Friday, February 26, 2016

Until the End of the World (Bis ans Ende der Welt)























UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (Bis ans Ende der Welt)           A-               
Germany  France  Australia  USA  (158 mi)  1991    Director’s Cut (295 mi)  d:  Wim Wenders

Thank you for the days,
Those endless days, those sacred days you gave me.
I'm thinking of the days,
I won’t forget a single day, believe me.

I bless the light,
I bless the light that lights on you believe me.
And though you’re gone,
You’re with me every single day, believe me.

Days I’ll remember all my life,
Days when you can’t see wrong from right.
You took my life,
But then I knew that very soon you’d leave me,
But it’s all right,
Now I’m not frightened of this world, believe me.

I wish today could be tomorrow,
The night is dark,
It just brings sorrow anyway.

Thank you for the days,
Those endless days, those sacred days you gave me.
I’m thinking of the days,
I won’t forget a single day, believe me.

I bless the light,
I bless the light that shines on you believe me.
And though you’re gone,
You’re with me every single day, believe me.
Days.

Days, by The Kinks, 1968, Until the End of the World Days - YouTube (2:10)

Easily Wenders’ most ambitious film, and one of his least liked, an undefinable, futuristic work that is a wild and sprawling, dreamlike epic, both conceived and imagined as the greatest road movie ever made, complete with a musical soundtrack for the end of time, over a decade in the making, filmed in 15 cities across four continents, originally intended to be shot on 70 mm, finishing in the Congo, a project of such immense proportions that eventually Wenders simply ran out of money and had to scrap many of his original plans, resulting in a shortened 3-hour version that was poorly received, viewed as a jumbled mess with massive narrative gaps, criticized for being overly ambitious, disjointed and underdeveloped, eventually expanding nearly 25-years later to a 5-hour restored 4K version that is more compatible to what the director envisioned.  Wenders began work on the film shortly after completing The American Friend (Der amerikanische Freund)  (1977), but ended up traveling to America by himself when Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios asked him to direct HAMMETT (1982), a film eventually lost in bankruptcy before recovering with the low-budget THE STATE OF THINGS (1982), inspired by the misadventures of the previous effort, then shooting Paris, Texas (1984) in America, Tokyo-Ga (1985) in Japan, and finally returning to Germany for Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin) (1987) that became a big international hit.  It was only with the success of that film that he could finally return to this labor of love, not altogether the magnum opus he had hoped it would be, which alternately exposes both the exceptional and the confused side of Wim Wenders’ filmmaking, always intensely personal projects, developing stories about the rapidly changing modern world and the impact on often displaced and disrupted identities, creating an inexhaustible love while simultaneously we’re left with an unending feeling of loneliness, exploring the concepts of home and homelessness, with Wenders quoted as saying, “Home is where you get when you run out of places,” while also examining the impact technology has on our notion of dreams, memories, and desires.  Despite its overall length, emotional distance, and meandering tendencies, it’s nonetheless a work of sheer magnitude where one can’t help but be drawn into astonishing moments, including a killer musical soundtrack, where death, sorrow, and happiness have rarely been mixed to greater impact, where one is simply in awe of its shattering effects, especially days, months, and years after seeing it, becoming a great personal favorite. 

Set in the “future” of 1999, there is an apocalyptic undercurrent from a nuclear satellite from India that is losing orbit, threatening to crash into Earth with ominous implications, where the United States is exploring the option of shooting it down, the opening hour or so is a rush of new beginnings, where infinite possibilities are perceived as lurking just around the corner, accentuating a passion for curiosity and exploration, as realized through the central character of Claire Tourneur (Solveig Dommartin), the director’s girlfriend at the time who co-wrote the story and appeared previously in Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin) (1987) and the Claire Denis film No Fear, No Die (S’en Fout la Mort) (1990), a luminous spirit-like creature who always seems to be chasing some elusive dream, as if yearning for a state of continual joy and ecstasy, where she is defined by her insistence upon living in the moment.  Seemingly driven by her desires, her magnetic presence dominates the film, with her endless road exploits continuously described like the harrowing adventures of Odysseus from the everpresent voice of the narrator, Eugene Fitzpatrick (Sam Neill), a writer living in Paris awaiting her return who is obviously enraptured by her, whose error in judgment is sleeping with one of her friends, an incident that sets the wheels in motion, as she bolts from the suddenly contaminated safety of their home, fleeing to all-night parties in Venice that resemble the look of fashion catalogues, oblivious to all impending signs of doom.  While returning home, she impatiently avoids the everpresent road congestion, where everyone is fleeing to safer ground, a sure sign of a world in panic mode, finding an alternative route that is amusingly described by her car’s GPS tracking system (before it had been invented) as outside the “Map Zone database,” where she is effectively on her own, Until the end of the world - scene - (Neneh Cherry - move with me) YouTube (3:09).  Like Alice down the rabbit hole, she begins a series of odd encounters, namely a car crash where the people she hits are two good-natured bank robbers on the run, agreeing to smuggle money for them in exchange for 30% of the take, leaving her with gigantic sums of cash, then helping a strange American hitchhiker, Trevor McPhee (William Hurt), who is fleeing an armed gang that turns out to be the CIA.  Quickly becoming fast friends, sharing a flirtatious vibe, she settles into a deep sleep as he drives her back to Paris (secretly helping himself to some of her cash) before disappearing into the night.   

Torn between her growing fascination with Trevor while outraged that he stole some of her stolen money, Claire sets off after him, hiring a private detective in Berlin, Phillip Winter, none other than Rüdiger Vogler from Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit) Road Trilogy Pt. 3 (1976), whose computer tracing technology keeps track of phone calls or credit card purchases, where he thinks it’s a relatively routine job finding this guy, but has lingering questions why Claire is interested in finding him.  Little does he know that they’ll end up chasing this elusive figure around the world, as the audience is treated to a whirlwind tour from Venice to Paris to Berlin to Lisbon to Moscow to Beijing to Tokyo to San Francisco, and finally the Australian Outback, shot with bizarre angles, modern decors, sleek architecture, futuristic props, including tiny fantasy vehicles of the future, video phones, and plenty of technological computer enhancements, where there’s a fascination with the bizarre look and feel of the film, shot by longtime collaborator Robby Müller.  As it turns out, Trevor is not even his real name, but an alias for Sam Farber, the son of a prominent American scientist, initially thought to be a fugitive from justice, perhaps an international thief of some renown, as the U.S. government, along with freelance bounty hunters, are chasing after him for something believed to be in his possession that they deem valuable, though it all plays out like a film noir espionage drama.  Claire’s increasing curiosity about finding him and discovering his real identity are constantly frustrated, yet she’s willing to chase him halfway around the world to find out, where her travels are a constant source of delight, where there’s a mad rush of exhilaration to these travels, with elevated expectations, as the viewer is invited along on this elaborate journey plunging us headlong into the unknown, which may as well be the future.  While there are plenty of comical elements, the time the viewers spend with this single character adds an unexpected degree of intimacy and familiarity, as we literally become Claire’s traveling companions, sharing her experiences and seeing the world as she sees it, marveling at her free-spirited nature and the ability to drop everything to pursue a single-minded notion that hasn’t fully resonated even in her own mind.  None of us know what to expect if and when she finds the object of her dreams, Until the End of the World (Solveig Dommartin) YouTube (3:39).       

Unable to get clearance to film in China, Wenders instead sends Dommartin alone with a digital camera to film her own scenes, shot on the sly using a kind of underground technique, most of it seen in a video message sent back home to Eugene that adds a literary accompaniment to the fleeting images that go flashing by onscreen.  The film takes a different turn once Claire arrives in Tokyo, losing super sleuth Phillip Winter somewhere along the way, discovering Sam at last in a state of befuddled disorientation, where he is temporarily blind, lost and alone in the madness of the all-night pachinko parlors seen in Wenders’ earlier film Tokyo-Ga (1985), drowning in the brightness of the neon lights of the city, where she takes him to recover in a remote mountainside inn that offers the feel of a meditative, pastoral retreat which just happens to be run by an aging couple, iconic Ozu stars Chishû Ryû and Kuniko Miyake, the married couple in TOKYO STORY (1953).  A daily regimen of ancient herbal elixirs along with Claire’s tender loving care helps restore Sam’s sight, where we learn he’s not a thief after all, or a con man, but smuggled one of his father’s inventions out of the country before it was about to be confiscated by the U.S. government with military designs for its use.  It’s actually a highly sophisticated camera that records the brainwaves of the person using it, that when played back again uses the brainwaves from the memory of the photographer that when mixed together allows a blind person to see the recorded images in a primitive visualization, where it’s only with this revelation that we understand Sam’s real intentions of running around the world, as he’s been collecting images for his blind mother to see.  This exhaustive effort of recording has taken its toll on Sam, causing the temporary blindness, but like giddy lovers who find themselves madly in love, they’re off to San Francisco to record Sam’s sister Irina (Christine Osterlein) who he hasn’t seen in nearly a decade.  Due to Sam’s condition, he’s unable to do the filming, so Claire tries and discovers she’s a natural at it.  While in San Francisco, of course, they reignite their passions at an intimate bar named Tosca where Claire orders a drink she’s only read about in travel guides, where the bar becomes a subterranean fixture they become enamored with, but in typical American fashion, Claire gets arrested in an absurd police raid that she literally has nothing to do with, calling upon her bank robber friend Chico (Chick Ortega) for help, where he and Sam, not knowing where she is and unaware of each other at the time, spend their days and nights hanging out alone at the bar drinking and playing the jukebox until she mysteriously reappears like a ghost in the night, Until the End of the World / Wim Wenders - San Francisco bar love scene YouTube (1:17). 

The lovebirds set sail for the Australian Outback, followed close behind by Phillip Winter, harmonica in hand, dressed in his suit and hat, seemingly always on the case, the lovable and always effervescent Chico, a guy that loves to tell stories, seen throughout in some godforsaken places with a drum set, and Eugene, whose curiosity about Claire’s adventures stir his own imagination, becoming a gathering of the forces, but initially they’re all perceived as weary stragglers who have traveled great distances only to arrive in the middle of nowhere, as time literally stops, where they play a waiting game hoping to pick up any traces of Sam and Claire, who are heading for his parent’s home in the middle of the Outback.  Of course, as soon as they are detected, they all eventually get stranded by some catastrophic event when the United States decides to shoot down the falling satellite, causing an immediate loss of electromagnetic fields, effectively wiping out the world’s electrical and communication systems, where for all they know, they are the last survivors on earth from a catastrophic nuclear nightmare that has wiped out the rest of the world, as depicted in the 1957 post-apocalyptic novel On the Beach, where Australia is the last sign of life on earth before the deadly radiation clouds approach.  With this in mind, the film enters a black hole of emptiness where knowledge has all but evaporated into thin air, not knowing what lies ahead, as Sam and Claire (her wrist still locked to an airplane wing) literally wander through a desert wasteland so beautifully captured by Peter Gabriel - Blood Of Eden (Until The End Of World) YouTube (6:11), (“I can hear the distant thunder of a million unheard souls”), a blending of the future and the past, where all the collective forces come together at Dr. Farber’s lab, a research compound built into the natural interior caves of the surrounding rocks, actually introducing several new characters, including the incomparable Jeanne Moreau as Sam’s blind mother and Max von Sydow as his genius father, a man obsessed and eternally driven by his work, where Sam’s parents curiously reside in an alternative society living among local Aborigines.

Most of the additional footage is added to the Australian section, which feels broadly extended, meandering in and out of a dreamlike state, where existence itself is challenged through Dr. Faber’s incredible camera, where once in the lab, brainwaves are sculpted into a new kind of cinematic awareness, plunging into the depths of the subconsciousness, becoming a kaleidoscope of intersecting forms and shapes and colors, resembling prehistoric cave paintings or the primitive language of hieroglyphics, creating an abstract universe that literally reconstructs the idea of human understanding, all discovered during a time when they are unable to tell if the rest of the world still exists, where they may be rapidly approaching the end of the world, Until the End of the World - U2 YouTube (4:33).  The effect on Sam’s mother is profound, where she is literally overcome with emotion, seeing her children and glimpses of the world for the first time, but also incredibly grateful for this final experience, where her sudden death just at the arrival of the new millennium leads into what is arguably the most euphoric and ecstatic scene ever captured in a Wenders film, with Claire leading this rag tag group of survivors into a joyous rendering of a Kinks song, Until the End of the World: Thank you for the days YouTube (5:00), where the Kinks may as well be a direct link into the very heart of Wenders’ soul, where the film slowly drifts apart afterwards, delving into a technological visualization of their own dreams, spending every waking hour addicted to this new scientific breakthrough, losing themselves in the process, mesmerized and also paralyzed by the dazzling effects of technology (foretelling the world of today and all the handheld smartphones where people remain glued to the tiny screens), until somehow they can crawl their way back out of this idyllic, self-induced mirage and rediscover the essential humanity lying within.  It’s a mindblowing reconstruction of human life as we know it, expressed through an extraordinary rendering of weary souls wandering the ends of the earth, driven by an invigorating soundtrack that approaches musical transcendence, where the director crams the beginning with endless streams of continuously moving spaces, accompanied by a restless anxiety of youth and a sorrowful yearning to always want to be somewhere else, where our impulsive lives are seen as waiting disasters that must be overcome, like sprouting wings and learning to fly.  By the end, through the power of brilliant performances, Claire especially has evolved into something new, embracing the future with a kind of muted optimism, where perhaps the worst that can happen is to take things for granted and grow too comfortable, where complacency becomes a lingering stagnation, paramount to death, reflected in the vast emptiness of endless landscapes that seem to stretch into oblivion.  It’s curious how the first half puts so much emphasis on the adrenal rush or romantic inclinations on Claire’s part, where she’s willing to follow her mystery man clear around the world, yet in the end, it just fizzles out in a whimper, without an ounce of fight left in either one of them.  The film is a fascinating exploration about the changing ways we see the world around us, including our overdependent reliance upon technology to process that reality, both conscious and unconscious, diminishing not only the effects of religion in society but any existing faith in ourselves as well, where the power of art remains a propelling force behind our lives, where a road movie becomes a prolonged existential adventure, suggesting each of us wanders alone on our own personal odysseys searching for the light, forever challenged to unlock the clues to our own existence.  

Notes on the original 3-hour version

While the theatrical 3-hour version is indeed harder to follow, as it’s more confusing with less explanatory material, so it breezes through the opening dance-around-the-world sequence in just over an hour with a different editing scheme, where Trevor McPhee steals Claire’s money much earlier in the car ride, there’s less exposed European architecture, including futuristic compositions of stairways and train stations, fewer uses of those Jetson style modernized cars, barely any shots in China, a shortened Japanese section which really felt gorgeously intimate in the longer version, as it’s when they really fall in love, no special bar in San Francisco, no special drink, Claire doesn’t get arrested or spend any time in jail, and Trevor and Chico don’t spend endless days in the bar waiting for her to show up, instead Chico arrives at their doorstep in a new convertible.  The Australian sequence is completely different, with little to no meandering time with people trying to track down the missing couple, no sense of exile or alienation, which is so heightened in the longer version, less wandering in the desert without food or water, no sense of an emergency, where it’s much more of a disappointment when Sam can’t initially transmit the recorded images, as it seems days afterwards before Claire volunteers her services in transmitting the images, with no explanation whatsoever as to why she could do it, no reference to the fact that she photographed the earlier images with Sam’s sister.  Quite surprisingly, there is additional time spent with the transmitted images in the shortened version, lengthier sequences, where it seems more miraculous, as it’s really the entire focus of the final portion of the film.  They completely leave out the Kinks song sung by Claire on the eve of the millennium, which is arguably the strongest scene in the entire movie, instead Sam’s mother simply dies.  While there is a transition to recorded dreams, and an addiction to watching them, there’s certainly less time spent wandering alone in the outback with people exiled from themselves, completely preoccupied with watching the images over and over again, as it takes place in the span of about 5-minutes, where there’s less narration, as the written word from Eugene’s finished novel seems to immediately snap Claire back to her old self, completely forgetting Sam, where in no time she’s in outer space orbiting the earth receiving a photo telephone message for her 30th birthday, with the slashing chords of the U2 “End of the World” song crashing over the end credits.  Wenders is quoted as saying, “We thought that we only had the right to enter into such a sacred area like a person’s dreams, if we would bring something into the work that was sacred to ourselves.”  Again, this shortened version actually has a greater sense of urgency from the visualization images, as they simply seem so much more astonishing than anything else in the film, and is certainly the most profound recollection from watching the film 25 years ago.  That sense of transcendent urgency, like it’s a futuristic miracle transformed into primitive yet breathtakingly beautiful, painterly images (coming full circle, as Wenders began as a watercolors painter) is diminished in the longer version, but feels essential to the shorter one.   

Post script
On a sadder note, radiant actress Solveig Dommartin tragically died of a heart attack at the tender age of 45 on January 11, 2007, where she is survived by her daughter, whose name, curiously enough, is Venus.  As a tribute to her unforgettable presence, here is a gorgeous reconstruction of a song by Jane Siberry (with k.d. lang) entitled “Calling All Angels” used in Wenders’ Until the End of the World, but with images from another Wenders’ film, Wings of Desire, Calling All Angels and their Wings of Desire YouTube (5:21).

Obituary by Maxim Jacubowski from The Guardian, February 6, 2007, Solveig Dommartin, Wenders' fearless angel - The Guardian

Nights at the circus... Solveig Dommartin as Marion in Wings of Desire

The sad news has recently reached me of the death of the Franco-German actor Solveig Dommartin. She was struck down by a heart attack in Paris on January 11 at the obscenely young age of 45.

Her acting career began in the theatre in France and Germany. She then worked for a time as an assistant to the director Jacques Rozier (best known for his nouvelle-vague 1962 classic Adieu Philippine) before making her screen debut in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, in which she
memorably played the part of the circus acrobat who ensnares the heart of an angel and causes his fall from grace amongst the black and white roofs and skies of Berlin.

Solveig had to learn circus acrobatics and all sorts of trapeze movements in under eight weeks for the film and never used a stunt double. For many people, it is still Wenders’ most striking movie and she will ever be remembered for the part.

It was on the set of the film that she began a liaison with Wenders, which was to last several years and led to her co-writing 1991’s Until the End of the World, a daring folly of a road movie in which a band of misfits, seekers, secret agents and femmes fatales roamed the globe in a search for the absolute, only to end up in the Australian desert.

Wenders said of the film: “Solveig Dommartin and I had written the story of the film together, and we thought that we only had the right to enter into such a sacred area as a person’s dreams if we would bring something into the work that was sacred to ourselves.”

The fascinating but flawed movie was heavily cut on its initial release, but also exists in different, longer forms that have been shown at festivals and the NFT, and still has absolutely entrancing moments.

Solveig only had a cameo appearance in Wenders’ 1993 Wings sequel, Faraway, So Close and, apart from a role in Claire Denis’ I Can't Sleep in 1994, her film career ended together with her relationship with the German director. She directed a 20-min short, Il suffirait d'un pont in 1998, starring Romane Bohringer and Catherine Frot, but had produced nothing since.

I met her for the first time at the Courmayeur Noir in Fest film and literary festival in Italy in December 1993; unlike the demure Marion of the Wenders film, the real-life Solveig was a veritable bundle of energy, a boisterous and extrovert young woman who was always the last to leave the hotel bar. She arrived at the festival straight from a Paris registry office where she had just married Fred, a French busker she'd only known for a few weeks, and promptly began flirting outrageously with most men present, under his bemused gaze.

But there was a basic, joyful innocence in Solveig and her medusa-like mane that quickly banished disapproval. It was thanks to her that my colleague Adrian Wootton managed to arrange a screening at the NFT of the five-or-so-hour version of Until the End of the World a year later, which she presented, with wide-eyed Fred still trailing in her rumbustious wake.

For filmgoers everywhere, she will always be the beauty who enticed an angel down from heaven, but for those of us who knew her, she will be remembered as a hell of a girl.

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