Near the Beginning of Until the End of the World

Near the Beginning of <em>Until the End of the World</em><em></em>

The following account was scratched together in August 1990, when Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World was still taking shape in the editing room. Apart from a basic rinse of copy editing, I’m offering it up essentially as is, fighting the temptation to insert memories that exist outside the frame—a visit to the set in San Francisco; time spent back in Berlin while Wim and his editor, Peter Przygodda, were facing final deadlines; and my sense of an aftermath, when the first, mostly dismal reviews came in. Suffice it to say, working with Wenders involved my deepest professional plunge into screenwriting, my most devoted commitment to telling someone else’s story, while the experience also underlined the educational—or was it traumatic?—fact that screenplays tend to be mere starting points, sparks and flares set off in the dark before filmmakers can fully know where they’re going, or determine how to get there.

In memory of Solveig Dommartin (1961–2007)

I arrived in Berlin in mid-March, 1986, to talk over the prospect of writing the screenplay for Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World. I was a month shy of twenty-seven, and it didn’t occur to me that I might be considered young for the job. I’d just directed a self-financed short film, stalled in editing until I could get money for postproduction; I’d been professionally supplying scripts to other people for the past six years, pretty much since dropping out of college, so I was in fact more than ready to quit screenwriting altogether. All the same, a lucrative Warner Bros. deal, involving a trip to Rio de Janeiro to write something called Heartbreak Tango with Manuel Puig, loomed on the horizon, and there was a plausible job for Disney involving travel to Tokyo. But the siren call came from Berlin.

Wim was forty and, in the wake of Paris, Texas, just beginning to take his place as the reigning European filmmaker of his generation. I’d seen all his films, most of them more than once and most of them in the space of one year, when I was nineteen or twenty, attending movies more often than classes. I loved these films, three or four of them in particular, as much as any I knew. They were plainly, physically beautiful, and they seemed somehow transcribed from experience more directly than films by almost anyone else. Here was a guy interested in unhurried, intimate action, the mystery of objects, the spectacle of light in a room, the awareness of a landscape, a city, holding an identity outside the urgencies of a movie’s plot. But plots—strangely exciting, low-key stories—asserted themselves in Wenders films as a sort of riptide riding the flow of sharp, cool, elliptical images. I was taken with the clarity and concentration given to stories that were resolutely open-ended, unresolved. The excitement, frame for frame, came out of a spirit of passionate attentiveness, the conviction that the surfaces of the world, described with precision and respect, can register on the screen as distillations of feeling.

Wim Wenders and Solveig Dommartin in their Berlin apartment, 1986.  Photo: Michael Almereyda

Actually I’d first met Wim in a bar in 1981, following a New York Film Festival screening of Lightning over Water. I spared him my opinions of his films but mentioned a mutual friend, painter/film critic Manny Farber (whose name I later attached to the character played by Max von Sydow in Until the End of the World). Wim gave me his phone number and we had a series of non-conversations—I was too shy; he was always busy, surrounded—over the next year, culminating in Los Angeles in a game of ping-pong on the Hammett mixing stage. Ping-pong led to an episode of tennis. As I was without a car, Wim ferried me to the court. He was wearing black tennis shoes, black shorts, a black T-shirt, and a black Hammett baseball cap; I was outfitted in ordinary street clothes. But I’d played briefly on the Newport Harbor High tennis team, and I trounced Wim so thoroughly we rode back in his car in silence. I didn’t see or speak to him again for three years.

But in Berlin all was forgiven. I was installed in a hotel near the zoo, and the immediate neighborhood—the glossy commercial stretch of hotels and shops lining the Kurfürstendamm—dismayed me by being clean and new and nothing like the sooty sprawl I’d imagined from George Grosz drawings. The blocklong buildings, adorned with red and green and blue signs spelling out brand names of electronic components, looked like massive stereo consoles. It was hard to picture Brecht here, or Fritz Lang, or even, for that matter, Wim Wenders.

Wim was there, though, living with Solveig Dommartin in an airy, two-storied apartment just off the Ku-dam. They’d moved in recently, most everything they owned was somewhere else, and the place had an elegant spareness. On the larger, upper floor, slanted dormer windows provided views of the skyline and, directly below, a school playground across the street. A single TV—a Japanese model with a screen no bigger than the face of a book—rested on the floor beside the futon they slept in; the futon was folded, mounted, transformed into a couch by day. The shelves contained as many photo albums as books, and three long worktables sustained a tide of papers, magazines, cassettes, and (they had just hit the market; Wim bought them in stacks) CDs.

In preparation for my arrival they decked one wide wall with note cards describing every scene. The cards were arranged by country, in vertical columns, and covered the entire wall. This might have seemed a bit daunting, I now realize, but I’d never before worked with note cards and treated the whole thing like one big sight gag. Then, too, I had some idea of what I was in for, having been briefed in L.A. about the basic premise: the woman pursuing the man across fifteen countries, the glasses that record electronic impulses from the optic nerve, the images fed into the brain of an old blind woman, the inventor who applies his machinery to record and devour dreams.

Wim had been working with Solveig on this for a full two years, location scouting all over the world, and they had discovered they couldn’t quite break it down into a script. They were too close to it. They needed someone to stand back, trim and bridge their ideas into something coherent, presentable. (By November 1985, they’d been turned down by several writers, mostly novelists, when Dennis Hopper gave Wim the script for my short film.)

We gathered around a table, a few feet from the wall, and I did little but listen those first few days, as Wim talked, detailing the story in three- or four-hour installments—the exhaustive, definitive version, spoken (for reasons I don’t remember) into a Walkman tape recorder, the small mike clipped to his shirt collar.

“The movie was to be a grand, globe-hopping summation of Wenders images and themes. It was about everything—travel, memory, seeing, image-making, love, faith, the future.”

Polaroids snapped at the time fail to capture Wim’s distinctive, dog-faced handsomeness. The downturned mouth looks somehow disapproving in photos, and his eyes go cloudy behind thick-lensed glasses. He’s actually uncommonly attractive, tall, broad-shouldered. You have to be with him to take in the variously disarming ways he plays off against his palooka-like sturdiness. There’s the dry, quiet voice, the air of nerveless patience, and a quality of absorption, slowness—not thoughtful slowness but the obscurely wistful, vulnerable slowness of an oversized child. (Most movie directors I know resort to this unselfconsciously, childlike absorption gathering like fog between periods of intensely focused alertness.)

Solveig, on the other hand, is supremely photogenic, tending to look as if she’d just slid off the pages of a magazine. You’ve seen her—the tall, straight-spined French girl with slanting green eyes, Claudette Colbert cheekbones framed by a tangle of honey-blond hair. It took me a while to get past the cover-girl smile, to recognize her particular reserves of toughness, sensitivity, and temper. What hit me plainly enough was that I’d never seen two people so conspicuously in love. There was a level of giddiness in the way they looked at each other, spoke, and touched, and it was bracing to be around. I didn’t, somehow, feel excluded; rather, an incidental surplus of warmth and affection happened to fall my way.

We settled into a relaxed working rhythm which, it now occurs to me, amounted to something like a contest in who could be the most laconic. Wim’s voice—low, subdued, virtually uninflected—had a lulling effect; I never took notes but started drawing—pictures of him or of Solveig or of maps from the Bartholomew World Atlas, which we’d occasionally consult to track the story’s next geographic leap.

“Oh, now I get it,” I would say. “Spain is next to Morocco and France is next to Germany.”

Dressed as I invariably was—in clunky black shoes, corduroys, a frayed blue shirt under a borrowed, gray-and-black woman’s cardigan—and complacently incapable of speaking any language but English, I slipped into the role of the dumb American, the barbarian from Hollywood. But the nature of the job, if I understood it correctly, demanded a certain distance from the idea that we were engaged in a matter of high seriousness. Wim knew, I think, that I revered him, and this gave me license to tease him, to scribble cartoons as he talked. On occasion he’d peer at me steadily, and I’d assure him I was listening, I had a very good memory, I was keeping it all in my head.

Solveig, also listening, would cup her face in her hands, her eyes softening and, I seem to remember, getting greener as she looked at Wim. She would cross her legs, light a cigarette, clutch her hair. Over time it became easy to imagine her doing these things in the movie Wim was describing.

The movie was to be a grand, globe-hopping summation of Wenders images and themes. It was about everything—travel, memory, seeing, image-making, love, faith, the future. It was to be the ultimate road movie, an epic love story, a film about dreams, a dream film.

As described over the course of eight or nine hours it was also a remarkable muddle, overcrowded, a mess. Other writers had run from it for a reason. The job, after all, would entail a sort of connect-the-dots follow-through on an idea cooked up by the director and his girlfriend. It was endearingly clear that a good many characters, locations, and turns of plot had been grafted from their shared experience, their shared story, and evidence suggested that Wim was trying to jam in practically every idea or place he’d wanted to include in earlier films.

But this aspect of sheer impossibility had me all keyed up. We agreed that a collaboration was workable, and a broad plan took shape. I’d return to Los Angeles, then fly back to Berlin for a more extended stay to square the story; then hop back to the States, finishing a first draft while Wim banged together a small, semi-improvised light comedy about angels in Berlin. (No one, I think, was expecting the dense, radiant masterpiece that resulted as Wings of Desire.) Meanwhile Wim’s production staff was to be gearing up for the bigger picture, which Wim would commence shooting no later than July 1987, according to the optimistic contract.

I remember my last night in the city, the twenty-minute walk from their apartment to my hotel—ice on the sidewalks, prostitutes oddly cheerful in their white furs, neon brand names floating overhead, a small high moon. I was back two months later; it was early May, abruptly summery, ten days after the accident at Chernobyl.

With deference, apparently, to my incomprehension of the German language, I was installed in a “hotel apartment” in the City Castle, a bright, clean anonymous place designed for English-speaking businessmen. Its handsome stationery included a helpful disclaimer at the bottom of the page: “The hotel is not the sender.”

Wim supplied me with an electronic typewriter, a new, near-silent model which produced a high-pitched hum while running alongside the brick-sized speakers he also lent me, wired to my Walkman. I caught news dispatches over the American Armed Forces station, and located unexpected comfort in the two dozen rotating pop songs broken up by the DJs’ flat, untrained, American voices. I found it impossible not to be thrilled by their delivery, between songs, of disjointed military jargon:

“Be alert and report what you see.”

A world of Cold War espionage, invisible on the street, opened out from this peculiarly candid, useless advice.

“Be alert. Observe. Report. In other words, have a watchful eye.”

Given this proximity to American culture and news, the wayward traveler’s customary feelings of homesickness and displacement kicked in almost immediately, heightened by an obscurely thickening sense of doom. I did very little writing. Typed maybe a page a day, tracking the story as we’d agreed on it up to that point. I watched TV news reports in which the only intelligible word, often repeated, was “radioactivitat.” I found an art supply store, bought a reed pen and two bottles of india ink (one black, one red) and copied newspaper photographs onto typing paper, which aggressively soaked up the ink. I hated the drawings, but liked the ink on my hands.

I’d walk to their apartment in the mornings or, if Wim had to contend with office work, arrive for lunch. They prepared salads together and Solveig fixed a delicious fruit drink by shoving a lot of stuff into a blender. Wim, unbidden, would explain that the lettuce came from Italy, the tomatoes from Israel, the corn from wherever—anywhere but Russia or the tainted local soil. Still, I felt with careless certainty that I was eating poison, that the food was spiked with dormant radioactive sparks which, over time, would catch fire and burn off years of my life. Nonetheless, it was a shared doom, painlessly hypothetical. Here we were, working on a Wim Wenders movie.

Wim, after all, seemed to me to be enjoying a charmed existence. Paris, Texas had been enormously successful in Europe, his first film to actually turn a profit. He’d met Solveig playing pinball at Cannes, two years earlier, within an hour after winning the Palme d’Or. They’d been together pretty much ever since. He happened to be broke, he said, but traveled freely, most often to Paris (where Solveig kept an apartment) and Tokyo (where he had recently shot a documentary). His luck was all but palpable, and extended to his ability to find parking spaces on the crowded Berlin streets—jolting their boxlike VW up onto the cobblestone curb.

This aura of privilege was balanced by a quality rare in Germans of my acquaintance—an emphatic sense of humor. You wouldn’t expect it from the films, the sheer goofiness and good cheer that would rise up out of nowhere. Driving, he’d squint and lean forward at the wheel like a jockey on a thoroughbred. He’d screw up his face, hunch his shoulders and pretend to fall asleep, veering the car towards parked vehicles before shooting away with impressive last-minute dexterity. He had, anyhow, this open, silly side. He liked dumb puns. His highest praise for Jim Jarmusch’s rough cut of Down by Law amounted to: “I laughed tears.” When he laughed hard, in my experience, there were no tears but a series of owl-like hooting sounds: “Whoo! Whoooo!”

They showed me photographs—a canal in Reykjavík, a bridge in Bilbao, rocks and vistas in the Australian outback—and we talked through the picture’s projected structure, plot hinges, basic story mechanics. Day by day, I’d look over at Wim and say: “Yeah, that’s a great idea, but the story doesn’t move forward one inch.” The trick, given four or five intersecting plots, was to prevent the story from flying apart, fracturing into a travelogue, the spectacle of a man sending postcards to himself.

Among several scenes I persuaded them to cut, Jean-Luc Godard was to have made an appearance as an irascible, mercenary airplane pilot. The scene was remorselessly forgotten, but I kept referring to Godard films as an index, particularly Pierrot le fou—the use of narration to telescope events, the blithe swings between pulp adventure and documentary matter-of-factness, characters shifting from bright cutout shapes to something more urgently human.

Wim let me talk, and even nodded assent, but the only director whose example he consciously looked to, whose name he openly invoked, was Hitchcock. He was eyeing the Master of Suspense for lessons in simplicity and compression. Whenever we came to a knot or a gap, Wim would murmur: “Now what would Sir Alfred do?”

“Wim moved through this world with an air of diffidence and comfortable detachment. Just another lug at the bar, soaking it all in.”

Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin, and Wim Wenders on the set of Wings of Desire, 1986.

We went to Kreuzberg—the one scarred, un-rebuilt district, neighboring the Wall—fairly often, and my fullest memories of the place are crushed up against images of the enchanted city given life in Wings of Desire: the submarine glow of an imbiss stand on an empty street corner, guards swiveling their guns in the silhouetted watchtowers, the air of exhaustion, ruin and glamour leaking out in the bars.

We went to a lot of bars, played pool, drank beer and “braun tequilla und orange” meted out in shot glasses. I remember particular places less than a maze of hot black-walled rooms, cigarette fog, an iron roar of music and, reliably enough, black leather, chalk-white flesh, the same expressionistic posturing you get in New York’s East Village, in Max Beckmann paintings and in vampire movies of every vintage. Wim moved through this world with an air of diffidence and comfortable detachment. Just another lug at the bar, soaking it all in. (The degree to which he was truly a creature of the city, this particular city, occurred to me only years later.) Solveig would lean in and yell above the noise: “This place is the true Berlin, how it really used to be!” or “This place is an imitation! It’s terrible!”

Among the circulating musicians—Simon Bonney, Bronwyn Adams, Blixa Bargeld—the unchallenged local hero was Nick Cave, whose deep, doom-laden voice—tender, forsaken, enraged—seemed to include and embody the neighborhood’s atmosphere of romantic ruin, self-consciousness, lavish despair. Nick himself was very quiet, slightly glassy-eyed, shy rather than aloof—and kind to me despite the simple fact that he had absolutely no interest in learning who I happened to be. His legs, in tight-fitting black jeans, were incredibly thin. Somebody said heroin, and I began to get the picture. He was only two years older than me but had mastered the moves, the aura, of the impenetrable hipster. That is, he conveyed, convincingly, the assurance that he possessed special knowledge—unrevealable secret knowledge derived from his purest, darkest self. We talked about the novel he was writing, Faulkner, Jim Thompson, Beckett, the Bible. It came out that he had no place to stay, he’d fallen asleep the night before in a bar, the bartender let him crash there after closing.

I told Nick Cave that I had a huge hotel room and he was free to use the couch—an offer which, I realized almost instantly, was ludicrous. How could a self-respecting rock poet, Rimbaud’s suffering stepson, spend a night at the City Castle with an American screenwriter?

The next day I asked Wim to locate another hotel—with more character, I think the word was, and he sympathetically arranged for me to move to the Askanischer Hof, where Fassbinder and his entourage had installed themselves on a regular basis. At last, a taste of the old, the true Berlin. There was a bar with a silty marble floor, high ceilings, tracery and wainscoting that were detailed and filthy. There was, that is, the requisite sense of decay, of rotted glam. The room Wim requested for me—with its ornate pink bureau and soft lumpy bed—was called the Hanna Schygulla room.

One afternoon, Wim got up from the table, crossed to the record player, and announced: “Before we go any further, I have to hear this.”

He played a cut off the first album of an Australian band new to the world, Midnight Oil—something with a hard, deep drumbeat, played it loud. He listened standing up, his back to us. Then he shut off the console, grinned, sat back down.

You see this sort of behavior pretty regularly in a Wenders film—a character slugs coins into a jukebox or mumblingly quotes something from the Kinks or stands enthralled listening to Chuck Berry while time stops, the movie stops, the moment is both kidnapped and rescued, lifted and given gravity by the playing of the proper, the absolutely right song. It’s one thing I used to resist a little, when I first saw his films; it seemed borderline precious, the product of a certain willful hipness. But what of it? Rock and roll happens to be wired to Wim’s central nervous system and is aligned, I figure, with all the brave and gentle virtues in his films: the respect for real time, the abiding spirit of generosity and hope. The standard jukebox scene in a Wenders movie usually follows on the heels of a moment when the main character, under a lot of pressure, just falls asleep, sitting in a subway, in a parked car, fully dressed. This has always seemed significant to me—sleep or sleep’s absence in Wim’s films providing an index for their essential humanness, sympathy for the basic vulnerability of the species.

Of course, I never brought this up, but we were drinking coffee one morning and Wim spoke very soberly: “Did you know Einstein used to sleep with his clothes on? All his grown life. He slept best that way.”

Yes, I said, I sometimes found myself sleeping with my clothes on, and liked it, but it’s not ideal when you have a girlfriend.

Wim agreed but launched into a deadpan rhapsody: “There’s something soothing about falling asleep with your clothes on. You are all there. I sleep best with my shoes on, my boots. And that’s why I sleep well in the movies.”

I made a drawing of Wim in his square-crowned hat looking like Dick Tracy. He framed it alongside a more detailed, beautiful drawing of a shoe made by Solveig, and mounted them on the wall.

For Solveig’s twenty-fifth birthday I found two glasses in a musty knickknack store. The glasses came from Czechoslovakia and featured colorfully bikini-clad women romping on a beach in the style of Playboy cartoons from the ’60s. Solveig seemed thrilled with these glasses. “Of all her presents,” Wim said, “yours are the only ones that hold water.”

We saw movies three or four times a week, went often to the local art house, the Arsenal, where Wim was given free tickets. They were featuring a Taviani brothers retrospective and a series of films shot in old Berlin (fuel for Wings of Desire). Ruttmann’s silent Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis—a dazzling, kaleidoscopic rush of montaged images—somehow sent me to sleep, but I have sharp memories of Siodmak/Ulmer’s grittier, warmer city portrait, People on Sunday. Of course, these films threw out images that triggered in the audience sudden collective groans of recognition, displaying places, minutes from where we were sitting, irretrievably lost or changed. It was in fact impossible to look at these films without stumbling over such images, a feeling of dread overtaking the charmed, innocent past—dread and the stark awareness, the driving fact, that a particular history had erased all this. A similar feeling lurched out at me when, strolling in the no doubt radioctive dusk in the park behind the post office, I came upon a group of children clenched around something injured, helpless in the grass. I moved close and saw a ball of palpitating black fur—it throbbed as it filled with liquid, then a sharp bat wing scissored out, like an illustration in an anatomy book, and the children jumped back in fright.

Nick Cave with Otto Sander in Wings of Desire, 1986.

That night Wim begged off early and we went out without him—Solveig and I and one of Solveig’s dourly handsome friends and a young filmmaker who had renamed himself Harry Rag. By three in the morning it was just me and Harry in the apartment of a nineteen-year-old blond girl. The girl was pretty, with a heavy square face, deep-set blue eyes, blunt snub nose. She was fatigued but somehow intensely awake, gamely speaking English, occasionally faltering while Harry supplied a phrase or word.

She said she had nightmares of her mother: fistfights with her mother, her mother stabbing her in the vagina with a knitting needle. She wanted to buy a farm in Tuscany and live there in the winter, Berlin in the summer. She named the animals she wanted to have on the farm, and her eyes shone as she described the “canard” and their “little ones” going “Onk onk.”

She was sure that her dire dreams were connected to the Chernobyl disaster, and that the disaster was connected to other incidents, around the globe, which collectively spelled the end of the world. “I have the feeling,” she said, “that all the things that are happening, the bombs and the accident and the radioactivity, are all part of a wave and it’s building and getting worse. It’s going to be worse.” Harry suggested we leave when he realized I was falling asleep as she talked.

Five years later, the end of the world remains only vaguely imminent, but Until the End of the World (being mixed in Munich as I write this) is due out in the fall. Judging by a six-hour rough cut, my 160-page screenplay survives in a decidedly ghostly form—a basic structural underpinning, a few stray lines of dialogue, a retained surname here and there. (Wim and Peter Carey rewrote the script when I was in Wichita, Kansas, in 1988, directing a film of my own.)

Last February, at any rate, I was back in Berlin. The ruined and rebuilt city. The redefined, newly undivided city. The wall had been down for a year and a half, the Gulf War was raging, more or less invisibly, on TV, and Walter Benjamin’s angel of history (“History is an angel blown backwards into the future”) was whizzing around like crazy. I ignored the film festival and hit the streets, appalled by the vehemence with which otherwise sensible West Berliners regretted the influx of their newly liberated neighbors. “They drive shit cars, they wear the wrong clothes, bad haircuts. They are pigs.”

I was invited into DIFA studios, where Fritz Lang had shot Metropolis, von Sternberg had shot The Blue Angel—a vast complex of buildings whose future use, in the wake of the East’s dissolution, was abruptly uncertain. On a cavernous soundstage, entered through a steel door thick as a bank vault, Wim Wenders was shooting the end of Until the End of the World—a final scene conceived months after the rest of the film had been shot.

Michael Almereyda at the Berlin International Film Festival, 1991.

They’d been at it since early morning; I arrived in the afternoon and stayed through the night. Wim was wearing a fresh crew cut, acquired for his Hitchcockian cameo. The camera, mounted on a magnificent, computer-driven, black metal crane—one of four in the world, according to Robby Müller—spun forward in a corkscrew motion, tunneling into a space capsule, a dimmed, shedlike construction where Solveig, in a pale green jumpsuit, sat braced in a chair before a panel of lights, her back parallel to the floor.

The atmosphere was that of a college library open all night during exams—shared exhaustion and readiness dissolving into a communal trance state. Huge red lettering on the walls said: “RAUCHEN VERBOTEN” but crew members were smoking freely, munching candy from the craft service table, dazedly fighting the gravitational pull of boredom and fatigue. Around 5:30 a.m., with two shots still to go, someone cracked open the champagne. Wim came up to me and with familiar low-key giddiness started slipping gummy bears into my coat pocket. Men on the space capsule roof, working winches and ropes, slid a painted panorama across the capsule portal: the blue planet Earth, blazing stars. Solveig grinned into the camera, eyes swimming, fingers touching her mouth. I was back in Berlin. It was like a dream but it felt, somehow, like home.

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