November 2003

In Defense of Places

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from a speech Wim Wenders presented at this year's PHOTO L.A.

BY WIM WENDERS   

 

Harry Dean Stanton as Travis in Paris, Texas

Let me start by asking YOU a question: What do you think is driving a movie? I don't mean the money and the investment, or a desire for profit, which rules out a certain number of films from our consideration here. I mean: What is the driving force inside the film, its engine, its soul. What keeps it going? What gives it the strength to convince a producer to invest funds in it and the director and the actors to invest their time?

In contemporary cinema, you will quickly find that this power comes from "The Story." A lot of energy gets invested into it. Directors, writers, producers work for years sometimes to develop "The Story." Actors attach their names to a project, because they believe in the story, more than in the director, or in the budget or in anything else.

I love stories. It is my profession to tell stories, so, don't get me wrong, I don't want to put them down. I'm just questioning their primacy and their tendency to make themselves the absolute center of attention.
Stories on the other hand can be at the service of another force that is able to govern a film, another force that can create the desire to make it in the first place. I want to introduce you to this "Force," especially as it's clearly a lesser known option today in movies. It's a more solid entity in photography.

I'm talking about places. They get little attention, as a subject, as they are usually just taken for granted, because they're mostly "just there."

In cinematic terms, places are mostly identified as "scenery," "locations" or "background." They are certainly considered the most passive element, certainly in film, but also in photography. I'm very much opposed to this view. I think it's downright wrong. I would like to give "Places" a more dignified place here.

People are represented by agents and lawyers, and there are unions to defend their interests. Places have no advocates. I want to assume that part here today. My lecture is appropriately called: "In Defense of Places."
Let me explain a little bit where I'm coming from with my argument. I am sure some of you will recognize similar feelings or impulses.

I travel a lot. Sometimes I even think that's my real profession: Traveler. I often come to places I have never been before, or to places I haven't seen in a long time. I walk around. I see cities, streets, houses. I see people go to work. I see kids play. I look at an apartment building, I see the lit windows, shadows moving behind it, maybe a woman leaning out and calling a kid's name. Maybe there'll even be an answer from somewhere. "I'm coming ... "

I can't help this feeling, immediately, that I want to know everything about this place. How it is to live there, how the seasons go by. How these people spend their lives. How they have fun. What they worry about. How they eat, drink, sleep, work ...
Or I come to a place where nobody lives, let's say a desert. I imagine the nomads roaming around there, or the hunters who come by occasionally. Or the first human being who ever passed and laid eyes on these mountains, this lake, this high plateau ... whatever. Who made the first map? You see, places have this irresistible attraction for me. They're a never ending source of inspiration.

I lived for eight years in America, from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. Then I moved back to Germany and settled for the first time in the city of Berlin.

I walked around for weeks, for months, staring at buildings and places and taking pictures of them, listening to my mother tongue, German, as if I never really heard it before. I rediscovered my own country.

 

Bruno Ganz as Damiel in Wings of Desire

I wanted to know all about these people, their past, their history, their secret thoughts. It was the city that induced this desire. I wanted to tell this city's story. It was a divided city still. Two different peoples lived here, although they spoke the same language. It was a city with a divided sky, so to speak. I called my project The Sky Above Berlin, or The Heavens Above Berlin, but I had no story for it whatsoever, not a clue. I didn't even have characters. I had nothing but the desire to dig deep into this place.

Of course, I looked for characters. I tried to find some that would get around a lot, so they would meet a lot of people, in order for me to be able to look into a lot of apartments, and really see into all these lives. I thought of making a postman my hero, or a taxi driver, or a fire fighter. I thought of doctors or traveling salesmen. I thought of strangers who'd arrive and get lost, like me. But none of my possible leading characters remotely fulfilled my desire to discover, to un-cover this city. I was really obsessed with this place. I felt very clearly that the city wanted to be turned into a movie, and wanted to use me as its instrument. And, hey, I was willing.

Walking around and staring at houses I saw a huge amount of decoration, pillars, arches, and stuff I had not noticed before. A lot of them were incorporating angel figures, to my amazement. Every second statue, and there were lots of them, depicted angels. A lot of names evoked them. Cemeteries, finally, were crowded with them. So the city slowly imposed these figures on me. Angels.

I didn't want to believe it at first. It didn't really sound like me. My interest in angels was limited. They had inhabited my childhood fantasies, maybe, as I was raised as a Catholic boy, but that was long ago.
Anyway, that obscure, scribbled line from my notebook — "Tell the city through the point of view of guardian angels" — seemed to want to be there for good. Other notes got erased. This one stuck, until I finally accepted my fate. The city had imposed the leading characters, I was sure the city was also going to take care of their story.

I started this movie without a script. On my wall in my office I just had lots of pictures, photos and Polaroid's of all the places that had to appear in the film and of all sorts of people that I wanted to discover via these angels, and lots of ideas for scenes. Possibilities were endless. These angels could appear anywhere, and through their perception anything could be revealed. Not only were they invisible, they could also hear people's most secret thoughts.

You really have to imagine this process of making a movie without a script as being very similar to a writer writing a poem. He wouldn't know what the next line would be, either. I never knew what I would shoot the next day. Anything was possible with these angel fellows. The places were all lined up on that wall, and just staring at them would inspire the next day's shoot.

Today, the film [Wings of Desire] is a historic document of a place that has vanished. This city does not exist anymore. A new city has taken its place. I don't think any documentary could do the Berlin of the 1980s more justice than this "story-less fiction film" that the city commissioned itself.

As you might know, there was a remake made of this film, ten years later, in the proverbial city of angels, which is Los Angeles. Some of you will have seen it, City of Angels as it was called. Actually, 10 times more people saw the remake than the original.
I had sold the remake rights thinking: "How strange they want to acquire the story rights to a film that was made without a story... I better take the money. Nobody can ever find the recipe for this one again, anyway."

Well, they made the film. A fine film, don't get me wrong. I do not want to discredit it at all. But if you think you know anything about the city of Los Angeles from seeing City of Angels... you're mistaken. Why? Because the driving engine behind this American film was ITS STORY. It was incredibly story-driven. Powerful story. Good actors. But it had no sense of place whatsoever. "Sense of place" also needs place to expand, to give space to, to breathe. "Story" doesn't like competition for the room that it wants to occupy with itself.

I'm telling you all this not to put down City of Angels. I'm quite proud to be the grandfather of this baby. But you see two very different approaches at work: TELLING A PLACE or TELLING A STORY.

Places in American movies are mostly exchangeable. There is very little local color in them, so to speak. Most stories could take place somewhere else just as well. (No wonder their favorite set these days is the blue screen, anyway... ) Cities and landscapes are "background," "locations," that are found by the "location manager." They are no longer heroes, like Monument Valley was in John Ford's Westerns. Of course, there are a few glorious examples that prove the opposite, but there are no rules without their exceptions.

As far as I'm concerned, the loss of place is a lost quality in movies. It comes with a loss of reality, a loss of identity. Maybe it is a European distinction to have more of a sense of place. Of course, there are more borders, more languages, more national identities.

 

Director Wim Wenders on the set of Wings of Desire

So you will often find films with a very strong local atmosphere, local touch, local slang. Films that are very "specific" by lack of a better word. Very few American films are that specific, or better, have an interest in specifics. They almost avoid it as if they were afraid that it might turn people off. As if too much "reality" and "local truth" would interfere with "The Story." Stories appear clearer, and dominate clearer, if they are center stage. Stories want to have first billings.

Again, I'm not here to criticize, I'm here to talk about a different approach. And how to interpret it. Not generally, but personally.

When Sam Shepard and myself sat together to come up with a script, back in 1982, we told each other lots of stories, at first, to find out what our common ground was. We realized we would never find it in "a story." There were too many of them, they were endless, we would still be talking to each other.

We discovered our common ground rather in a place: The American West, more specifically, its deserts, the border to Mexico. Those little lost places in the middle of nowhere.

We didn't have to convince each other that it would be worth it to start a movie there. We knew. No question about it, no second thoughts.

So when we had accepted that our film would start there, without any discussion, almost like in a silent agreement, the desert gave us our character, and our story. A man without memory, trying to reconnect with his past, trying to find his lost family.

I had traveled for months through Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, until I knew every road out there, or at least it felt like it. When Sam and I evoked a name of a place, we could write the next scene. Our itinerary became our storyline. The film's title, Paris, Texas, was not so much the name of a city, but became a metaphor for the torn biography of our hero.

Sam Shepard and I never wrote the entire script. We wrote half of it, and our intention was to shoot up to the middle, get to know our characters, learn everything about them and then write an ending that would come out of these people, organically, naturally, not out of a story that we had invented long before our characters had a chance to come to life. Sam would be with me on the shoot, travel with us, experience the place and the actors with me, and then would write the thing as we went along.

It was a beautiful concept, but didn't work. When we finally shot the film, after postponing several times, mainly for funding, Sam was under contract as an actor for another movie that was shot way up north, Country. So I ended up shooting my film without the writer at my side. Halfway into the shoot I ran out of script. No more pages. We stopped shooting. That was in the day before fax machines. Is there anybody in the audience who remembers that time? What did we do? How did we manage? There was a machine called "Telex." It was an unspeakable thing. I'm not even going to evoke the horror of it.

Anyway, in deep despair I thought about the second half of the story and how to end the movie. Somewhere in Texas, that's all I knew. (I'm not testing here if anybody actually saw the film or remembers it, so I will explain: our man without memory eventually finds his son in LA and then returns with the little boy to Texas to find his wife, the boy's mother.) So all we knew was that the movie was returning to Texas.

I couldn't think of any decent way to end our story, until I gave up trying to invent it and just started to think of places I knew. I thought about how much Houston had impressed me as a "mushroom city" that had grown in no time out of nowhere. I thought about the excitement of my first "drive-in banking" experience. I thought about the abundance of "space" in Texas. The story started to take shape.

I thought about the most desperate town I had ever seen. Port Arthur. It's only claim to fame being that Janis Joplin went to high school there. I remembered a picture I had taken of a crummy bar, half peep-show called "The Keyhole Club." The story fell into place.

I described these places to Sam over the phone. He understood immediately. He wrote what I considered the most amazing pages of screenplay I had ever read based on me describing places to him. He wrote those dislocated characters based on the knowledge of dislocated places.

He dictated the scenes over the phone to me. (That's actually what we did before faxes, if time was off the essence.)

I shot the second half of my film based on an intense knowledge of places. There was no time to do any more "location scouting." And no need: Those locations had scouted their story, not vice versa.

Now, don't think that I picked these examples out of my head, and that the rest of my films belonged to the rules instead of the exceptions. I assure you: There are even more obvious affirmations of my thesis.

What thesis? That places develop stories and make them happen. It's just not true that stories happen anyway, and just need "locations" to "take place in."

Until the End of the World is maybe the best example. That whole film started, 12 years before it actually got made, when I first stumbled into this beautiful, ancient, blessed continent here, more or less by accident. I had traveled through South East Asia. In Bali, I had picked up a novel in a used book store, A Town Like Alice. I devoured it, loved it and decided to travel on to this place.

So I came through the back door, and entered Australia via Darwin, in December of 1977. I was totally unprepared for what I was going to see. I rented a car and started driving. The first river I crossed I swam in. I found out what an idiot I was when I saw the crocodiles on display at the local motel that night, in Katherine.

But most of all, I was utterly unprepared for my encounter with the indigenous culture. These are extraordinary people, in many ways. Who am I to tell YOU about them? I am far from being as knowledgeable as some of you — but they were a revelation for me, from the moment on I grasped a notion of their sense of place.

Their whole existence was based upon it, as I started to understand. Their belief, their religion was "The Land" and its storytelling capacities. I learned that they are obliged, each one of them, to keep a stretch of their land alive by keeping its story alive. When they let that story die, when they let that land die along with its story, they themselves die with it. They are "singing their country," and I remembered: Homer was singing The Odyssey, not reading it.

The encounter with the Aboriginal culture of worshipping their places was what started this most ambitious film project of mine that in the end dealt with perception, with dreams and with the question of ownership of dreams. Were you allowed to record them, make them public and multiply them?

It was also the first time that the nomad in me felt strangely at home and that I understood that my deep and more or less subconscious appreciation of places had a context.

Many things fell "into place" for me afterwards. The transcendence of places, the way their physical appearance was linked to a "metaphysical existence" they had as well, which we so often deny to landscapes in our Western culture. The whole idea of creativity for instance.

We pride ourselves to be "creators" so often, when we're really nothing else than "hunters and collectors." We stumble upon things and find them, like images or stories, so we're their discoverers, at best, but not their instigators or "inventors."

So often we want to make OURSELVES look like the source of inspiration, and of ART, when the real author is nature, (or God) and the real storytellers and artists are PLACES.

Let me go to one last example, Buena Vista Social Club. (Finally a picture that some of you might have seen.) I went to Havana to shoot it, a place where I'd never been before. All I knew was the music that these old men had produced, electrifying, intoxicating, contagious music.

Once I saw and filmed Havana, I realized what was so special about this music. It came out of this city. That music was the blood of this city. The place had transcended into sound, so to speak, had found another form of existence in these songs. And these old men were able to produce and reproduce that story of their own place, because they had not abandoned it, like so many other musicians before them who had fled the country to go to Florida, to Mexico, to Spain. (Which I am not saying to discredit those who left, believe me.)

Their sense of identity and belonging, the incredible love of their own place, which had made these old men undergo a lot of pain and a lot of suffering, this had also turned out to be their strength and their saving grace. Music, great and moving music, does not happen without a sense of place either. It needs roots to draw from; it needs "story" and "his-story" (basically the same word) to nourish it.

Sometimes, of course, the absence of a place, the yearning for it, the exile from it, can produce the same roots: There would be no blues without the American South, without the Delta, without slavery, and without, finally, the lost home continent of Africa forever removed like a distant galaxy.

Anyway, I could go on with the entire list of my films, proving to you that they all started like this: As a place wanting to be told, as a place needing to be told.

That list wouldn't be complete if I kept my biggest failures a secret. Now, to prove my point through its reversal, the following two films show where I got when that sense of place was dislocated.

The Scarlet Letter, a beautiful, very American novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. That was my second film, originally intended to be done in New England, where it belonged: Salem, Massachusetts.

We lost some of our financing, a long story, I won't bore you. When I finally started the film, I had to shoot it, of all places, in Spain, and all the Puritans were played by Spanish Catholics. My only "American Indian" was an out of work bullfighter. That could still have worked. Actors can work with many handicaps. What didn't work was that we shot the film in a "Western village" near Madrid, where they actually shot most of the so-called "Spaghetti Westerns" that a lot of people believed took place in Italy. Well, I tell you: Those took place mainly in Spain. (I can prove it, too.) Shooting a story that belonged to the East Coast of the United States in the middle of Spain, that is what did us in. The STORY did not survive to be transplanted to another PLACE. It fell into pieces.

Or my last and final example: Hammett. The great American writer who influenced not only Chandler, Ross MacDonald or Mickey Spillane, but also Hemingway and Faulkner. I made a movie about him, for an American Studio. A fictional story when Hammett lived in San Francisco, worked there as a detective himself, and started to write those detective stories and novels that changed the face of mystery writing.

We shot the film in San Francisco. It was great. Authentic. True. The sense of place was there. The story was where it belonged, the city of San Francisco carried it, gave it its reason, provoked it, to say it more clearly.
The studio didn't like it. Not enough action, not enough fantasy. Too much rooted in reality. Whatever. Anyway, I ended up re-shooting most of the film in Los Angeles, both in the studio, and in the streets of downtown LA. It was all fake, of course, all make-believe. More story, that's for sure, but less soul.

A film dissociated from its place of origin, that's what I learned in the two cases, where story and place were not connected vitally, but put together arbitrarily, such a film is doomed. At least in my book it looks like a solid rule.

Now, very clearly, that rule doesn't apply in the case of most contemporary American films. They don't even care much for that distinction of "doing justice to a place." They first of all do justice to their stories. And that works, most of the time, doesn't it?

But at what price? American films tend to make up for their lack of place with ever shinier surfaces, with more spectacular special effects, with greater, outrageous budgets, more luscious sets. They fill the hole they have created with glorious material. But did you ever have the sneaking suspicion that it was "filler" for the real thing?

I might have exaggerated, I admit, overdoing the role of "Place" in storytelling a bit. The other source of stories, obviously, and maybe just as important, are "Characters."

(I'm going to be very brief here and skip a few things, this is a wide subject and leading us too far away) Stories come out of amazing characters, out of people.

But again, just like with the places, who were turned from "instigators" to "background" we have come to accept and believe the wrong idea about people as well. Instead of people and characters being in charge of their destiny, movies teach us the opposite, more and more, which is the utterly erroneous concept that STORIES form CHARACTERS. That people are subject to stories, their victims, so to speak, not vice versa.

People and places have become the scenery of stories, they are no longer its origins. In most American movies today, the plots manipulate the characters. People are pushed around by the events. And events, most of the time, are nothing but a chain of spectacular action effects.

Do you understand why I have come to believe that movies more and more represent the world turned upside down: Not people in control of their fates, turning their lives into stories, but stories turning people into their slaves, into "assets." "Places" are no longer at the roots of stories, grounding people like ANCHORS, but becoming exchangeable "locations."

"The Story" as an industrial asset, owned by the same anonymous conglomerates that own other resources, like oil, such stories have been promoted to be the paramount force to move imagery and imagination, at the expense of the story-building power of people and places.

That shift we're witnessing these days will drastically shape and form future generations. Not only will their imagination change, but ultimately their image of themselves, their self-respect, and their knowledge of our common place — planet Earth.

Now, I might not have to explain much anymore, about why I called my exhibition: Pictures from the Surface of the Earth, as if they were from an unknown star. Or why I love taking photographs. After this long discourse as a filmmaker, you can imagine, maybe, hopefully, how I feel when I stand alone, just with my camera, in front of a place.

As a photographer, I can stand there alone. No need for a hundred people around you. No need for an assistant to shout "Silence." Mostly it IS silent. So I can just stand there and listen. I can almost use my camera like a sound recorder, capture the place's sounds sure, but most of all, capture it telling its story and its history.

My favorite Beatles lyrics goes:
There are places I remember all my life
Though some have changed ...
All these places had their moments ...
In my life I've loved them all.

(A good thing I didn't become a musician, after all.) I'm happy to be a photographer of places. Others take great photographs of people. One of them is Donata, my wife. She has an incredible gift to see people, at their best. For my part, I couldn't be happier with my subjects – PLACES.

Places where we spend our lives.
Places that we visit for just one moment.
Places we discover by chance.
Places that attract us by their name on a map alone.
Places we will never see again.
Places we can never forget.
Places we long to come back to.
Places that scare us.
Places that comfort us.
Places that make us feel at home.
Places we find repulsive.
Places that fill us with awe.

Places we dreamed about before we ever got there.
Places we got lost in,
and places that we lost ourselves.

Places condition us.
Places protect us.
Places destroy us.

As metaphorical as they might appear, places are always real. You can walk around in them or lie down on the ground. You can take a stone with you or a handful of sand. But you can't take the place with you.

You can never really own a place. Even the camera can't. And if we take its picture, we're only borrowing the place's appearance for a little while, nothing but its outer skin, its surface.

Some of the places I photographed are about to disappear, might already have vanished from the surface of the Earth. They will only survive in photographs, or better: The memory of them will have to cling to the pictures we have of them. Other places will outlive us and even our efforts to capture them on photographs. More so: They will survive any trace of us.

In a million years, when no one will be around any more to even remember us faintly, some of these places will. Places have memories. They remember everything. It's engraved in stone. It's deeper than the deepest waters. Their memories are like sand dunes, wandering on and on.

I guess that's why I take pictures of places: I don't want to take them for granted. I want to urge them not to forget us!

And I want to urge you, not to forget this precious ability that we were given: To decipher the stories that places can tell us.

Otherwise we'll all become victims of that Great American Loss of...
the Unique,
the Specific,
the Unmistakable,
the Deeply rooted ...
briefly: our own dreamings.

The so-called "Global Culture" is nothing but the extension of that loss of identity to the rest of the world.

We all suffer, in this 21st century, from an insane amount of exchangeable images and exchangeable stories, and a terrible withdrawal from first-hand experience.

It leads, slowly but steadily, to an ongoing loss of reality, and to the loss of belief once more, in the story-telling capacity of places.

According to the indigenous people of Australia places die if they are not kept alive, and so do we, along with them.

In my book, they're damn right.

Features

Directors and their teams working together to solve problems in film and television in the past and present.

More from this topic