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Wim Wenders turns 70

Jochen Kürten / jgtAugust 13, 2015

It's not a bad time for Wim Wenders to celebrate a milestone birthday: 70. The German filmmaker is flying high with a cache of international commendations and a return to form as a feature filmmaker.

Wim Wenders in 2015, Copyright: Imago/F. Stark
Image: Imago/F. Stark

Superlatives aside, it's genuinely been a huge year in the life of German filmmaker Wim Wenders. It almost seems as though festivals and film prize juries, museums and movie theaters are lining up to honor the grand master of the screen. And there seems to be no end in sight to the celebrations this year, as Wenders turns 70 on August 14.

Perhaps the icing on the cake: In February, the Berlinale film festival awarded Wenders an honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement, only to be followed soon after with an Oscar in Los Angeles for his documentary, "The Salt of the Earth."

But if all that wasn't already enough, the Museum of Modern Art in New York honored him with a retrospective while the Dusseldorf-based museum Kunstpalast has been exhibiting photographs taken by Wenders since April. We can also look forward to yet another Wim Wenders exhibition in Berlin in September.

Wenders back in the spotlight

Wenders' latest feature, "Everything Will Be Fine," hit movie theaters in the spring (in the northern hemisphere), garnering much acclaim. A myriad of books by and about Wenders were published this year, and a great deal of effort went into re-mastering some of his older films, to be released as DVDs.

Most importantly, Wenders is again busy doing what he does best - already brooding over his next feature film.

To surmise, Wenders is at the pinnacle of his career. Only a few short years ago it appeared his career was stalling: His films were unable to tempt the box office at home or abroad, and even being dealt negative reviews from once-fawning critics.

At this point Wenders underwent somewhat of a reinvention, namely as a documentary maker.

Wim Wenders receiving the Honorary Golden Bear at the Berlinale. Copyright: imago/Xinhua.
In February 2015, receiving the Honorary Golden Bear at the BerlinaleImage: imago/Xinhua

Wim Wenders: The brand

His latest documentary, "The Salt of the Earth," which pays homage to the photographer Sebastiao Salgado, made some critics publically ponder whether Wenders should actually dedicate himself to documentaries - due to his uncanny ability to distill such powerful human stories, and in light of the recent flops, "Palermo Shooting" and "Land of Plenty."

But of course it wasn't always like that.

After his pioneering works in the late 1960s, the director of such triumphant films such as "Paris, Texas" and "Wings of Desire" (also known as "Der Himmel über Berlin") continued to enhance his artistic style.

But what was perhaps most surprising was the director's introverted and shy personality - although this didn't prevent him from evolving into a leading avant-garde proponent of what came to be known as New German Cinema, with his stark black and white works such as "Alice in the Cities" and "Kings of the Road."

Nowadays, Wenders is a cinematic globetrotter, laden with honorary appointments and regularly (and confidently) making appearances on the world's film platforms. The name "Wim Wenders" has become a trademark in itself: acclaimed by colleagues, sought after by students at film academies, and highly respected within the international world of art.

Photographer with an ear for music

The fact that Wenders' latest documentary "The Salt of the Earth," featuring Brazilian star photographer Sebastião Salgado, is all about the medium photography is anything but a coincidence. The director, himself a passionate photographer, has always maintained a keen interest for the broader arts.

A scene from the Oscar-nominated documentary "Salt of the Earth." Copyright: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado/NFP.
A scene from the Oscar-nominated documentary "The Salt of the Earth"Image: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado/NFP

In documentaries such as "Buena Vista Social Club" and "Ode to Cologne: A Rock 'n' Roll Film" Wenders has approached musical themes. "Pina" was an expression of reverence to choreographer Pina Bausch.

One could well consider the developments of Wenders as a director consequential: He has an acute sense for images, for composition, and for sophisticated and elaborate aesthetics. And his use of music in film has been highly influential, even when the films themselves were being increasingly criticized.

Cinema searching for identity

Yet his career has not always run a smooth trajectory, with Wenders criticized for losing his sense of "lightness" in his feature films in the late 1980s, following the immense success of "Wings of Desire" with "Until the End of the World," a certified flop, both financially and artistically.

From then on, his movies have often come across as too cerebral: usually interesting, but always wearisome.

Then Wenders reinvented himself. When the whole world watched on as the Berlin Wall tumbled and Germany was historically reunited, the director was elsewhere, busying himself with a fashion designer far away from his home country, resulting in the production of "Notebook on Cities and Clothes," focusing on the creative process of Japanese fashion designer Yamamoto Isoroku.

The result was a contemplation of the relationship between cities, identity and cinema, and this proved a decisive starting point for Wenders' second career.

Hardly the last tango

In the aftermath of the Yamamoto documentary, the curious and sensitive filmmaker traveled around the world, immersing himself in his passions of music and art. Ten years later he triumphed with a film about a bunch of aged musicians in Cuba, introducing the world to the "Buena Vista Social Club."

"Pina" was yet another success, culminating in a nomination for an Oscar. And in 2014 "Kathedralen der Kultur" (Cathedrals of Culture) was yet further proof that Wenders was evolving in his artform. "The Salt of the Earth" clearly demonstrated what makes Wenders' so unique: his inquisitive eye for stories and aesthetic developments.

In an interview with the "Süddeutsche Zeitung," Wenders confessed that it was still fictional films that interested him most, and soon after "Everything will be Fine," which celebrated its premiere at the Berlinale, was showered with praise by film critics - his biggest triumph as a feature film maker in decades.

The film tells the story of an author whose life falls apart in the wake of a car accident, and confirmed Wenders was now again at the top of his game.

''Wings of Desire.' Copyright: picture-alliance/United Archiv.
A scene from 'Wings of Desire,' Wenders' breakthrough film of 1987Image: picture-alliance/United Archiv

So what does the future hold for this artistic maverick? Currently, Wenders is working on a new movie based on a work of his old friend and author Peter Handke, with whom the director has worked several times. "Les Beaux Jours d'Aranjuez" focuses on two characters, a man and a woman, who are musing about life.

One can be quite sure that Wenders has put his own stamp on the work - informed by 70 years of full life experience.