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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.”

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

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