Palme d’Or Winner Wim Wenders On Being Told He’d Have Two Movies At This Year’s Cannes: “Taking It Easier Turned Out To Be Wishful Thinking”
Wim Wenders could be the Bob Dylan of European cinema: always around, always the same, always different. Sometimes he’ll arrive in Cannes with a documentary, like 2018’s Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, and sometimes he’ll come with a work of fiction, like his timeless 1984 Palme d’Or winner Paris, Texas. This year, he’s coming with one of each: Anselm, a 3D portrait of artist Anselm Kiefer, and Perfect Days, the story of a Tokyo toilet cleaner. Ironically, Wenders thought he’d have more time on his hands after the pandemic and moving on from his role at the European Film Academy. How wrong he was…
DEADLINE: You have two films in Cannes. Which would you prefer to start with?
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WIM WENDERS: Let’s start with the one that was in the works longer. That would be Anselm, which was shot all through the pandemic and took quite a bit longer.
DEADLINE: You’ve become very prolific in terms of documentaries lately in your career. What appeals to you about documentaries, and why Anselm Kiefer?
WENDERS: I feel that the field of documentaries is wide open, and that you have the freedom to redefine it with each film. I’ve explored it extensively, let’s say, from Buena Vista Social Club to Pina or The Salt of the Earth, and each time the result was an entirely different language. I love it when the subject invents its own form, and I really prefer that to imposing a formula or method to a film beforehand. Then you not only discover a new world, but also the way to approach it from scratch. I’m convinced that audiences feel that energy, that they are taking part in a whole new adventure of discovery.
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The idea for a film with Anselm Kiefer didn’t come out of the blue. I’ve known him for a good 30 years, and even in the beginning of our friendship, in the ’80s, we talked about making a film together. In the end, we didn’t do it because Anselm moved to France, and I eventually moved to America for quite a while. But I followed his work ever since and we still met every now and then, reminding each other of our old plan. And then, about three years ago, I visited him for the first time in his huge place in the South of France, Barjac, where he built a whole landscape of gallery houses, underground structures like crypts and tunnels, even a roofed amphitheater and an immense cityscape of crumbling towers. I had never seen anything like it. That’s when our film idea immediately imposed itself again, very powerfully. And soon afterwards, we met again in his studio near Paris, in Croissy, where I also hadn’t been before. And that was really what clinched it. After seeing that studio and the work he was doing there, I said, “We shouldn’t wait any longer, let’s do it now.”
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From the very beginning, 3D struck me as the only possible medium to approach the width and amplitude of Anselm’s work. His work is really very imposing, physically very present, and never “flat”, even his paintings have deep layers and objects attached to them. But his sculptural work alone needed “space” around it to be experienced. Anselm’s universe, I felt, needed me to really immerse in it. For that, there is nothing else than 3D. You simply see so much more and you’re so much more “there”.
DEADLINE: Is this a study of the person or the work?
WENDERS: (laughs) The man is truly an interesting character, quite wild and independent. I like him a lot, yes, but it’s his work that I was interested in. With Pina, too, I didn’t go into a biography of Pina Bausch, same with the Buena Vista Social Club guys. I am interested in the work, and this film is a “biography of his work”, so to speak. Anselm and I have a lot in common. We were born in the same year, 1945, he a bit before the end of the war, me a bit after that. We definitely share a lot of the history that so strongly appears in his work. The scope of his painterly world is tremendous. It includes history, not only the German one, the origins of our myths, just as well as religion, astronomy, alchemy, physics. The range of his explorations really know no limits, and he’s just as well a poet and a scientist than a painter and sculptor.
DEADLINE: How do you approach a documentary — is it the same as your fiction narratives? Are you the same person behind the camera?
WENDERS: I’m the same person behind the camera, sure. It might sound a little cryptic, but I basically approach my documentaries as if they were fiction films, and I like to approach my fictional films as if they were documentaries. I try to be fluid and to not be preconceived. Fiction thrives on an injection of reality, and the documentary form loves to include fictional elements. In a documentary, you try to find a thread, something that leads you through it, so you’re almost in search of a story. While in a fiction film I enjoy the freedom that can come in when elements of reality enter it.
DEADLINE: Has the technology changed since you did Pina? That’s a fair while ago. Is it easier to shoot in 3D now?
WENDERS: We did Pina on prototype equipment and remember that was before Avatar even came out. I was declared crazy. “Where do you want to show your 3D extravaganza!?” Then, God bless James Cameron, Avatar opened everywhere and there were suddenly a lot of theaters that could show Pina. And you’re right, with the technologic development of 3D, I felt I was given a whole new approach to producing a poetic and immersive experience for the viewer inside the documentary field. Indeed, it was a different ballgame, to shoot in 6K instead of high-def (like Pina) and to have all the tools I only dreamed of at the time. We even developed an enormous drone to actually carry a two-camera 3D rig for the landscape shots.
DEADLINE: Why do you think it lends itself to this project? What is it about his art that works with 3D?
WENDERS: 3D involves you. Other parts of your brain are put into action to see three dimensions. You’re altogether more “there”, both mentally and physically. And Anselm’s work needs your entire perception. You leaf through a catalog, and it doesn’t mean anything. You stand in front of the work or walk through it, and you’re completely overwhelmed. I wanted to take the audience into that experience, both of him working as well as into the work itself.
DEADLINE: What’s the structure of the film? Is it a biography, or does it capture a particular time frame?
WENDERS: It’s a long journey, the journey of his life. We went to the places where Anselm grew up near the Rhine River, even fictionalized a bit of his childhood with a young actor playing Anselm as a boy. I felt it was important for his whole perception to show what he went through as a child. Especially as I related to that so much, having undergone the same postwar experience. We went to his first studios in the deep forest of the Odenwald, also to a brick factory that he completely renovated into a world of his own. And we shot several times and in different seasons in Barjac, in the south of France where Anselm also worked for 30 years. And finally we shot in Croissy, near Paris, where he has his present studio in a gigantic airplane hangar-like factory. Actually, it’s several airplane hangars.
DEADLINE: Now, how did you manage to make another feature film, Perfect Days, in all this time?
WENDERS: When we finished shooting Anselm and I had a final cut, postproduction had to continue in all these different departments, from sound to visual effects, color correction and so on. There were months and months in which other people had to work which I essentially just had to supervise. 3D is extremely demanding in postproduction. I really had time on my hands. And then I all of a sudden got this amazing invitation, out of nowhere: could I possibly think about making a film in Japan? And I said, “Yes, but only if it can happen fast, because I’m not available for too long.”
That proposition was a very open invitation, and a carte blanche in many ways. And with it came an amazing partner and writer, Takuma Takasaki. He came to Berlin and together we wrote the basic story in two weeks. And we found the title, too. Perfect Days. Titles are so important to drive a project! I loved this one from the beginning, based on a Lou Reed song. Soon afterwards, I found myself going to Tokyo for two weeks to look for locations and to meet the one and only actor for this project: Kôji Yakusho. I knew his work ever since Shall We Dance and Babel and had always been utterly impressed with him. When the possibility opened up that we could work together, it seemed too beautiful to be true. And we got along great on the spot. The language barrier was no problem. We spoke the same language and needed no words. The script was written for him, so to speak, and he became very involved in the making of the film and the preparation.
In October, I went back to Tokyo, and we shot Perfect Days in an amazing 17 days. [Laughs] Yes, that is fast. I love that intensity of shooting in such a condensed way. Actors love it too, when they do not have to sit around waiting, but can really live a story, almost as it happens. With my director of photography, Franz Lustig, we are a great team. He shot the entire film hand-held, like a living tripod.
DEADLINE: And what’s that story about, in your own words?
WENDERS: It’s a very Japanese story, deeply rooted in Japanese culture. It digs deep into the idea of what “cleaning” means and what “service” means. The most unclean places in our Western civilization are obviously toilets. Toilets are not part of our culture, they rather represent the contrary. In Japan, there’s a whole different attitude surrounding “The toilet”. They are essential places of everyday culture. Our story involves the most amazing “toilet temples” built in the city of Tokyo, in the Shibuya area, by Japanese master architects. Then again, this is not a film about toilets. It is about the spirit of a man who takes care of these places. He does it with a great modesty, in the spirit of “service,” which has a whole different history in Japan. Hirayama is the man’s name in our story. He had a very different, “privileged” past in a former life, but is now dedicated to these places. And to nature, trees especially. And to reading. And to listening to his favorite music. I won’t tell you more. This film is an ode to a spirit of service and to “nowness”: to live your life in the present tense.
The common good in Japan is still something altogether different than in our Western civilization, where the common good was a sad victim of the pandemic. The idea of the common good has vanished more and more, together with the sense of truth that has also gone down the drain lately. Perfect Days is about a man who finds a sense of life in service, and in restriction, even poverty. His routine might at first sight appear boring to us, but soon you realize that it is the opposite: it is filled with beauty and purpose. This man is able to live his life at the fullest.
DEADLINE: You’re very well known for the music in your films. What can you say about the music in these two films?
WENDERS: For Anselm, the music is entirely scored, most of it done by a young German composer, Leonard Küßner. This is his first film, and he has all reasons to be proud of his achievement. It’s a complex score, given all the subjects that Kiefer’s work explores. Perfect Days is the complete opposite of that; indeed, the two films are as far removed from each other as two films can be. Once you get to see them you will immediately see what I mean. They are very, very, very different from each other. Perfect Days uses only source music, Hirayama’s favorite songs. I won’t tell you more.
DEADLINE: Could you have foreseen these two films being in Cannes at the same time?
WENDERS: (Laughs) No way. How could I have ever thought of that. When I finished the cut of Anselm, I told Thierry Fremaux that I had a film that I would love to show in Cannes, and he was intrigued. He liked it very much, when he finally saw it and suggested an Out of Competition slot, as it was a documentary. So Anselm, in my book, was already going to Cannes, if they were indeed confirming it. Now, as I told you, post-production in 3D is more demanding than in any other medium, so a window opened for the other film. And I edited it almost as fast as I shot it. And before I knew it, the Japanese producers asked me, “It looks like we could be ready in time for Cannes. Would you allow us to send it in?” I responded: “Well you must know that I may already have a film in Cannes, and I’m very hopeful for it. They like it. I’m not sure if it’s any use sending Perfect Days as well, but who am I to forbid this to you. Give it your best shot.” And then the totally unforeseen happened: Frémaux called me a day before the press conference and said, he would like to invite both films. I sat down and took a deep breath.
DEADLINE: When did you first go to Cannes? Which movie were you with?
WENDERS: I was in Cannes as a young man of 31 with Kings of the Road. It was in ‘76. I was a kid. A couple of years later I came back with The American Friend.
DEADLINE: You were very much a part of the German New Wave. Did Cannes legitimize your work, or did you feel like you deserved to be there? What was your relationship with Cannes as a young filmmaker?
WENDERS: Altogether, the whole New German wave was an invention by foreign journalists. We didn’t call each other that. We were individuals making movies. Werner Herzog had been to Cannes, [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder had been to Cannes. Cannes has been very, very helpful in establishing us as a group of filmmakers, even if we never were a “movement” like the new French New Wave. We were individual filmmakers who were very much in solidarity with each other, because we would never have had gotten our films off the ground on our own. Together we became a force.
DEADLINE: What’s your strongest memory of Cannes?
WENDERS: The strongest has got to be Paris, Texas. Nobody had seen the film before Cannes. Nobody. Not a single journalist. I had sent a work print to Gilles Jacob, and he took the movie on the strength of that work print. He never saw the finished film until it played. When the festival started, we were beginning our mix in the sound studio. We watched the opening ceremony on television and then started mixing. I arrived on the day of the screening in the morning at 7 a.m. by train with the film cans in my hands, and I took them straight to the screening room for the first press screening. The film was screened that evening. It was in the second week, luckily, because it was not finished in the first week.
And of course, receiving a Palme d’Or for something that nobody had seen was incredible, especially as the jury made a point that it had been a unanimous decision. Dirk Bogarde was the president. He welcomed me with a big smile on stage and gave me a big hug, whispering into my ears how much he had loved the film.
DEADLINE: It’s funny you mentioned Herzog. A lot of people thought that after the success of Paris, Texas, you might move to America and be lost to European cinema, whereas Werner moved to Hollywood, and you continued to work in Europe. Why did you not take up that opportunity in America?
WENDERS: Well, I did a seven-year stint there. After The American Friend, I spent seven years in America and made a studio movie, Hammett. At the end of my American experience I realized I was never going to be an American director and I didn’t have it in me to make “the great American movie.” But I could make a movie in America as a European director. And that became Paris, Texas. And with Paris, Texas, I returned from America and stayed in Germany while Werner, I think, came a little bit later and stayed longer, well until now. He is utterly happy there, as he told me.
DEADLINE: You’ve been quite involved in the European Film Awards. What do you see your role is, in terms of shaping the future of European cinema for other directors?
WENDERS: Well, I was the president of the European Film Academy for 20 years, and I worked hard for it every year, especially in the annual European Film Award season. It was work that I cherished, representing European cinema and helping to create a solidarity and a family feeling inside all these almost 50 film-producing nations in Europe. It was a beautiful task and I enjoyed it for a long time. I gave up my part in it two years ago and passed on the baton to a powerful, great woman director, Agnieszka Holland.
DEADLINE: Are you now full-time back into filmmaking? You don’t seem to be like someone who has a lot of quiet time.
WENDERS: [Laughs] I thought I would take it easier when I turned 75. But look what’s happening! Right now, I’m in the final stages of delivery for two films, doing subtitles and all the things you have to do when you take a film to Cannes. I’m busier than ever in my life. Taking it easier turned out to be wishful thinking. But I’m not complaining. I love to work. Making movies is my way of living. Then again, I think I could swap with Hirayama in Perfect Days and commit to a much simpler life…
DEADLINE: Technology has changed a lot in the 50 years since Kings of the Road. But it doesn’t seem to have made filmmaking any easier, from what you’re telling me.
WENDERS: Everybody thinks digital has made filmmaking so easy. The contrary is the case. Look, Paris, Texas was edited in two and a half months! And even Wings of Desire was done in three and a half months, all on analog editing tables. Nobody can make a film any more today in under a year or two. Digital filmmaking has made the options so much larger, that the simplicity of filmmaking of the analog age is gone. Too many choices now, period. Decision-making itself was a different process, both in shooting and in editing.
DEADLINE: You’ve obviously been to Cannes many times. What is your favorite thing about the festival?
WENDERS: My favorite thing ever was being president of the jury in 1989. That was a most amazing time, seeing films and talking about them every day with the members of an utterly educated, civilized, cool, calm and collected jury. It was sheer pleasure. But apart from that I love going to the restaurant in the evening when the work is done and enjoying the seafood. I like going to the beach very early in the morning, before everybody wakes up, standing there in the sand at five or six in the morning. Cannes has been very good to me. I’ve had some difficult times in Cannes as well, and it wasn’t always glorious, but some of those times I’ve spent in Cannes have been the best parts of my life. I’m looking forward to being there again. With the unknown feeling of what it’s like to present two films.
DEADLINE: What advice would you give to someone taking their film there for the first time?
WENDERS: Don’t believe the good they say about your film, but don’t believe the bad either. [Laughs] Don’t take the good news personally and think you are the greatest now! And if you get the worst reviews, don’t think you’re a failure. Just try not to be aware of it all. If you can, don’t read anything at all. Let your film do the talking. Remain yourself.
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