The Oscar-nominated director of “Wings of Desire” and “Paris, Texas” isn’t known for making swooning cinematic stories that pulsate with emotions. But “Submergence” is an epic romantic drama, one that centers on a deep-sea researcher (Alicia Vikander) and a water engineer (James McAvoy). Their love is tested after the man is held captive by jihadist fighters in Somalia. The sweeping geopolitical tale explores issues of political and religious radicalism. At a time when the world is being roiled by global terrorism, Wenders believes that art and cinema can help people understand their shared humanity.
“Submergence” screens this weekend at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival. Over a latte at the Ritz Carlton, Wenders held forth on the war on terror, Hollywood and Netflix.
What drew you to the “Submergence”?
It was talking about things that are really urgent — both about the state of the planet and about our strange human desire to go to the stars but not know what’s down there in the oceans. There’s also this burning conflict with jihad and radical Islam and how to deal with that. It was all told in a way that I thought I could handle. It was told through this love story.
Why was the love story an important vehicle to discuss more metaphysical and political issues?
The love story made it doable for me. The film deals with a lot of violence and hate. I felt the only way for me to even approach it was to oppose something to that. To quote Martin Luther King, “You cannot defeat hate with hate. You cannot drive out darkness with darkness.”
What kind of statement are you trying to make about jihadism?
It’s so difficult to talk about it today because everybody is so opinionated. It is such a problem. You feel the consequences. It really overshadows European politics. Refugees are always being viewed with a certain suspicion. Maybe there are jihadists hiding among them. It impacts our ability to look at it calmly.
In hindsight one is always smart. In hindsight, one can safely say that the so-called war on terror invented terrorism. If all the money that was invested into the Iraq War had gone into investing in the infrastructure in these countries, there wouldn’t be a single terrorist out there. Fighting them with their own means makes them stronger.
You’re right that the majority of people probably think the Iraq War was waged under false pretenses and only destabilized the region, but what do you do now that it’s happened?
I don’t know. One also has to acknowledge that these people act on mindsets that in our civilization we know only too well. In the last century you only have to go back to the Nazis. With Christianity you go back 400 or 500 years, they burned people. They put them on stakes. They were terrorists, so to speak. We know that in our own culture, out of faith, out of religious belief, some pretty evil things can come out. How do you look at these people today? Do we believe that there is conviction behind them? Are they criminals? In our films we raise these questions. There’s a man who becomes involved with them as their prisoner. He’s face-to-face with them and has to ask other questions — what sort of people are they and am I dealing with another human being?
What role does art play in trying to bridge these political divides?
Art has a very, very important function today to make us see through a lot of lies again. Art can help show that there has to be other weapons against darkness other than more darkness.
Do you want people to see your films on theaters or do mind if they stream them on mobile devices?
I’d love them to be seen on screen, but the reality is that maybe only a third of the audience sees a film in the theater. The rest sees them on computers and on their iPads. I do that myself, so I can’t blame them.
You’re doing a documentary about Pope Francis. How did that project come about?
I was asked by the Vatican’s minister of communication if that would interest me. I said sure, but why me? And he said, Who else? I said I wanted final cut and he said they would not interfere.
What will people learn about Francis?
The title says what the film is all about. The title is “A Man of His Word.” It’s not a film about him biographically speaking. It’s about what he stands for.
You’ve operated almost entirely in the independent space with the exception of 1982’s “Hammett.” Is that a conscious choice?
“Hammett” was my only studio production with the result being that I swore that I was never going to be a hired hand again. I produce everything myself. If I’m a producer I can control things. I did refuse a number of bigger films because they would have meant I could not control them. I’m happy with my choices. The films have lower budgets, but the money is on the screen and nowhere else.
If you had to go to a desert island, what three films would you bring?
Three films is a shitty situation. I think I’d take a hard drive.