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Cinema - Filming in outer spaces

At the halfway point of the Wenders season at the BFI, Marko Jobst looks at the director’s spatial storytelling

Wim Wenders: Part Two. At the BFI Southbank until 29 February. www.bfi.org.uk

Wim Wenders was a latecomer to New German Cinema, the group of filmmakers who transformed post-Second World War German film. He shot his first short in 1967, and 30 films (both feature and documentary) later, has straddled two traditions with various levels of success: European art cinema and commercial Hollywood genres.
The winner of the Golden Lion in Venice for The State of Things (1982), the Palme d’Or for Paris, Texas (1984) and Best Director at Cannes for Wings of Desire (1987), the twopart Wenders season at the BFI Southbank in London is screening a broad retrospective of his work until 29 February.
For Wenders, cinematic storytelling is, at its core, a spatial act, which makes him particularly interesting to architectural audiences. His films reveal a prominent concern with the treatment of moving images in cinema, television and the new media, and their influence on environments. This has translated into a particular brand of road movie, which lies at the root of his narratives even when the journeying aspect is outwardly missing.
In Wenders’ early work, particularly Alice in the Cities (1974) and Kings of the Road (1976), the scripts were to a large extent written on site – or sites – while travelling. By letting the camera capture what its mechanical eye sees and letting the actors respond to found situations, Wenders restored reality to the jaded visual perception of his protagonists and rediscovered reality himself by letting characters and stories develop organically.
In Alice in the Cities, journalist Phillip (Rüdiger Vogler) only reconciles his own sense of perception when he aligns it with the viewpoint of Alice (Yella Rottländer), a girl placed in his care. Travelling with Alice, the protagonist learns how to see spaces and cities anew, from the high-rises of Manhattan to the urban railways of Wuppertal, Germany. Wenders’ spatial narrative gradually builds a very specific sense of place, leading to an intriguing portrayal of female characters as masters of the urban realm, even at urbanity’s most ‘masculine’ (as is the case with Manhattan). The aimless male protagonist –
lost both geographically and technologically – relies on Alice to guide him through this
contemporary global Wonderland.
Wenders repeatedly plays out this conjunction between places and stories. In Kings of the Road, set in the openness of German landscapes, moments of suspended movement overlap with the intensity of
confined, compartmentalised interiors – sites of narrative tension and emotional resolution. Similarly, in Paris, Texas, confined spaces dictate the film’s narrative trajectory. When the protagonist finds his wife working in a peepshow, he asks her to recount her life story to the one-way mirror. Unaware of the identity of her client behind the glass, notions of space, solitude and communication are played out in the confined chambers of the booth in which the lovers sit together, alone. The image of actress Nastassja Kinski facing her reflection will remain among the most iconic in 20th-century cinema.

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