed by Wim Wenders. With Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski, Dean Stockwell
West Germany/France/UK/US 1984, DCP, color, 145 min

Wenders’ longstanding obsession with the American landscape reaches its apex in Paris, Texas, an Antonioni-esque neo-Western in which the hero’s meandering passage from Texas to California in search of an estranged family stands in for the filmmaker’s quest for transcendence in the quotidian spaces of an idealized land. In its procession of parched expanses, oversized motel signs, neon-lit gas stations, and gloomy skylines, the film conjures a southwest at once extraordinarily mythic and provocatively alien, a distinct planet inaccessible to artists with more seasoned homegrown associations with the region. Acting as the shell-shocked guide to this planet is Harry Dean Stanton, inimitably forlorn under his bushy mustache and dusty red cap, and at the peak of his unique capacity to summon unspeakable depths of emotion with a simple gaze at the horizon. After nearly a decade in documentaries and genre films, Paris, Texas marked Wenders’ return to the loose, episodic narrative structure of the “Road Trilogy”—albeit with an injection of the psychologically complex dramaturgy of collaborating playwright Sam Shepard, whose influence is most palpably felt in the elongated tête-à-tête that comprises the film’s emotionally devastating final act. DCP courtesy Janus Films.

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$12 Special Event Tickets
Wim Wenders in Person - COMPLETELY RESERVED / UNCLAIMED TICKETS AVAILABLE AT 6:45

Sunday April 8 at 7pm

Wings of Desire
(Der Himmel über Berlin)

Directed by Wim Wenders. With Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk
West Germany/France 1987, DCP, b/w & color, 128 min. German with English subtitles

The fluidly mobile camera, long a staple of Wenders’ filmmaking, receives its most thorough workout in Wings of Desire, a film whose style approximates the floating, omniscient eye of a celestial presence. Gliding, hovering, and craning around West Berlin in dazzling sequence shots, this camera becomes a conduit to the divine perspective of Bruno Ganz’ Damiel, an angel who quietly, invisibly observes the living alongside fellow immortals, occasionally offering ineffable consolation to those in need. In expressing this state of being, Wenders accomplishes some of the most compelling filmmaking of his career—hallucinatory juxtapositions of classical music with overlapping voices, for instance, and intricate bits of staging that blend point-of-view and third-person framing—but the film ultimately moves beyond a mere angel’s-eye city symphony in exploring Damiel’s muted yearning to join the ranks of the corporeal after becoming infatuated with an exquisite trapeze artist. When the silvery black-and-white of a phantom Germany gives way to the color of a finite, concrete world, Wings of Desire starts to take on troubling existential heft, raising questions about the worth of an existence without sensation or finality. DCP courtesy Janus Films.

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Monday April 9 at 7pm

Notebook on Cities and Clothes (Aufzeichnungen zu Kleidern und Städten)

Directed by Wim Wenders
West Germany 1989, DCP, color, 79 min. German with English subtitles

As its title suggests, Notebook on Cities and Clothes is more a gathering of ruminations than a documentary. Commissioned by the Centre Pompidou to document Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, Wenders created a film essay that goes far beyond fashion as it explores the analogies between designing clothes and assembling a movie. The work is a poetic kaleidoscope of two artists, the designer and the director, and of two metropolises, Tokyo and Paris, whose architecture of light and astonishing perspectives mediate the artists’ respective crafts. Notebook was among Wenders’ first experiments in video, and the diaristic immediacy of the digital form became an important tool in the filmmaker’s subsequent feature work. DCP courtesy Janus Films.

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Sunday April 22 at 4pm

Buena Vista Social Club

Directed by Wim Wenders
Germany/US/UK/France/Cuba 1999, DCP, color, 105 min. English and Spanish with English subtitles

More than just a touching tribute to the indelible popular music of pre-Castro Cuba, Buena Vista Social Club is a generous act of resurrection, a project that effectively propelled forgotten artists back into the spotlight. Playing the role of ardent, self-effacing fan, Wenders brought guitar maestro Ry Cooder with him to Havana to unite musical giants from the country’s midcentury golden age (Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Rubén González and Omara Portuondo, among others) for a one-off collaborative album, an initiative that resulted in breakthrough commercial success and a North American tour. Rehearsals, recording sessions, and live performances dominate the film, taking precedent over expository talking heads. What little we learn of the musicians’ personal lives comes through in snippets of casual banter, while the rest is expressed through song. Liberated by the pre-millennial influx of low-resolution, relatively inexpensive digital cameras, Wenders shoots entire performances in fluid, fawning Steadicam shots, and he misses no opportunity to soak in Havana’s sights and sounds, as alive and exotic to him as the hubbub of Times Square proves to be for the visibly moved aging entertainers. DCP courtesy Janus Films.

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Sunday April 22 at 7pm

The Salt of the Earth

Directed by Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and
Wim Wenders
France/Brazil/Italy 2014, DCP, color & b/w, 110 min. French, English and Portuguese with English subtitles

Pioneering Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado did much of his work in far-off lands untouched by the creep of modernity, creating images that registered the tremors of profound cultural difference and the awe of novel environments. Deeply admiring of this body of work, Wenders also saw something of a kindred spirit in Salgado and set about taking visual inventory of his career in Salt of the Earth. Much of the film consists of lengthy contemplations of Salgado’s photographs over recollections and musings from the artist himself, while the structure is determined by a trip taken by the director and his subject around South America, passages often captured by Wenders with the monochromatic, panoramic field of view that’s a core of Salgado’s style. In giving carte blanche to the photographer to elucidate his working life, Salt of the Earth seeks to pose fundamental philosophical inquiries into the value and responsibility of a life behind a camera, but it also takes on more personal dimensions with a running exploration of Salgado’s complex relationship with his son Julian Ribeiro Salgado (who acts as co-director), a bond defined by the demands of a globetrotting vocation. DCP courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

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Sunday April 29 at 7pm

A Trick of the Light
(Die Gebrüder Skladanowsky)

Directed by Wim Wenders. With Udo Kier, Nadine Büttner, Hans Moser
Germany 1995, 35mm, color & b/w, 80 min. German with English subtitles

Six weeks before the Lumiere brother’s legendary first public motion picture screening in Paris, three German brothers in Berlin screened eight film loops. In between the acrobatics and juggling that also occupied their life, Max, Eugen, and Emil Skladanowsky invented the bioskop. A century later, Wenders brings these little-known pioneers to the fore with this whimsical and touching film. With the help of students from the Munich Film Academy, Wenders spins their story with a mix of documentary and recreated footage—much of it shot silent at 18 frames per second with a vintage hand-cranked camera. Print courtesy Wim Wenders Stiftung.

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Free Admission
Saturday May 12 at 2pm

Until the End of the World
(Bis ans Ende der Welt)

Directed by Wim Wenders. With William Hurt, Solveig Dommartin, Pietro Falcone
Germany/France/Australia/US 1991, DCP, color, 295 min. English, French, Italian, Japanese and German with English subtitles

Wenders’ most ambitious, personal and misunderstood film to date remains his visionary epic Until the End of the World, an exhilarating sci-fi romance that offers a dizzying and often uncannily prescient imagination of a technologically mediated image culture, set in that now-long-ago year of 1999. The original story of lovers-on-the-run was co-written by Wenders and the film’s star Solveig Dommartin and then transformed by Wenders and acclaimed Australian novelist Peter Carey into a globetrotting voyage that traces an errant and urgent path across Europe, Asia and the US before reaching its final stage in the vast expanses of the Outback. Intended by Wenders as an “ultimate road movie,” the film was released against the director’s wishes in a truncated 158-minute version and was met with a largely puzzled reception, although the film and its amazing soundtrack (featuring Peter Gabriel, U2, Lou Reed, Nick Cave, REM, Patti Smith and others) immediately found ardent fans. In 2015, Wenders was at last able to release the long-awaited five-hour director’s cut of Until the End of the World, boldly expanding the film’s vast canvas and deepening its many then-strange-now-strangely-true predictions about ecological entropy, virtual currency and the melding of dream imagery into a more hospitable alternate reality. DCP courtesy Janus Films.

Includes a ten-minute intermission.

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