Wim Wenders on His Early Career, ‘Submergence’ and His Pope Francis Doc

In an eclectic career spanning half a century, Wim Wenders continues to channel the zeitgeist: his romantic thriller “Submergence” recently opened in the U.S. and his documentary “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word” is set to premiere at Cannes.

Wenders helped define New German Cinema with his road-movie trilogy starting in 1974, “Alice in the Cities,” “Wrong Move” and “Kings of the Road”). Over the years, he has also brought to the big screen timely social commentary, a unique perspective on the American experience, and exuberant celebrations of music and dance in “Buena Vista Social Club,” “The Soul of a Man” and “Pina.” The filmmaker is also busy restoring past films, including 1987 classic “Wings of Desire.”

Variety first mentioned Wenders in an Aug. 26, 1970 report about financing for his upcoming project “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick” (based on a novel and referred to as “Goal Keeper Frightened By Eleven-Meter Ball”).

What do you remember most about making “Goalie’s Anxiety”?

It was my very first time with a real crew, 35mm negative, color. The film language owed a lot to Alfred Hitchcock, except that in my story nothing happened. It also took me to America for the first time in my life, to the first season of New Directors/New Films at the MoMA. “Goalie” was one of the first 12 movies that were selected. I did my first interview: Richard Roud interviewed me for the New York Times. He called the film an “existential thriller,” and I thought, “Wow!” and finally understood what I had done.

It was also the first feature you did with Austrian writer Peter Handke.

It was a bestselling novel of his in 1970, when it came out. We worked several times together over the years, again on “Wrong Move,” and later I produced “Left-Handed Woman” and “The Absence,” which he directed. And then he helped me with “Wings of Desire,” and a couple of years ago we did “The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez.” So over the years we did six or seven collaborations. He’s my oldest friend.

Who were some of your other inspirations at the time?

The first film that I did in film school, “Summer in the City,” owed everything to John Cassavetes, the second to Hitchcock. Then I made a film that I didn’t like at all, “The Scarlet Letter,” a sort of David Lean for poor people. I wanted to shoot it in New England, but we lost half of our budget and had to shoot it in Spain, where Salem, Massachusetts, became one of the Western villages where they shot those spaghetti Westerns. It was a miserable experience. I realized that if I was going to go on making movies, I’d better make something that didn’t owe anything to anybody else, something that had my own handwriting. Otherwise I’d better return to painting or writing. It was all or nothing. That became “Alice in the Cities,” a no-budget road movie. That little film made me feel confident that I could go on with this filmmaking dream. From then on I knew what I could do, and I started to develop my own style.

In restoring “Goalie’s Anxiety,” you faced some complications with music rights.

I hadn’t acquired the music rights for more than a couple of years, and for Germany only. There was so much stuff in there: Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Creedence Clearwater Revival, you name it. It was all way too expensive to buy for a longer term. So the film wasn’t distributed for 40 years. We only had the magnetic mono track of the mix and none of the dialogue tracks anymore. So to take the music out was impossible until a couple of years ago, when digital technology came to our rescue. We could eliminate the original music by “painting it out” frame by frame. We had to substitute it with new music that had exactly the same beat. We then recorded seven new tracks, all in mono, all on analogue equipment from the period, so it sounded the same, and that gave the movie a new life. I have to mention that I’m eternally grateful to Van Morrison. We had “Gloria” in the film, and there was so much dialogue over it that no technology in the world could have taken that out. I wrote to Van Morrison, and he miraculously answered in a handwritten letter saying I could have the rights to that song. Otherwise we could not have restored “The Goalie.”

What about Pope Francis inspired you to make a film?

He’s an extraordinary man — at this moment one of the few men on the planet, it seems, whom people can trust. He’s utterly courageous and fearless and extremely honest. I think he has an appeal not only to Christians but to all people of common sense. He represents the common good like nobody else at this moment. I was very excited when he was elected, because he’s the first pope from South America, he’s the first Jesuit and mostly because he picked the name Francis, which I thought was quite promising, because no Pope had dared to take on that name and the legacy attached to it. The Vatican approached me in late 2013 about the project. We met and I was soon really convinced that it was worth it. The Vatican gave me carte blanche. It is not an expensive film. It had to be, so to speak, a “poor film,” because as he speaks so convincingly of a poor church for the poor, I figured we couldn’t make a movie that would contradict that.

Your other film this year is “Submergence.” What interested you about J.M. Ledgard’s novel?

It’s very contemporary, dealing with a problem that we encounter almost every week: jihadist violence. It has global dimensions and also speaks about our oceans. It appealed a lot to me, because it was a relatively dark story, but it came all together as an extremely compelling love story, with these two characters who are willing to go all the way for their causes. And as we got these fantastic actors in James McAvoy and Alicia Vikander, I went for it with all I had. I love the film, and I think we did something amazing.

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