Until the End of the World: The End of the Road

<em>Until the End of the World: </em>The End of the Road

Wim Wenders has often referred to his Until the End of the World (1991) as the “ultimate road movie,” and even he may not realize how accurate that description has turned out to be. It certainly was, and remains, the director’s most expansive and ambitious effort in the genre that had defined so much of his career, and it would be the last road movie he would make for many years. A box-office disaster upon its initial release, in a version that was truncated at 158 minutes, Until the End of the World quickly gained acceptance as a film maudit, one of those wounded works that still contain trace elements of their thwarted brilliance. The full 287-minute director’s cut, on the other hand, is a flat-out masterpiece.

As Wenders himself tells it, he was contractually oblig­ated to deliver a finished work of two and a half hours but realized during editing that this would be nearly impossible. He asked his producing partners to let him release a longer film, in two parts. When they rejected that idea, the director decided to do what he has said was the “smartest thing I ever did in my life”: he secretly preserved both his longer work print and his Super 35 mm camera negative, and paid to create a duplicate positive from which he could strike what he now calls the Reader’s Digest theatrical version.

Director’s cuts had not yet become commonplace in the early nineties, but Wenders had the foresight to believe that he’d one day get the opportunity to release a longer edit. Years later, he did exactly that, having honed his work print down to the nearly five-hour magnum opus that he began personally screening at museums and one-off events as early as 1993. It was released theatrically in 2015, bringing to a close a quest that had taken the director nearly four decades.

Wenders had gotten the idea for Until the End of the World in 1977 or 1978, after an impromptu visit to Australia turned into a months-long stay in the country. “I was so taken by the Aboriginal culture and by the idea of dreamlines and songlines that I started to write a science-fiction film about the end of the world, where the images of the world were saved, in a remote place in the Australian desert,” he would recall. He later fused that concept with another one, a retelling of The Odyssey in which Penelope, frustrated by waiting for Odysseus, sets off to find him. Along the way, Wenders collaborated with his muse and star Solveig Dommartin, the author Peter Carey, and the filmmaker Michael Almereyda on the ever-changing story and script. One can sense these artists’ influence—Almereyda’s genre-fluid experimentation, say, or the feminine perspective of Dommartin, whose voice and presence lend to the film a playful tenderness missing from much of Wenders’ previous output—in the finished product, as well as that of literary works like Bruce Chatwin’s book The Songlines, about Aboriginal song culture and its connections to dreams and the land, and Paul Auster’s dystopian, existential missing-person mystery-romance In the Country of Last Things.

“Wenders was imagining a future at a time when the present already felt strange and new, like a wonderful dream.”

It was only after the success of Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987) that Wenders finally had the clout to mount this ambitious shoot—in twenty cities, nine countries, four continents—which, with its $24 million price tag, would turn out to be one of the biggest European productions of all time. Those two earlier hits also had a major thematic impact on the new project, because they each represented a kind of closure in Wenders’ career: Paris, Texas was perhaps his definitive portrayal of America, by which he had been fascinated all his life. And Wings of Desire, with its melancholy vision of a divided, insular Berlin presided over by imperfect angels, felt like his ultimate statement on his native Germany (though he did make a now largely forgotten sequel to Wings, 1993’s Faraway, So Close!, in the wake of the failure of Until the End of the World). These two films liberated Wenders: the road before him now seemed more open than ever.

You can sense this openness, this anxious awe at the vastness of the world, in every globe-hopping minute of Until the End of the World. Wenders famously reached out to twenty of his favorite international musical acts to contribute a song they might imagine themselves playing in the year 1999. Almost all of them accepted the challenge, and he wound up with an epoch-defining rock soundtrack, which could be heard only in bizarre snippets in the shortened version but is allowed to breathe in the full director’s cut, where the music becomes just as much a part of the aura of the film as its images. Meanwhile, Robby Müller’s colorful, eclectic cinematography incorporates multiple shooting formats and styles—from shadowy noir to urban grit to placid naturalism to elegant classicism to pixelated techno fuzz and more. Wenders was one of the world’s foremost filmmakers at the dawn of the nineties, but he also had a (not entirely fair) reputation for making grim, angst-ridden movies—reflecting the stereotype of the bespectacled, black-clad German artiste. Until the End of the World, however, feels like the work of a free man, working in a newly free world.

Wenders told the Los Angeles Times during production: “This is not a science-fiction film. It’s a contemporary film that we set ten years into the future so we could take a few liberties.” He took more than a few, and many of them turned out to be strikingly prescient. The characters drive cars guided by navigation systems not unlike today’s GPS. The internet had only just begun to be commercially available at the time Until the End of the World was made, but the movie accurately portrays the use of search engines, as well as our ability to find people anywhere on earth thanks to their digital footprints. Even the film’s framing device, involving worldwide panic over an Indian satellite crashing on the eve of the millennium and wiping out all electronic communications, makes for an interesting analogue to the very real fear many had in 1999 and the years leading up to it that the Y2K bug would plunge a technologically reliant planet back into the Stone Age.

In setting the film so close to his own time, Wenders allowed himself to expand on the present. For the world in 1990 was already a dramatically different place than it had been just a few years earlier, especially for a German filmmaker. The Berlin Wall had fallen in 1989, part of the seismic series of events that spelled the end of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War, resulting in a civilization that seemed to no longer be defined by deadly borders. (Initially, the wall’s coming down was to be a plot point in the futuristic film, but by the time Wenders finished shooting, it was already a thing of the past.) “History is picking up speed along with technological developments, human behavior, and everything else,” the director remarked at the time. Maybe this accounts for the film’s weird, colorful exuberance. Wenders was imagining a future at a time when the present already felt strange and new, like a wonderful dream. But he also suggests that within this brave new world’s wonders would lie the seeds of its own destruction. That’s another way this is the ultimate road movie—it’s about the end of the road.

The short and long versions of Until the End of the World follow pretty much the same story, but for Wenders, the story itself doesn’t matter so much as how he uses perspective and rhythm to tell it. The film alternates between a cinematically buoyant, international espionage plot and a creeping, unnerving stasis. You can see hints of this in its opening scenes, as Claire Tourneur (Dommartin) wakes up in the middle of a never-ending party in Venice and wanders, disoriented, through different multicolored rooms (which may recall for some the creatively lit spaces of Jean-Luc Godard’s own lovers-on-the-run road movie, Pierrot le fou), filled with partygoers who have either passed out or look like they’ve been dancing since the beginning of time. Talking Heads’ “Sax and Violins” plays in the background, as the Day-Glo lighting combines with the artful clutter and shiny, futuristic costumes to create an alluring sense of decadence and decay. After making her exit, leisurely taking a gondola through the canals of Venice (a ride perhaps inspired by Luchino Visconti, cinema’s great poet of historical decadence), and finding her way to her car, our heroine winds up in an epic traffic jam between Venice and France (shades again of Godard, this time Weekend), which prompts her to detour through a forest. Soon enough, she is driving through a majestic landscape devoid of any cars or people whatsoever (which looks like something out of a John Ford or Anthony Mann western). In these early scenes, Claire is confronted with various forms of inertia, and her restlessness prompts her to seek ways out of it. She doesn’t have a destination. She’s a wanderer looking only to keep moving. (Oh, and she also pulls off her black Anna Karina wig to reveal herself to be a blonde, à la Brigitte Bardot in Contempt, finally making the Godard allusions overt.)

“The film is not just about the relationships between its characters but about the artist’s relationship to the future, and to the planet.”

As often happens in Wenders’ work, the drifter without purpose meets a drifter with purpose. Claire’s eventual obsession and globe-trotting dalliance with Sam Farber (William Hurt)—whom she first encounters at a bank of videophones in a crowded, devastated mall somewhere between Saint-Étienne and Lyon, France—allows her to latch on to someone whose wanderings are driven by something concrete. For Sam (who first goes under the name Trevor McPhee), the trek from city to city and country to coun­try is merely a pretext for a deeper journey: he has commandeered a state-of-the-art camera developed by his own father, Dr. Henry Farber (Max von Sydow), that records the cameraperson’s brain waves alongside the images; we eventually discover that Henry and Sam intend to use those brain waves to enable Sam’s blind mother, Edith (Jeanne Moreau), to see. Sam is going around the world filming family and close friends, so that his footage can then be neurologically projected into Edith’s brain at Henry’s secret lab in Australia. In other words, Sam’s trip is really a voyage into the mind.

To keep things moving, Wenders also adds a quirky, complicated, and not-particularly-tense chase subplot. When we meet Sam, he’s being pursued by a mysterious bounty hunter named Burt (Ernie Dingo). Then he’s chased by Claire, who employs a private investigator named Phillip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler, rep­rising his traditional role as Wenders’ stand-in, though this film in particular is overflowing with Wenders stand-ins), who then winds up chasing both Claire and Sam, and is later joined by Eugene (Sam Neill), Claire’s ex, who has begun writing a story about her that seems to both reflect the film’s narrative and, at times, dictate it.

If that sounds confusing, it’s meant to be. Wenders loves to incorporate genre elements but also to deny us basic genre pleasures, and he makes it clear that none of this is quite on the level. So Until the End of the World is filled with stone-faced, tough-guy bank robbers who turn out to be generous and easygoing, and fedora-and-overcoat-wearing detectives and bounty hunters who prove to be gentle pushovers. Even Eugene, who follows the lover who scorned him halfway around the world, doesn’t seem particularly committed to winning her back. Everybody is stuck playing a part that they’re eager to shed. (This extends to Sam, who often assumes a fake name, and Claire, who often assumes fake hair.) The movie ambles along, fueled not by menace and suspense and mystery but by a gathering sense of ramshackle camaraderie. By the time everybody winds up in Australia in the second half, it feels more like a reunion of old friends than some sort of climactic confrontation.

Adding to the atmosphere of make-believe are Wenders’ constant cinematic allusions, which highlight the artificiality and the visually dense beauty of this world. The director has clearly fallen a little in love with the dead-end millenarian despondency he has conjured. The film is a growing patchwork of allusions, and each stop on Claire and Sam’s journey has its own aesthetic reference points. A mad chase in Tokyo recalls the work of Samuel Fuller and Seijun Suzuki. French gangsters look like they’ve stepped out of a Jean-Pierre Melville picture. At one point, Claire and Sam are handcuffed together, like the heroes of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. The existentially despairing psychodrama in the Australian outback of the later scenes could be a cross between Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni (and the film features two of cinema’s most iconic faces in Moreau, star of Antonioni’s La notte, and von Sydow, Bergman’s frequent collaborator).

Until the End of the World feels like the work of someone drunk on images and sounds. So much so that it requires something of an intervention—which, ironically, also involves a cinematic tribute. In Japan, Claire and Sam get on a train at random and find themselves checking into a small, secluded inn in the woods, where they are tended to by an elderly man and woman, played by Chishu Ryu and Kuniko Miyake, two of Yasujiro Ozu’s most unforgettable performers. Sam has gone nearly blind from his work with his father’s camera, and while Claire applies healing herbs to his eyes, the film’s pace slows, the frames are simplified down to basic two-shots and master shots, and nature dominates the soundtrack. In essence, Wenders uses Ozu to find his way back from the visual delirium of the modern world. 

Wenders believes in the healing power of art, but he also believes in its toxic potential. The director’s father was a surgeon, and in his youth Wenders was torn between pursuing the priesthood and medicine. Until the End of the World could be thought of, on some level, as an attempt to reunite sound and vision with moral purpose. Early on, Eugene notes that days spent alone at home in the wake of Claire’s abandonment prompted him to pray again, “as I had long ago, hesitantly at first but accepting the good that it did me.” He adds, “Out of this peace came the beginning of my first novel. Claire was its leading character.” It’s a surreal, salutary hall of narrative mirrors: Claire inspires Eugene to start a self-reflective novel, which, at the end of the film, will help save Claire from the disease of images.

Although Wenders has described himself as a practicing Christian, his moral vision here isn’t so much religious as it is elemental: truth and beauty and healing are found not in dogma but in the simplest, most fundamental things, which are ultimately the most sacred. To relax, Sam listens to the sounds of singing Pygmy children that his mom recorded many years ago. In the second half of the film, indigenous people of Australia, who use songs to navigate their land and preserve their culture, offer an animist, oral alternative to the pop clutter of technological doodads and languages and postmodern hieroglyphs that dominate the first half.

The broad outline of Until the End of the World—a man and a woman go from country to country, continent to continent, shooting footage that eventually consumes and almost kills them—could easily be a metaphor not just for filmmaking but for the making of this film specifically. Wenders had always liked to shoot in sequence, in part because it allowed him to improvise scenes and build around his initially threadbare scenarios. This meant that his pictures’ very form and structure often bore the imprint of their real-life creation. With road movies, of course, this approach made particular sense: the journey of the production and the journey depicted on-screen mimicked each other. But it also meant that the film could reflect its creator’s evolving state of mind. In early works such as Alice in the Cities (1974) and Kings of the Road (1976)—intimate stories about changing dynamics between very different individuals—this evolution is subtle, the narratives internalized. But Until the End of the World is a different kind of road movie, because of not simply the scale of the journey depicted but also the director’s speculative gambit: the film is not just about the relationships between its characters but about the artist’s relationship to the future, and to the planet.

Which makes the bleak, isolated quality of the film’s final stretches that much more tragic, and prophetic. Claire and Sam, having seized a handheld device of Henry’s invention that lets them record and watch their own dreams, become obsessed with these mobile instruments. We see them hypnotized and withdrawn, sitting away from each other—a spectacle that looks alarmingly like today’s mass iPhone addiction. (Claire’s meltdown when the battery in her device dies has a particular sting.) The starkness of these scenes repre­sents a sharp contrast to the allusive, playful jauntiness of the rest of the film—almost as if the work itself is undergoing a withdrawal from the overload of color, movement, and music of the past four hours. Throughout, with his mix of styles and formats, Wenders has given the film a collagelike texture. But in these later scenes, the frame is often dominated by digitally altered, high-definition video images culled from the characters’ minds—indistinct, ominous fragments of their dreams. Interestingly, Until the End of the World was one of the first films to use HD imagery extensively, but Wenders exploits the technology not for its much-ballyhooed clarity or resolution but rather for its malleability—he alters individual pixels and lines to create abstract moving canvases, in an effort to present sequences that look nothing like cinema’s previous attempts to depict dreams. The effect is both beautiful and agonizing, the kinetic runoff of a world in which images have become currency. The director has called it the “apocalypse of our visual culture.”

We talk often of people finding themselves. It’s the age-old cliché about travelers: that their journeys will ultimately lead to self-knowledge. That is exactly what Claire and Sam find in Henry’s instruments: doorways into their innermost selves. And in Wenders’ formulation, this is poisonous. The characters drown in self-absorption as these devices reflect their selves back at them. In this sense, Wenders saves his greatest, most alarming prophecy for last: What if all the promises of technology and of the road—indeed, of cinema itself—came true, and all the doors of perception were opened, and at the end of it all, in finding ourselves, we found nothing but paralysis and despair? What if the arrival turned out to be more perilous than the journey? What if the end of the road was the end of our dreams?

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