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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.”

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

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