Wrong Move: Utter Detachment, Utter Truth

Wrong Move essay

In his 2002 audio commentary for Wrong Move, Wim Wenders makes two enlightening statements about Goethe’s 1795 novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, the nominal source for his film. The first is that Peter Handke, who wrote the screenplay, used not a word of the novel’s dialogue and very little of its doings. He took only its engine, that of the bildungsroman (it was one of the first ever written), in which a young man goes into the world on a journey of self-realization. Goethe’s complicated novel, spanning four book-length chapters, explores in lengthy scenes and sometimes turbulent dialogue and discourse questions of friendship, ontology, music, the theater, the nobility and necessity of suffering for producing valid art, love—and in every case, young Wilhelm comes away informed, seasoned, bettered. In an 1828 essay, Thomas Carlyle characterized Wilhelm’s state of well-being after his adventure: “The once gloomy and perturbed spirit is now serene, cheerfully vigorous, and rich in good fruits.”

Wrong Move’s Wilhelm is in a crisis state too, but not only over his art. It seems his whole existence is at stake. He says, “I want to be a writer, but is that possible when you don’t like people?” and attempts a story about “somebody who is a kind man, but also incapable of any pity.” When his lover threatens him with violence, he invites her to “Kill me, go ahead.” Those few other Goethe characters who have, very roughly speaking, counterparts in Wrong Move are remade entirely. In Goethe, Mignon is an eerily gifted singer and dancer, an intuitive artiste, an ennobling being. Thirteen-year-old Nastassja Kinski is the film’s Mignon, a pickpocket, a street acrobat, the Harpo-mute sidekick of a shady old con man. The film is tethered to Goethe by such fragile, contradictory connections.

The second of Wenders’s assertions in that commentary (which is included on this release) is more definitive, and it has guided my own thoughts about this wonderful film and the ineffable sense of kinship I have felt with it. Wenders speculates that by 1974, when he was shooting the film, the idea of going out into the world to know its ways was wrongheaded, that the theater of experience had changed venues, that Goethe’s novel was irrelevant, and that the signal conceit of the bildungsroman (of the grand tour as well, we may assume) was a mistaken one. Wrong Move is motivated as a refutation of Goethe, or of the spirit of eighteenth-century German Romanticism, and thus Handke and Wenders’s Wilhelm is damaged rather than enlightened by his foray; his wrong move is leaving home at all.

The film presents a post-sixties move inward and articulates the sudden pessimism of the day—the recognition of old things coming to an end and of the revolutionary promises of the boomer generation going sour—both in the precise language Handke and his character give away, depicting this state of things, and in how these utterances implode, denying their own efficacy despite their lyricism.

Wilhelm says, “If only politics and poetry could be united.” And the old con man responds, “That would mean the end of longing . . . and the end of the world.”

Handke’s poetry of malice strives for a stark sovereignty, a freedom from reliance on predictable notions and interpretations, an infolded beauty of utter detachment and utter truth that works, in a counterbalancing harmony, as a perfect ideological soundtrack for Wenders and resourceful Dutch cameraman Robby Müller’s accessible and appealing flying, training, tracking, walking visuals. Or maybe it’s better to say that wherever Handke inflicts bleak views, the film answers with rich images.

Wrong Move was the twenty-nine-year-old Wenders’s third major film, his sixth film with Müller, his third with composer Jürgen Knieper, and his second with Handke, his friend of ten years. The two had met when Wenders was finishing secondary school in Oberhausen and attended a performance of Handke’s play Offending the Audience.

Handke, then thirty-two, was an internationally renowned writer, and virtually his own school of literature. He had given Wenders, two years before and without charge, the generous, career-making gift of the film rights to his novel The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, and Wenders responded by making a film that was brilliant enough to move him to the head of the New German Cinema class: Herzog, Fassbinder, von Trotta, Schlöndorff . . .

Wrong Move’s dark script, the film’s guidance system, was written soon after Handke’s fifty-one-year-old mother committed suicide, an act that so shattered him that he (just like Wilhelm) seems to have lost faith in the power of his writing to serve as ameliorator between events and feelings. In his most nakedly confessional book, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, subtitled A Life Story and written in response to his mother’s death (she died in 1971; the book is from 1972; the script came a year later), Handke bemoans the failure of his normal strategy of “writing away” from his subject, thereby achieving a metaphysical distance.

He cannot get outside his own mourning and grief. “My sentences crash in the darkness and lie scattered on the paper,” he writes. And I can “hear” Wilhelm giving this voice, as if lashing out against the cheerful fecundity of Goethe’s prose.

But Wrong Move is finally and emphatically Wenders’s film; his is the intelligence behind each shot and the work’s aggregate effect. Though he honored Handke’s dictate that he use the dialogue exactly as is, Wenders chose the film’s starting point, its itinerary, its graceful and elegant progress through settings and sites that often have a nostalgic pull for him, including the mountain vineyards where his mother grew up. (And he does ask his Wilhelm to lightly sing a scrap of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” his only verbal deviation from Handke, perhaps to illustrate his generation’s version of a bildungsroman.)

While Handke—through Wilhelm—despairs of his ability to communicate, Wenders paradoxically does so brilliantly. How does one make a movie about the impossibility of moviemaking, a road movie about the uselessness of travel, a literary film about the impossibility of communication? And without resorting to postmodern irony, to the inside joke, to the wink and nudge? Not with magic but with work and impeccable planning and, Wenders says, luck. I need to lean on his commentary a bit, where it supplies the technical hows and means of a filmic grammar and syntax, the eloquent language Wilhelm cannot find.

The film begins with a helicopter shot, a glide above the silvery-bronze Elbe River in northernmost Germany, above the small city of Glückstadt, pretty in the wet greens of early fall, white or gray stone houses with red clay-tile roofs below. It ends in southernmost Germany, atop the snowy Zugspitze. The journey between was shot in four weeks with a first-generation Arriflex camera, one that held four minutes of film. Even as a civilian, one who has never shot so much as a cell phone video, I can imagine the challenges: Do I have enough film for another take? Even part of one?

There were no gyroscope-stabilized Steadicams in 1974, and for this film, neither the time nor the budget to build rails for the camera to track along, enabling a smooth and graceful traveling shot. So Müller and Wenders used a Renault 4L Quatrelle hatchback, put the camera in the car’s back well, dropped its back door, and shot reversing away from advancing actors or toward retreating actors. There are many tracking shots in Wrong Move, it rivals the roaming camera work of Max Ophuls in this, and they are steady and fluid. One aerial pan was made by borrowing a flimsy construction crane and lowering Müller and camera in a diagonal descent across the cement geometry of a cityscape to find a seated Wilhelm.

Wenders says he didn’t use storyboards, and as there were no mobile microphones at the time, he simply used direct sound. No looped dialogue. He recorded the actors and didn’t do any postproduction “cleaning up.” (Handke did write voice-over narration for Wilhelm to speak after seeing a rough cut of the film.)

So we hear, in parts of the film, gunfire that punctuates the dialogue randomly, almost as Godard uses detached sounds as a tool in his battery of ways to address an audience. But in this case, the explosions are ambient noise, simply from residents near the filming location chasing birds from trees. If their accidental intrusion adds to the notion that being on the road is as much war as it is benevolent education, so be it. And Wenders allows the light to change from shot to shot because, in life, clouds pass over the sun, and faces and figures are lit or shadowed accordingly.

He risks things that no veteran director would try, including using walkie-talkies to coordinate a shot through the window of one moving train of a figure in a train running temporarily parallel. One take to get the shot, because the railroad would not stop its intercity transportation for a film without a budget to compensate it. And again, if one sees a kind of metaphor in the situation of a man, trapped in a machine that is his fate, joining for a time with a woman likewise fated to go elsewhere . . .

For this shot and for the many risky ones involving capturing the exact moment of dusk between full-on day and a darkness that will occlude vision, Wenders credits the almost supernatural reflexes and machine-to-eye reactions of his cinematographer. Müller’s palette here is rich and deep and, appropriate for Goethe if not Handke, purposefully reminiscent of the dreamy paintings of, Wenders says, Caspar David Friedrich.

All together, not counting actors, the movie was filmed by roughly a dozen people, including two grips, one soundman, Müller, one person for hair and makeup. It is a masterwork of economy, skill, and inventiveness, which is maybe why I feel a kind of triumph during the last shot of Wilhelm on the highest mountain in Germany, surveying a beautiful, mural-like vista of snowcapped peaks and deep valleys.

Finally, a word about the actors, who form a temporary, odd, and appealing itinerant family. Maybe these characters, disembodied in Handke’s script, were intended by him to be less likeable. His Therese seems Wilhelm’s match in both misanthropy and doubts about her art, for example. But as embodied by Hanna Schygulla, this character is magnetic, her candor alluring, her acidic assessment of her art bracing. And I feel sorrow when Wilhelm tells us, late in the film, after they witness a suicide, “It seemed we had lost direction. The journey through Germany I had so far experienced as an adventure and work was interrupted, and we moved on in a stupid panic . . . We stayed together, but we were moving apart as well.”

As Wilhelm, Rüdiger Vogler, cleaned up between Alice in the Cities and Kings of the Road, shaved and in a pressed collar and cuffs, has a face coded to reflect covert contrary moods: a stern misery that thaws as if at some private joke; an imperious mask of privacy with bursts of sunny amusement.

Schygulla is pretty, new in her career. We watch her watch us through sunlight, with her elbows resting on a half-opened train window, coursing beside us. A smashing entrance, followed by a performance as an actor who hates acting (Goethe would disapprove), a lover who mocks love.

The comically inept poet is played by the late Peter Kern, in his first screen role of many. He later became a producer and directed more than twenty-five films himself, but here he is that most frightening and amusing figure to a novice writer like Wilhelm: a truly dreadful and clueless sample of the breed.

And Hans Christian Blech plays Mignon’s companion and interpreter (he speaks for her, literally), an ex–Olympic athlete, ex–Nazi adjutant who killed innocents, a thoroughly bad man who is a grifter, living off Mignon and what he can scam by feigning blindness. Blech’s is an old warrior’s face, sculpturally cleaved, with a flattened nose and a scarred mouth and cheek, and he projects challenge and intimidation until both are belied by his merry-eyed, charred laugh.

Finally, Kinski provides “presence,” as Wenders says. She’s androgynous at first glance, under bangs, slouched on her spine, in her full-length overcoat, her faded coveralls, her Converse tennis shoes propped on a facing seat. Then, without changing position, she turns into a high-fashion model and, in a blink, back into a kid, a child infatuated by Wilhelm.

The ultimate effect of the film is of a panicky and distressed writer, under his stoic facade, struggling for meaning and some way to articulate his lost ability to express his discontent. And as the writer gropes for the language he can’t speak, the filmmaker reports about travel, love, loss, even, against all the odds and the spirit of a script he is meant to follow, the excitement of carrying on, being alive. That is, Wenders, while keeping his old friend’s script intact, balances its ruthlessness, its despair, with virtuoso filmmaking, with a road movie that traces heart lines through a country that is broken and haunted but still often stunning.

When, at film’s end, Wilhelm questions and chides himself for leaving his friends, and for his despair, I feel, and deeply, the wrongness of his moves as well, the hopelessness of his ever sussing out a better route, a better way to be, even one right move—as both writer and director, ultimately in perfect harmony, intended.

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