From the American West to West Berlin

Wim Wenders, border crossings, and the transnational imaginary.

Image from Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, 1984.

Written in the West is the title of a catalogue of photographs exhibited by the German film director Wim Wenders at the Centre Pompidou in 1986. The catalogue contains striking images of cities and landscapes in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas; it closes with a photograph of “The Devil’s Graveyard,” taken in Big Bend, Texas, the location of the opening sequences in Wenders’s remarkable film Paris, Texas (1984). In an interview in the catalogue with the French critic Alain Bergala, Wenders speaks eloquently about the meaningful relationship between photography, exploration and travel:

Photography makes it possible to comprehend a place right away. … Both the familiar and the unfamiliar are, for me, excluded by photography: it’s an instrument of exploration, it belongs essentially to travel, practically like a car or a plane. The photo camera makes arrival in a place possible. 1

The history of photography and the “discovery” of the American West — through the lenses of explorers, photographers and cinematographers — are closely connected. In Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O’Sullivan, curator Toby Jurovics discusses O’Sullivan’s 19th-century images as a “foundation of our understanding of the landscapes of the West”; and as photographs that create the “immediate impression of a landscape in turmoil.” 2 O’Sullivan depicted a landscape that had already suffered cataclysmic events; and rather than striving toward representations of the sublime — a not uncommon trope in early representations of the West — he was “interested in emptiness, in apparently negative landscapes, in the barest, least hospitable ground. … The preponderance of his best pictures are of vacancies.” In this emptiness and vacancy, O’Sullivan understood that the “most powerful element in this landscape was his camera.” 3

Emptiness, vacancy and a camera — whether still or movie — are the starting points for our own exploration of transnationalism and the German city. In the case of Wim Wenders, this framework lends structure and unity to a career that encompasses the early German and German-American “road movies” Alice in the Cities (1974) and Kings of the Road (1976), the later explorations of Paris, Texas, and the “vertical road movie” Wings of Desire (1987), and much later, Don’t Come Knocking (2005). The momentous events underscoring these films are not only associated with emptiness and with landscapes in turmoil but also, particularly in Wings of Desire, with the rise of National Socialism, the tumultuous destruction of World War II, and the resulting emptiness of postwar inner-city “ruin landscapes” (Trümmerlandschaften); an equally important unifying theme is the generational rupture between fathers and sons following such seismic historical events. In this framework, the American West (and the American Western) served a specific and telling purpose for the postwar German West: to envision both traumatic upheaval and utopian projection. This projection was as much of a socio-cultural project as it was a cinematic fantasy. Wenders has commented that his “first memory of America is of a mythical land where everything was much better.” 4

This land where everything was much better was put in powerful focus by Hollywood cinema, which presented a vision of American life that contrasted starkly with the realities of Germany and postwar Europe generally. It was left to European directors to negotiate the often complex and contrasting images framed by the polarities of city and country, truth and fantasy. Consider, for example, the dialogue between Maddalena (Anna Magnani) and her husband Spartaco (Gastone Renzelli) in Luchino Visconti’s seductive exploration Bellissima (1951). While sitting in a crowded tenement courtyard watching an outdoor screening of Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948), husband and wife comment on the scene showing a cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail:

Maddalena: You don’t understand, Look at those places. Look where we live.
Spartaco: It’s all fantasy.
Maddalena: That’s not true. Look, Look! They’re taking the whole wagon across. Wow!

Visconti’s scene juxtaposes the European postwar city with the open expanses of the Texas prairie. “Wow” is inspired by the sight of thousands of wagons and cattle crossing across the Red River, even as the film dramatizes the generational conflict that divides a youthful Montgomery Clift and a seasoned John Wayne, who plays his adoptive father. As critics Roger F. Cook and Gerd Gemünden argue, Hawks’s Western heroes (together with those of Nicolas Ray and John Ford) “provided German adolescents with a much desired new mythology and served as models for European apprentices like Godard, Truffaut, and Wenders.” 5 In Paris, Texas, Wenders marks his debt to Red River in the relationship between the character of Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton), the father, and the young son he had earlier abandoned. Here the town of the title, and central motif of the film, is located “close to the Red River.”

Images from Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, 1984.

For Hawks, “Texas” is located south of the Red and north of the Rio Grande; it is in this Texas that the Western unfolds, as the wagon trains move west toward California. And it is in this same Texas that we first encounter Travis, adrift in an “empty” and limitless landscape, wearing a red baseball cap. Desperately in search of water, Travis stumbles into the tiny settlement of Terlingua, where his first encounter is with neither a cowboy nor an Indian, but rather a German doctor, an immigrant, played by the noted director Bernard Wicki. 6 In fact it has been argued that the “west” of Paris, Texas refers not simply to a place but also to a “European/American system of discursive power.” 7 Other West German directors have explored America; Werner Herzog moves from a bizarrely distinctive Berlin milieu to an equally specific rural Wisconsin in Stroszek (1977), and Percy Adlon drops a lost Bavarian soul into the heart of the Mojave Desert in Out of Rosenheim / Bagdad Café (1987). But Wenders is the only German director who consistently negotiates the borders of past and present, city and country, Germany and the American West in his search for a postwar identity and a correlative mythology and imagery. Not unlike Travis, who mutely staggers into the frame after crossing the border from Mexico, Wenders and his generation were literally born into a “landscape in turmoil,” the ruins left in the devastating wake of world war; a topography of absence and vacancy, of lost traditions, generations and faith. Wenders has described postwar Germany in difficult terms: “I don’t think that any other country has had such a loss of faith in its own images, stories, and myths as we have.” 8

In response to such loss, the director seeks to “establish a transnational space, unstable and full of longing for someplace else, for someone else.” 9 Thrust into this space is the figure of the “modern male hero as lone migrant and wanderer”; in the creation of this figure the American Western and specifically John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) have played a prominent (if not exclusive) part. Filmed in the iconic Monument Valley but ostensibly set in Texas, The Searchers is widely understood as a “psychological epic” of a deeply flawed character damaged by war (the American Civil War) and forever closed out of the safe and stable environs of domesticity. Centrally, The Searchers narrates the story of a man losing his sanity through the effects of violence and loss; the film is framed by the words of the opening song: “What makes a man to wander / What makes a man to roam?” Wandering, specifically the wanderings of men, is a staple of Wenders’s early films; Kings of the Road, from 1976, includes a visual quote of The Searchers. And the process of wandering connects Wenders’s road movies located in the American West with what the director himself called the “vertical road movie” Wings of Desire, in which two angels encounter the complex topographies of West Berlin under largely American occupation. But it is with Paris, Texas that Wenders first engages cinematic representations of the American West; and with the casting of Harry Dean Stanton, it is also the first time that Wenders has an American rather than a German in the central role of the wanderer, thereby lending the narrative a specifically “American” perspective.

This American perspective distinguishes Paris, Texas from Adlon’s Out of Rosenheim. Released in the United States as Bagdad Café, Adlon’s film is arguably another example of the German transnational imaginary set deep in the American West. Yet here the protagonist, a German woman, is a tourist searching for a place or home that can be found — as the film makes us understand —even if it is found in the unlikely location of a roadside café in the Mojave desert. In contrast, Wenders is not concerned with establishing place as a stable location. Rather he seeks the road itself as “home,” as the locus of stability. Paris, Texas, like The Searchers, presents a protagonist barred from or fleeing domestic environments: the narrative trajectory moves from the opening scene, in which Travis appears “off road,” in the desert borderlands, to the closing scene in which he is “on the road,” traveling comfortably in a car he’s purchased in Los Angeles. The larger context for this trajectory is set at the beginning when we realize that Travis is in the U.S.-Mexican borderlands, a non-place where “immigrants … just die in the desert because there is not a drop of water anywhere.” 10

In The Logic of Images, Wenders relates that he had originally intended to shoot the opening sequence for Paris, Texas in Big Bend National Park, but chose instead a “godforsaken patch of ground (that) wasn’t even entered on our maps … that turned out to be a gigantic abstract dream landscape known as the ‘Devil’s Graveyard.'” 11 Whether tracking the Devil’s Graveyard along the U.S.-Mexican border, or the border of West and East Germany in Kings of the Road, or the angelic views of the no-man’s-land along the Berlin Wall in Wings of Desire, Wenders has exhibited extraordinary sensitivity and insight into the crossing of borders and a visual imaginary that owes as much to American as to German sources.

Importantly, Wenders goes “deliberately and repeatedly beyond German borders,” choosing to tell stories not from the “center” but from the margins. 12 National borders and their transgressions characterize his landscapes and cityscapes. From the uncertainty as to whether Travis knows “which side of the border” he is on in the opening scene of Paris, Texas, to the angel Cassiel wondering whether “there [are] any borders left?” in Wings of Desire, there are, as the latter film puts it, “more [borders] then ever. Each street has its borderline.” It is in this sense that Wenders saw German-ness as something that could only be experienced in Berlin. 13 More a site than a city characterized by the postwar division between East and West, Berlin also represents the World, since “Berlin is divided like our world.” The German title of Wings of Desire, Der Himmel über Berlin, signals not a “story of unity” but “one story about division.” Thus Wenders sees the German city, as cities globally, as not only as divided but also as fundamentally and transnationally interlinked. 14

For Wenders, borderlands as spaces of “nothing,” as “wastelands” and “voids,” play key roles “as places, as spaces of possibility.” 15 The abundance of such spaces — created by the traumatic destruction during wartime as well as in its aftermath — practically defined mid-20th-century Berlin, and these spaces persisted through the early reunification years and contributed greatly to the city’s sense of cultural vibrancy and opportunity. Astute observers have emphasized the importance of voids in an urban fabric, and many of the tensions surrounding post-reunification urbanism in Berlin have circled around efforts to either develop or protect the city’s voids, its illegibilities and erasures. 16 And it is in these often remarkable “gaps” that Wenders generates much of the activity in Wings of Desire. But to better understand the director’s notions of emptiness and vacancy, we will need to turn back to his wanderings in the American West.

Images from Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, 1984.

Indeed, Wim Wenders has been characterized by both his “obsession with America” and his role in the New German Cinema, the “national cinema of aesthetic experimentation and political opposition” that includes also such luminaries as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta. 17 By 1984, the year Paris, Texas opened and won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Wenders had extensive experience with crossing the borders between West Germany, West Berlin and the American West. Born in 1945, just months after the end of the war, Wenders views his contributions to New German Cinema as shaped by his “distanced relationship to Germany as a ‘fatherland.'” 18 Belonging to a “generation without fathers,” without a “tradition of our own,” Wenders draws heavily upon non-German traditions, particularly (as we’ve seen) the American genres of the Western and the road movie. 19

His very early Summer in the City (1970) is organized around movement through Munich and Berlin; the protagonist, newly released from prison, is on the run from former associates trailing him in an old Chevrolet. Images of street scenes unrolling outside of car windows are coupled with images of flight by plane that would surface later in Alice in the Cities (1974). American culture is present throughout the film as a constituent element of late ’60s urban German culture: broadcasts from American radio stations discussing the value of the dollar and joint U.S.-West German military maneuvers (“Project Partnership from Hamburg to Bamberg”); a conversation about an obscure John Ford Western, 3 Godfathers, in which the character played by John Wayne adopts a child orphaned by conflict; a phonograph playing a song from Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, about a Texas outlaw and gunfighter. Although the movie is “Dedicated to the Kinks,” its title is taken from the hit 1966 song of the same name by the American band The Lovin’ Spoonful. The song resonates loudly as the film’s hero walks quickly (in the depths of winter) along Berlin’s Landwehrkanal (and passes the famous modernist Shell House, which is associated with the Weimar era’s New Objectivity). Summer in the City, then, introduces us to central themes in the work of Wenders, in which American economic and industrial prowess are coupled with Hollywood genre films and American pop culture in the German metropolis.

Wenders’s next major films — the trilogy Alice in the Cities, The Wrong Move and Kings of the Road — are structured as road movies. Alice in the Cities moves from America to West Germany, from New York City to Wuppertal. The Wrong Move (1975) follows the tradition of the 19th-century German Bildungsroman in which the hero travels in order to learn. Kings of the Road follows two men moving along the borderlands of West Germany and the German Democratic Republic, repairing projectors in local movie houses (along the while tracing the history of cinema itself). The next films — The American Friend (1977), Hammett (1982) and The State of Things (1982) — display a great deal of transatlantic movement, but are more directly concerned with how aesthetic sensibilities are translated into the economic calculations of the Hollywood culture industry. Following The American Friend, from 1978 until 1984, Wenders lived first in San Francisco, then Los Angeles, and finally New York. About this period he would later explain:

That was a seductive life. And then, for a while, I really thought I could make an American film and become an American director. This was, in fact, my ambition. It took some time for me to recognize that I didn’t have it in me, from Hammett and then coming to terms with Hammett in State of Things and finally Paris, Texas. Then, finally, I realized I could only be a European director. 20

Clearly Wenders’s experience with the control exerted by the American studios led to his reconsideration of earlier aspirations. As such, Paris, Texas became a pivotal film for the director’s own transition from Germany to America and back again; a film in which the city, as in Wings of Desire, is framed as a site in which diverging national experiences are somehow merged. Through the use of different genres, Wenders thus constructs a transnational space of human experience, in which the continuous search for belonging leads in the end back to one’s own otherness.

Image from Wim Wenders’s The Wings of Desire, 1987.

Sites and Sights: From West Berlin to West Texas and Back Again

Wenders scripted (or co-scripted) and directed the films under discussion during the Cold War, a period during which Berlin served as a global image for the politics of division and confrontation. From the end of World War II up to German reunification in 1989, both East and West Berlin functioned as paradigmatic sites (and sights) for constructing respective national identities, identities articulating the geopolitical dichotomy of East and West and realized in competing and contested architectural representations. The early postwar construction of the Stalinallee in the Russian sector of Berlin was countered by the 1957 Interbau building exhibition in the West, a panoply of modernist architecture owing much to the prewar Bauhaus tradition rejected by the National Socialists and presenting Berlin as a “shopping window of the West.” Cross-border competition in the realm of architectural representation continued in the following decades and was formalized again under the parallel “new” and “old” categories of West Berlin’s International Building Exhibition (IBA, 1984–1987). This tradition of the “politics of architecture” — evolving through stages from a city in ruin, to a blockaded, then divided, and ultimately reunified city — arguably entered another phase in the Baustelle / Schaustelle (building site / spectacle site) projects of the reunified New Berlin, and in the staging of a new capital claiming a leading position within an expanding European Union and a globalizing world economy. 21

In the early post-reunification years, the complex dichotomies of East and West were increasingly replaced by a new distinction between the “European” and the “American” city. On the one hand, this distinction served as a means of identity construction in a globalizing economy, as an often contested means of reconnecting Berlin to one or another of its many competing histories. In this light, historians have understood the city’s architecture as a “master discourse,” allowing one to “read urban topographies as special manifestations of German history and identity” informed by the “overlapping binaries of East and West, German and European, and European and American.” 22 On the other hand, at the height of the post-reunification building style of Critical Reconstruction, it also enabled urban planners to use the city and its multiple architectures as a language, a “vocabulary of the European city.” 23

Cinematic representation has played a central role in the “shaping of urban images,” all the way from the seminal silent film Berlin, Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927), directed by Walther Ruttmann, to the recent acclaimed The Lives of Others (2006), by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Wenders’s filmic renditions of Berlin are thus framed within a complex intertextuality comprised of the urban as well as the cinematic. Significantly, Wings of Desire marks Wenders’s effort to return to “das Deutsche” (the German). 24 But with regard to a (trans)national context, Wings of Desire has also been described as an “angelic remake” of Paris, Texas, with one critic linking the two films together as an “improbable diptych” that takes as its theme the “Europe/America interface,” while addressing issues of belonging, identity and authorship. 25 We have, then, a cinematic diptych of a divided metropolis, based on Wenders’s own situation, on his search for anyplace (irgendeinen Ort) on a U.S. map. This is a search Wenders described in his short story Motels, which was influenced by Sam Shepard’s Motel Chronicles (1983). In an interview about Paris, Texas, Wenders recalled that he had been inspired by the image of “looking at a map of the USA, prepared at any moment to drive to just any place found on the map.” 26 But the relationship between Wenders and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Shepard is a complicated one. … And as Wenders has written, “Actually, I was going to make a far more complex film, because I had originally intended to drive all over America. … But my scriptwriter Sam Shepard persuaded me not to. He said: ‘Don’t bother with all that zigzagging. You can find the whole of America in the one state of Texas.'” 27

Image from Wim Wenders’s The Wings of Desire, 1987.

Continuously tracking divisions and connections, Wenders approaches the American West by mapping “unusual places names” (ungewöhnliche Ortsnamen), exposing the ways in which the “special manifestations of German history” can be seen as spatial hybridizations of national identity. 28 In Paris, Texas, Wenders searches for the common in the uncommon, the familiar in the foreign, for “things that are out of place,” and which in the process create places that are “strangely quiet, or quietly strange.” 29 Wenders recounts his interest in portraying a man “who is on a journey without [a] goal and only stops to study the map and make arbitrary decisions.” 30 His search for signs of displacement involves continuous approximation and distancing. But if Wenders used Paris, Texas to familiarize himself with the American West, the film also marked the end of his “American phase” and his return to Germany. Still, he would return to America again for The End of Violence (1997) and The Million Dollar Hotel (2000); and after the events of 9/11 and the increasing militarization and global isolation of America, Wenders completed Land of Plenty (2004) and Don’t Come Knocking (2005) as a “goodbye to the West.” 31 As with divided Berlin, it is through navigating between proximity and distance that Wenders saw the American West not as a destination but as a site of transition, as “the place where things fall apart,” where “civilization simply passed through.” 32

Linking the meanings of site and sight, Wenders’s navigations complicate the role that the image plays in urban history. In the 1970s, he saw Germany as characterized by an “unceasing distrust of images” due to their abuse during National Socialism. 33 In contrast, he saw America as the “country where vision was set free.” 34 ….

Images from Wim Wenders’s The Wings of Desire, 1987.

Border Crossings

How do Wim Wenders’s travelogues between West Berlin and the American West contribute to our understanding of the urban condition in relation to national borders and transnational networks, and as a site of migrating geopolitical imageries and imaginaries? German and Austrian directors have long ventured into the landscapes of the American West, frequently doing so with sharp juxtapositions of the urban and natural. An early and notable foray was made by F. W. Murnau in his severely edited City Girl (1930), a visually striking film ostensibly set in the contrasting environs of a bustling, metropolitan Chicago and an isolated, rural North Dakota. Filmed in the prairies of eastern Oregon, the powerful images of undulating wheat fields would resonate across decades of cinematic history and resurface again in Terrence Malick’s majestically poetic Days of Heaven (1978). A few years after Murnau, the Austrian-born Luis Trenker journeyed deep into the deserts of the West in his Der Kaiser von Kalifornien (1936). Trained as an architect, Trenker was equally adept at capturing images of landscapes or cityscapes; Der Kaiser von Kalifornien directly followed his Der verlorene Sohn (1934) with its poignant images of New York City in the throes of the Great Depression, and together these two films provide remarkable portraits of urban hardship and natural splendor. Fritz Lang, also Austrian-born and renowned for his dystopian visions in Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), fled the National Socialists for Hollywood, where he directed such studio Westerns as The Return of Frank James (1940), Western Union (1941), and Rancho Notorious (1952). A quarter century later, in Stroszek, Werner Herzog provided audiences with a strong contrast between the Cold War Berlin neighborhood (Kiez) of Kreuzberg and the unfulfilled promise of a new life in rural Wisconsin.

Complementing this fascination with the American West and its settlements ranging from farmhouse to doublewide trailer are the numerous Winnetou films based on the popular Old West novels of the late 19th-century writer Karl May. A product of both West and East Germany, and filmed largely in Yugoslavia (now Croatia), these mid-century films helped generate a transnational “western imaginary” that fueled the rage for the Italo-Westerns of the 1960s and ’70s. In turn, the Italo-Westerns drew a great deal of imagery (and sometimes their locations) from the magisterial Westerns of American directors such as Ford. In this regard, German cinematic history has a close connection with both the mythic and real American West, a connection in which city and landscape are often juxtaposed or intertwined.

Taken together, this is a complex terrain, and here Wim Wenders takes a decisive stand. In his essay “From Dream to Nightmare,” Wenders writes:

Kracauer spoke of film as the “redemption of physical reality,” meaning the tenderness that cinema can show towards reality. Westerns have often brought out this tenderness in a dreamily beautiful and quiet way. They respected themselves: their characters, their plots, their landscapes, their rules, their freedoms, their desires. In their images they spread out a surface that was nothing else but what you could see. 35

The “nightmare” of the essay title refers to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Unlike most Italo-Westerns, Leone had a big enough budget to film in Monument Valley, the setting of many of Ford’s Westerns. But for Wenders, the use of Monument Valley in the Leone film made him feel “like a tourist, a ‘Western tourist.'” Although influences of Leone’s Westerns, and especially their remarkable Ennio Morricone scores, would echo through Paris, Texas in the remarkably stylized music of Ry Cooder, Wenders declared in his essay that “I don’t want to see another Western” — nonetheless ending with a reengagement with the West and remarking that “I’m pleased that I saw Monument Valley again in another film, that I had a chance to see it again: in Easy Rider.” 36

Wenders had begun his career by reframing a fundamental trope of the Western — enlightenment through encounter with the tests and trials of an overpowering nature — in terms of the road movie. If we understand the road movie as a renewal of the Western for movie-going audiences of the 1960s, then it’s clear that this direction is exemplified by Easy Rider (1968), which offers its own juxtapositions of urban and natural, including Los Angeles and Monument Valley. In this context, Paris, Texas can be seen as a hybrid of Western homage and contemporary road movie, and as noted, Wings of Desire is best understood as a vertical road movie. And it is in this decidedly “Berlin” film that we can locate both the hybrid construction of a site-specific European urban imaginary and an American western imaginary; a construction in which the wanderings of the angelic pair across the vacant no-man’s-land of vanished Potsdamer Platz and the death zone of the Berlin Wall echo the landscape of emptiness and cataclysmic events that had so fascinated Timothy O’Sullivan a century earlier and half a world away. In moving from west Texas to West Berlin, Wenders negotiates not only the borders of north and south, east and west, but also the borderlands of landscape and urbanism in postwar Berlin.

Image from Wim Wenders’s The Wings of Desire, 1987.

Beyond Heimat: The Transnational Imaginary

National borders have played a crucial role in recent discussions of German immigration politics in which the notion of a “deutsche Leitkultur” (a “guiding German culture”) has been put forward and in which the mastery of the “language spoken here” has been declared a prerequisite for successful integration. 37 In response, such claims have been criticized — by such authorities as Jurgen Habermas — as “increasing xenophobia” and endangering the faith that there is some “scope left for collectively shaping a challenging future.” 38

In assessing the role of language in shaping national historiographies, spoken and visual languages should be considered as coequal in narrative constructions. In this light, Wenders has diligently worked to develop a filmic language that explores transnational imaginaries and anticipates concepts of both transnational and multinational urbanism. 39 In the history of the German Autorenfilm, Wender’s work contributes less conspicuously than that of his contemporary Fassbinder or of such younger directors as Thomas Arslan and Fatih Akin, who specifically address the transnationalism of German-Turkish communities in Berlin and Hamburg. Yet Wenders devotes careful attention to both landscapes and cityscapes and to the ability of the individual to negotiate these shifting locations and to find a “home.” His focus on the individual in a multiplicity of physical borderlands has facilitated his cinematic movement between the “wests” of Berlin and America in a manner redolent of Odysseus. Such “continuation of ancient mythology,” as one critic has described it, characterizes Paris, Texas much as it did Ford’s The Searchers. 40 In these films the mythologizing of the American West is shaped by the trope of the encounter of the individual with his innermost self, an encounter intensified by the immensity of the landscape — the “otherness” of a visual and cultural order with new and not readily recognizable features. As in The Searchers, in Paris, Texas there is a continual negotiation between race and culture, law and lawlessness, territory and language. ….

During the postwar and Cold War periods, “darker” forms of the Western — often blending combat and Western genres and anticipating film noir — served at once to propagate and critique varying frontier myths. In The Searchers, Ford explores the frontier mythology and history associated with Indian wars and the captivity narratives of white women and children abducted by Indians; in the film these merge, in a sense, with the ideology of the period, with the choice of “being Red and being dead.” 41 … Actively referencing Ford’s film, Paris, Texas uses the imaging of written words and place names to inform the narrative. 42 The opening shows the protagonist, Travis, arriving in the frontier town of Terlingua, a corrupted formation of the Spanish “tres linguas,” referring to Spanish, English and the Comanche (or the languages of the Apache, Shawnee, and Comanche). 43 The entrance into Terlingua is also the point where language itself enters the film or, as the critic Alexander Graf observes, the point where we leave the vastness of the desert, in which “vision is limited only by the sky itself: there are few landmarks and no language.” 44 When Travis collapses at this threshold between vision and narrative, word is sent to his brother Walt, owner of a billboard company in Los Angeles (and thus associated with spreading the “white man’s language”). Traveling to Texas to help his brother, Walt argues that there is “nothing out there,” and he brings Travis back to Los Angeles — westwards to civilization. …

  1. Wim Wenders, Written in the West. Photographien aus dem amerikanischen Westen (Munich: Schirmer / Mosel, 1987, repr. 1996), 8. All translations are our own.
  2. Toby Jurovics and Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O’Sullivan (Washington, DC: Library of Congress / Yale University Press, 2010), 19.
  3. Quoted from Robert Adams, the noted 20th-century photographer of the American West, in ibid., 26 and 9.
  4. From Michel Ciment, “Entretien avec Wim Wenders,” Positif 236 (1980); cited in Michael Töteberg, “Back to the US of A. Das Bild Amerikas in den neuen Filmen von Wim Wenders,” in Man of Plenty — Wim Wenders, ed. Volker Behrens (Marburg: Schüren, 2005), 23–38.
  5. Roger F. Cook and Gerd Gemünden, The Cinema of Wim Wenders: Image, Narrative, and the Postmodern Condition (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1997), 206.
  6. The Terlingua character played by Bernard Wicki is named Dr. Ulmer, presumably a play on the Moravian émigré director, Edgar Ulmer, justly renowned for the noir road movie Detour (1945), a gritty story of things going from bad to worse as the main character travels across the desert southwest to Hollywood. On occasion Wenders uses American directors as characters in his films, such as Nicolas Ray and Dennis Hopper in The American Friend (1977); but through his appearance in Paris, Texas Wenders honors Bernard Wicki as one of the few early German postwar directors not rejected by the New German Cinema.
  7. Roger Bromley, From Alice to Buena Vista. The Films of Wim Wenders (London: Praeger, 2001), 49.
  8. Wim Wenders, Emotion Pictures. Reflection on the Cinema (London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1989), 94.
  9. Wim Wenders, quoted in Robert P. Kolker and Peter U. Beicken, The Films of Wim Wenders: Cinema as Vision and Desire (New York and Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 36.
  10. Wim Wenders, “Like Flying Blind without Instruments. On the Turning Point in Paris, Texas,” in Wenders, The Logic of Images: Essays and Conversations, trans. Michael Hofmann (London, UK: Faber, 1991), 66.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Jaimey Fisher and Brad Prager, “Introduction,” in The Collapse of the Conventional: German Film and Its Politics at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, ed. Fisher and Prager (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010), 13.
  13. Wim Wenders, “An Attempted Description of an Indescribable Film. From the First Treatment for Wings of Desire,“ in Wenders, The Logic of Images, 73–83, 74.
  14. In contrast to Christa Wolf’s Divided Sky (Der geteilte Himmel), published shortly after the construction of the Berlin Wall, Wenders consciously affirms the unity of the sky showing “images and traces of past history, and intimations of what is to come.” Ibid., 74 and 76 (emphases in the original). On the interrelationship between these films, see Volker Wehdeking, Mentalitätswandel in der deutschen Literatur zur Einheit, 1990–2000 (Berlin: E. Schmidt, 2000), 229.
  15. Wim Wenders and Daniel Bickermann, A Sense of Place: Texte und Interviews (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag der Autoren, 2005), 39.
  16. Andreas Huyssen, “The Voids of Berlin,” Critical Inquiry 24, no.1 (1997): 57–81.
  17. Stephan Schindler and Lutz Koepnick, “Introduction. Against the Wall? The Global Imaginary of German Cinema,” in The Cosmopolitan Screen: German Cinema and the Global Imaginary, 1945 to the Present, ed. Stephan Schindler and Lutz Koepnick (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2007), 2.
  18. Volker Behrens, “Der Geschichte einen gewaltigen Raum schaffen: Ein Interview mit Wim Wenders,” in Man of Plenty: Wim Wenders, ed. Behrens (Marburg: Schüren, 2005), 133–138, 135. On Wenders’ role in the New German Cinema, see Thomas Elsaesser, New German Cinema (London: British Film Institute, 1989).
  19. Wim Wenders, quoted in Kolker and Beicken, The Films of Wim Wenders, 37.
  20. Wim Wenders, “Stinksauer. Betroffen. Bereit zum Kampf,” interview with Hanns-Georg Rodek, Die Welt Online, September 25, 2004; accessed December 15, 2012.
  21. See Hartmut Häußermann and Claire Colomb, “The New Berlin: Marketing the City of Dreams,” in Lily M. Hoffman, Susan S. Fainstein, and Dennis R. Judd, eds., Cities and Visitors: Regulating People, Markets, and City Space (Malden, MA and Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2003), 200–218; Janet Ward, Post-Wall Berlin: Borders, Space and Identity (New York and Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); and Claire Colomb, Staging the New Berlin: Place Marketing and the Politics of Urban Reinvention Post-1989 (New York: Routledge, 2012).
  22. Philip Broadbent and Sabine Hake, “Introduction,” in Berlin Divided City, 1945–1989, ed. Broadbent and Hake (New York: Berghahn Books, 2010), 3.
  23. Hans Stimmann, Michael Goj, and Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk, et al., eds., Babylon, Berlin etc: Das Vokabular der europäischen Stadt (Basel, Berlin, and Boston: Birkhäuser, 1995). As Claire Colomb has recently written: “Urban policy-makers (and other actors) seek to ‘shape’ urban images not only through transformations of the built environment, but also through the production of particular textual and visual representations disseminated via various media.” Colomb, Staging the New Berlin, 18.
  24. Wenders and Bickermann, A Sense of Place, 230.
  25. Tony Rayns, “Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire),” Monthly Film Bulletin 55, no. 654 (1988): 203–205, 204.
  26. Wim Wenders, “Interview mit Wim Wenders” (n.d.), 7. Schriftgutarchiv Deutsche Kinemathek Museum für Film und Fernsehen, Berlin.
  27. Wenders, The Logic of Images, 67. The versatile Shepard would ultimately play the leading role in Don’t Come Knocking (2005) as a man fleeing the Hollywood film industry and a Western in the making. In Paris, Texas, the leading role is played by Harry Dean Stanton, a denizen of the cinematic west just as Bruno Ganz is of the skies of Berlin. Stanton is associated with other late or revisionist westerns such as Ride in the Whirlwind (1966) and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), road movies such as Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), the offbeat Christine (1983), and Alex Cox’s cult classic Repo Man (1984). This was followed a year later by a role in Fool for Love (1985), Robert Altman’s direction of a Sam Shepard novel unfolding in a western motel in which Shepard stars and Stanton appears in a supporting role.
  28. Wim Wenders, “Ich möchte das Unsichtbare zeigen,” interview with Cosima Schmitt, Die Zeit Online, June 21, 2011; ccessed December 15, 2012.
  29. From Wim Wenders’s comments for the exhibition “Places, Strange and Quiet” at the Haunch of Venison, London, UK, April 15—May 14, 2011; accessed December 15, 2012 but no longer available online. See also Wim Wenders: Places, Strange and Quiet (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2011).
  30. Wenders, “Interview mit Wim Wenders,” 7.
  31. Steven Pill, “State of Grace: An Interview with Wim Wenders,” in British Journal of Photography, May 17, 2011; accessed December 15, 2012.
  32. Wenders, Written in the West, 11.
  33. Wim Wenders quoted in Anton Kaes, From Hitler to Heimat: The Return of History as Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 8.
  34. Wim Wenders, “The American Dream” [1984], in Wenders, Wim Wenders: On Film: Essays and Conversations, trans. Sean Whiteside and Michael Hofmann (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), 126–127. It is worth noting that vision is not only political but is also facilitated by media technologies, centrally those of photography and cinematography, whereby the former is considered as a means not just of exploration but also of preservation “in your eye and in your memory.” See Wenders, Wim Wenders: On Film: Essays and Conversations, 10. The latter, cinema, implies narration, the bringing along of one’s history and the search for a place to tell it: “one reads something into the landscape.” See Wenders, “Ich möchte das Unsichtbare zeigen.”
  35. Wim Wenders, “From Dream to Nightmare. The Terrifying Western Once Upon a Time in the West” in  (London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1989), 24–25, 24.
  36. Ibid., 24 and 25. Emphasis in the original.
  37. “Seehofer und Merkel befeuern Leitkultur-Debatte,” Spiegel Online, October 15, 2010; accessed December 15, 2012. This critique of multicultural politics was reinforced in Germany Abolishes Itself published by SPD politician and former Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin in the same year. Thilo Sarrazin, Deutschland schafft sich ab: Wie wir unser Land aufs Spiel setzen (Munich: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2010).
  38. Such claims have also been disputed by linguists who study Deukisch and Kiezdeutsch, hybrid languages that are developing in multiethnic neighborhoods. See Friederike Kern and Margret Selting, Ethnic Styles of Speaking in European Metropolitan Areas (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2011); and Heike Wiese, Kiezdeutsch: Ein Neuer Dialekt Entsteht (Munich: Beck, 2012).
  39. See Reinhold Martin and Kadambari Baxi, Multi-National City: Architectural Itineraries (Barcelona: Actar-D, 2007).
  40. Horst Fleig, Wim Wenders. Hermetische Filmsprache und Fortschreiben antiker Mythologie (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2005), 43–47.
  41. Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Atheneum, 1992), 334.
  42. Kolker and Beicken, The Films of Wim Wenders, 114ff; see also Wenders and Bickermann, A Sense of Place, 18.
  43. An alternative meaning is the bifurcation of the local creek. See Fleig, Wim Wenders, 21.
  44. Alexander Graf, The Cinema of Wim Wenders: The Celluloid Highway (London, UK: Wallflower Press, 2002), 94.
Nicole Huber & Ralph Stern, “From the American West to West Berlin,” Places Journal, April 2014. Accessed 27 May 2022.

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