Wim Wenders has been making films for four decades and is one of Germany’s best-known directors. His films include “Wings of Desire,” “Paris, Texas” and “The State of Things.” He has won numerous international awards including the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. He is also a photographer and he talked to Handelsblatt about his manifesto against digital photography, his search for desolate places and our changing relationship to reality.
Handelsblatt: Mr. Wenders, there’s currently an exhibition in Düsseldorf of your work showing large photographs of run-down, far-away places, mostly without human figures. On the other hand, these scenes suggest stories to us. How does that work?
Wim Wenders: It’s not that these pictures suggest stories in our minds but in what these places actually show us. They often have a great deal of stories and history – and you can decipher this, if you’re open to it.
Are these places of rememberance?
Exactly! They remind us what our civilization, and what we as people, leave behind us. If you look at the smallest details, there’s a lot you can discover.
One photo shows a father holding his son and standing in front of a huge dinosaur. If you look closer, you see the child has his arm round his father’s neck…
And then you realize the mother is sitting in the car reading a book. You can see the beginning of a story in every photograph.
How did you find such lonely places?
I travel to places where people rarely go. Often, I let the places find me, rather than going to find them. You have to be travelling alone to do that, otherwise that sense of place doesn’t work. You need to give yourself up wholly to the landscape. That’s why I take pictures without assistants and I still use analog equipment so I can be totally independent.
Joel Meyerowitz took you with him to Ground Zero. He was the only photographer who was allowed to document the process of clearing the site.
He smuggled me in as his assistant. Then we split up and took pictures separately, independently of one another. And then there was this incredible moment when the sunlight was reflected off the skyscrapers into that hellish pit and with that incredible light shining into that inferno, it seemed like the message of this place was that healing is possible with time and that this place should not be used to spill more blood. I haven’t shown these pictures much, and never in Germany. And I only show them when a museum lets me organize a separate room myself.
How far is photography a protection against things disappearing?
Photography is the perfect weapon to combat disappearance or to make the process visible or to show something after it has disappeared. Many of the places I show no longer exist. Photography is a strange form that enables you to halt time but also to make it permanent – and also to show that time goes on. Digital photography documents disappearance in a different way. But it contributes more to the disappearance rather than stopping it.
You wrote a manifesto against digital photography for the catalog accompanying your exhibition in Düsseldorf. Why?
I wanted to take a stand. That’s why I chose the title, “4 real & true 2” – it’s about the secret relationship between photography and reality. That’s a chapter of film and photography cultural history that hasn’t been written yet: what happens to the way we see and our reality and our relationship to memory, now that were surrounded by digital memory aids that supposedly give us access to everything but actually push everything further away from us.
Do people who use iPhones no longer perceive reality because they try so hard to hold onto it digitally?
That’s one of many points. Recently I was in the Louvre together with two people I knew from my neighborhood in the United States. They really wanted to see the Mona Lisa. There are people in the Louvre who take you right there. The gallery with the Mona Lisa has security like Fort Knox, there are barrier tapes and in the middle there’s a glass case and behind the reinforced glass there’s something that’s probably the Mona Lisa. But it could be just a copy. And then you stand behind five or six rows of people in front of Leonardo’s most famous picture.
And you don’t really get a sense of it…
You have to fight your way to the front but most people don’t do that. Hundreds of people held up their mobile phones to take photos of the Mona Lisa or what they thought was the Mona Lisa. In reality they were taking pictures of people who were taking pictures of people who wanted to take a picture of a picture.
Visiting your exhibition in the Museum Kunst Palast, you gain a sense that you’re very familiar with the Old Masters, for example the landscapes of Joachim Patinir or those of Ruisadael or Corot.
When I was a child, two Corot prints hung above my bed. Up until I was four or five I was supposed to take a nap at midday so there were many days I spent two hours looking at these pictures to pass the time.
And the Old Masters?
When I was younger I made what were almost like pilgrimages to the Dutch landscape painters, the Ruisadaels and the van der Neers. I was one of those children who forced their parents to go to museums. Once in Amsterdam they asked on the third day why I wanted to go back to the Rijksmuseum again.
Where does that desire come from?
It’s because I grew up in Düsseldorf right after World War II. Everything was destroyed except for the pictures in the museum and the prints at home. The worlds they showed were completely different.
Who were your favorite painters?
The Dutch had more horizons than the others, that appealed to me the most. And they were the only ones to show the interiors of churches, and everything you can see there, people praying or a woman with a poodle walking through the church. But Vermeer is my favorite, then and now.
You are friends with many artists, like Peter Handke or Pina Bausch, who died recently. Do you also have friends who are sculptors?
I’m friends with Anselm Kiefer, Patrick Morrison, an Irish artist from Los Angeles, or with Robert Bosisio, I have a lot of his pictures.
Your photography will be shown in Berlin this fall in the Blain Southern gallery – have you already chosen the photographs?
We’ll show a lot of new things, we’re still making the prints.
You probably go to the Grieger lab to make the prints; do you always come back to Düsseldorf for them?
I’m always there for that, sometimes for days.
When you’re at Grieger, do you meet other photographers from the Düsseldorf school like Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff or Thomas Struth?
Usually you don’t meet them. But you can work out who was there the day before if you look into the trash cans where there are all the test strips.
Do you know some of the photographers in the Düsseldorf school?
I’m friends with Andreas Gursky and I also know Thomas Struth. I’m from Düsseldorf but I don’t really count as being in the Düsseldorf school because I didn’t study there.
Do you also collect photography?
I have photos but mostly ones I’ve exchanged with friends like Peter Lindbergh or Sebastiao Selgado. The only thing I’ve really collected is art by the Australian Aboriginal people. I have some beautiful works by people which are now hanging in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. They were people I met when nobody knew them.
Do you go to major exhibitions like the Venice Biennale?
I haven’t been to Venice this year but I was there two years ago. I went to the Art Cologne this year and I’ve been to the Documenta a couple of times in Kassel. All the hustle and bustle is a bit scary when what you want to see are the pictures or installations and not all the stuff going on around it. I’d rather be alone in a gallery or museum.
The borders between genres seem to be disappearing in the art scene; filmmakers like John Akomfrah or Isaac Julien are discovering the freedoms of the museum. Would you be interested in museums?
I’ve already made two or three film installations, for Venice’s Architecture Biennale, for example. Right now I’m working on my first 3D installation for a museum in Spain. When you’re creating something for a museum you have to think about the story in a totally different way compared to in the cinema, and that’s exciting.
What’s the difference?
In a museum you’re making a video for people who mostly go in and see the work after it’s already started and usually leave before it ends. That’s why I tend to make my work in loops when it’s for a museum so that you can’t tell where the loop begins or ends.
You shot your last film, “Every Thing Will Be Fine” in 3D though this technology isn’t so easy for art house cinemas. Why?
It annoys me that in cinemas, this medium is literally going to the dogs because it’s almost only ever used for action movies and comedy and it’s not taken seriously as a new visual language. I’m practically the only person using it, with “Pina” and “Every Thing Will Be Fine.” I was sure other authors and film makers would use it for art house films and documentaries. But not a bit of it.
Who are you mad at?
Mainly the studios who act like 3D is their domain and who are running it into the ground because they only see it as a source of money and don’t see it as a new medium. But it also makes me sad that many of my colleagues don’t try using it and documentary filmmakers think it’s too difficult or too expensive. People don’t see 3D as a language just as a gimmick.
You think the film industry is missing out on a major opportunity?
This fascinating technology could pass away as a cultural phenomenon before we’ve even used it properly. I took a risk making “Pina” and I told cinema owners that more would follow. Many bought new equipment – partly because of “Pina” but there weren’t any more films using 3D. I feel bad about that. I wished too hard for the future.
Cinema was once the cutting edge of visual culture but in “Kings of the Road” you mark its demise. Now, everyone with a mobile phone has a cinema in their pocket. What’s the future for film?
Sure, some people can watch films in higher quality at home than in the movies if they have projectors and 4K monitors. But the selection interpretation in the cinema is privileged and it’s a completely different experience to watching on an iPad or mobile phone. Sometimes I feel sad because so much is invested in the quality of the pictures and the light and the effort involved in filming and at the end of the day it winds up on an iPad or a mobile phone.
Video: Wim Wenders describes what shapes his work.
Photography by Wim Wenders is being exhibited in “4 Real & True 2. Wim Wenders. Landschaften. Photographien” at the Museum Kunst Palast in Dusseldorf until August 30. Mr. Wenders’ work can also be seen at Berlin gallery Blain Southern starting September 17. For more information, visit www.blainsouthern.com