Director Wim Wenders Just Won Big at Cannes for His Globe-Trotting Documentary—But it All Started with a Childhood Love of Americana

"As soon as I started to travel with the camera, I discovered that I had found a form of expression that really suited me."

Photo by Getty Images.


Photo by Getty Images.

You know German director Wim Wenders for the moving Wings of Desire (1987), as well as for his gripping documentaries Buena Vista Social Club (1999) and Pina (2011). One title you might be less familiar with is The Salt of the Earth, his most recent cinematic accomplishment, which won the Special Prize in the Un Certain Regard category at the Cannes Film Festival.

Mr. Wenders, you once said that at the beginning of your career you felt like a painter who was searching for a way to express time. Would you still describe your approach to making films that way?

I started making movies as an extension of painting. I worked as a painter, I wanted to be a painter, but it is difficult to catch the element of time in images. So as a painter it made a lot of sense to start using a camera. When I started out as a filmmaker, it was in the mid-to-late '60s and video was not really invented yet. There were no artists who worked with film—except some artists in America who did it in an experimental way. Most famous was probably Andy Warhol. I thought that was the future. I don't think of myself as a painter anymore. In photography, yes, but in filmmaking I am strictly a storyteller. For me it's all about the story that I'm trying to tell. That's my dominant force.

But one can definitely see the influence painting has had on your work. Some of the frames in your films could even be landscape paintings.

Of course I still make frames in order to tell stories, but each of these frames has a function in relation to this story. My first films, short films, were non-narrative. There was no story, there was nothing happening, there were no actors. It was mostly because as a painter and later on as a filmmaker I was most interested in landscapes and places, but now I'm really a storyteller.

Why did you transition into narrative filmmaking?

When I started out making films, I discovered very quickly that you could make a movie while you're travelling. You didn't have to do it in a studio; you could take your camera with you on the road. I discovered that there was even a genre associated with this idea—although the road movie was more popular in America than in Europe. As soon as I started to travel with the camera, I discovered that I had found a form of expression that really suited me.

Some of your most beloved films are road movies. Why do you think that form suits you so well?

Maybe it has to do with my childhood and the atmosphere in West Germany when I grew up. It was a very narrow space in many senses: It was small to begin with, had lots of borders around, and people were, I felt, quite narrow-minded. So the greatest urge I had as a kid, the greatest pleasure, was to travel. I travelled alone for the first time in a train when I was five years old and that was a glorious day in my childhood when I sat alone on the train with nobody watching me.

Where did you go?

Just to visit my grandmother. My mother was pregnant and she couldn't come with me, but she brought me to the train and tried to find people on the train who could watch me. I couldn't believe it! I was so angry with her. I said: I don't want anybody watching me! To my great relief she didn't find anyone who was interested in watching me and she left the train. I was on my own and I realized that I found the greatest thing in life—travelling on my own.

Like you said, the road movie is primarily associated with American culture. Your work has been influenced by America in other ways as well and you even lived there for a long time. When did you become so fascinated by America?

It didn't happen from one day to another. When I grew up, the first input I got from America was literature. When I started reading, I read a book every day and very soon my two favorite books were Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. They were by far my favorite books when I was a kid. The next thing I really liked were comic strips. They were unknown in Germany, but I became a collector. I collected every comic strip that existed, from Mickey Mouse to Superman. The next thing that arrived was rock 'n' roll when I was around 10 or 12 years old. I had not been interested in music so much before because the German songs my mother listened to on the radio didn't interest me at all. But when rock 'n' roll arrived I realized that this was the best music in the world. This was also American, so there was already a certain tendency. So everything I really liked when I grew up was American.

How did your parents feel about that?

I bought all these records, but because my parents hated this rock 'n' roll I had to keep my records at a friend's place. But if you have to defend something that you like, it makes you to like it even more. And what I like most is that all these interests were really mine. My parents hated the comic strips, they hated rock 'n' roll, and when they found out what movies I was going to they also were against that. So everything I loved I had to defend.

What kind of movies were you going to?

I discovered the American cinema and especially John Ford's work at the Cinémathèque in Paris and I had a great affinity for these films. I learned a lot through these films, how deep a film could go into your own emotions.

Read more of The Talks with Wim Wenders.

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Also on The Talks:

Dennis Hopper: "I Thought I Had Power"

Werner Herzog: "Trust in My Wild Fantasies"

Woody Allen: "The Whole Thing is Tragic"

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