In the 1970s and 1980s Wim Wenders was second only to Rainer Werner Fassbinder as a god of the New German Cinema. This poet of the screen both idolised American cinema, like the practitioners of the earlier French New Wave, and was repelled by the dominance of Hollywood. This ambivalence proved his undoing, since only his closest supporters could see how he intended to improve on the basic storytelling tenets of the American cinema.
He is now a figure in decline, but at least four of his films can be considered as good as anything else being made at the time. They are Alice in the Cities (1974), Kings of the Road (1976), The State of Things (1982) and Paris, Texas (1984) – the only really good film Wenders made in the US. My choice is Kings of the Road.
Two unsettled travellers wander along the backroads of provincial West Germany near the border to the East: a repairer of film projection equipment (Rüdiger Vogler, one of Wenders’ favourite actors) and a linguist (Hanns Zischler), who tags along with him after a half-hearted suicide attempt. They are typical representatives of the Germany of the time, uncertain about their place in the scheme of things, worried about the future. What they find en route are dilapidated and virtually deserted cinemas, except for those showing Hollywood films. The great heritage of the pre-Nazi German cinema seems dead and gone.
The film has a fractured narrative and a spare script: the pair eat, drink, meet people and wander the route chosen by the repairman. But it builds steadily in the mind as a quiet study of the walls not only between East and West Germany, and between imported American culture and European sensibilities, but between ordinary people as well.
There’s not much moralising or philosophy behind Kings of the Road, and none of the portentous complications with which Wenders has afflicted us of late (Million Dollar Hotel, for instance). Instead he achieves a palpable sense of time, place and atmosphere, and of how everybody is affected by their tiny spot in history.
What could have been a dull work, considering its almost three-hour length and lack of drama, looks as good today as it ever did. Robby Müller, one of the world’s most eloquent cinematographers, contributes mightily to this. There is an almost hypnotic quality to the film – Europe’s most telling example of the American road movie.
Perhaps because Wenders came to the fore in a very specific time (his first feature was made in 1970) he has seemed unable to progress. You feel that if Fassbinder had not destroyed himself, he would have had as much to say now as in his prime. Possibly hampered by the starry-eyed supporters who surround him, Wenders is walking the same path. Most of his audience has decided on another one.