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Wim Wenders - The German Friend
by Dov Kornits

Few directors come as revered as Wim Wenders. Along with Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and key others, he woke a stone dead German film industry in the late sixties and unleashed international cinema upon the world in the seventies. His filmography is a long and varied one, ranging from small personal works (Kings Of The Road) to some of the most cherished cult films of all time (Paris, Texas, Wings Of Desire, and The American Friend with Dennis Hopper and Bruno Ganz) to some interesting, and still greatly appreciated, financial failures (Until The End Of The World, The End Of Violence). His latest film, Buena Vista Social Club, is a collaboration with his regular composer Ry Cooder, and takes the audience on a tour through the cigar smoke and jaunty rhythms that drive the lives of some elderly, revered Cuban musicians.

It wasn't really my baby at all. Ry Cooder introduced me to the music. One day he gave me this tape. He didn't say much except that he made it in Havana and he was very proud of it. I listened to it and I knew straight away that it was something very special. I said to Ry, "Hey, who are these young people you found in Havana?" They are so youthful and so energetic, and I just took it for granted that they were young people. And it was only then that I found out the story of these people. It was a desire to get to meet these people who were eighty years old but still making music like that. The musicians speak for themselves. The idea was to make the musicians visible and myself invisible. I came home with more than 100 hours of footage. And of course we didn't just shoot in Havana, we shot in Amsterdam and New York, and what started as just a small adventure turned out to be a year of my life. But it never felt like work anyway.

It's like no other city on this planet. I fell in love with Havana the second that I arrived. It's an incredibly photogenic city. Like anything's that's decaying, it works for the camera. In Havana, you have to look behind the facade to see that some of it is just beyond repair. Like with their beautiful old cars. You have to drive them before you realise that they are beyond repair. Havana is just so different. It's not only a very different lifestyle, or a different society. It's also that they live in a totally different time zone to every one else. They haven't experienced the eighties and nineties. They are living in a kind of time warp. And we can say "Oh, we love them," but that's romanticising the whole thing. The Cubans would like to enter the year 2000 with everybody else. They have a very hard life. Terrifyingly hard. The miracle is that they don't complain about it. In countries where people are better off, that's where everyone complains. In Cuba, the whole time I was there, I never heard anyone complain. I never saw them open their hand to beg for anything. It was amazing.

My next film is Million Dollar Hotel. Bono produced the script and developed it with us and kind of choreographed the whole thing, but when it came time to shoot the film he had to go into the studio to make the next U2 album. He wanted to play the concierge, but it just didn't work out. But I like the film very much. I'm very proud of it. Mel Gibson did an incredible acting job in it. It's a love story between Jeremy Davies and Milla Jovovich, and Mel is the cop who messes up everything. It's a beautiful film. It's a film that doesn't have any other film as a model.

We got Dennis Hopper straight from the Philippines. He came straight from the set of Apocalypse Now to the set of The American Friend. He still had his wardrobe on, and he was drugged out of his mind. He didn't even know why he was in Hamburg or what he was supposed to do there. I think the Philippines jungle had been bad for everyone who had worked on Apocalypse, and Dennis was totally impossible to work with for the first couple of weeks. I told him that either we'd get someone else or he'd have to prove to me that he was the great actor that I knew he was. He was totally suicidal. He took every drug in the book. Either you survive it and be an actor, or you die. I said to him "Are you gonna die tomorrow or are you gonna become an actor?" He sometimes refers to The American Friend as the film that saved his life.
Bruno Ganz and Dennis Hopper had as different an approach as you can have. Dennis would come in unprepared, he wouldn't even know his dialogue, but once the camera was running, he was really on top of things. He had an incredible presence and he was as sharp as nails. But Bruno would've been worrying about the scene for two days, he'd know every gesture, every word, everything - like the stage actor that he was. He knew exactly how he wanted to play every scene and he was utterly disturbed by Dennis, who didn't give a shit. They actually had a fist fight in the middle of one scene because they hated each other so much. There was no way I was gonna work with these two maniacs. So they went and spent that entire night together and they came back in the morning, and they'd sorted things out. From then on, Dennis would come to me the night before, and ask for his next day's dialogue. He'd ask Bruno if he wanted to go through the scene together, and Bruno would say, "No, we'll talk about it tomorrow." So they really learned a lot from each other and they became good friends.

I think it's a good city. The End Of Violence was a portrait of the city of Los Angeles. I like LA because it's such an empty canvas and you can paint on it whatever you want. Very few films really try to portray LA. I have lots of friends and some of them are filmmakers. But LA is a city where there are lots of artists. Lots of painters. It's great for music too. There are so many clubs. All sorts of music from jazz to country to whatever. That's one of the big attractions for me being a music lover. But there are also painters, writers, everybody comes there. A lot of people from Europe are there now. It wasn't like that when I was first there. I once lived there for seven years in the seventies and eighties when it was truly a provincial city.

We all came out at about the same time. About 1967. But this wasn't like a movement. It wasn't like the French New Wave, where all the directors shared some sort of common thought. The German directors of the late sixties - Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder - had absolutely nothing in common ideologically. The only thing we had in common was that we wanted to start making movies again in a country that was only making soft core porn. So we started from scratch. The New German cinema started out of an act of incredible solidarity. We had no style or program or theory in common. We realised that none of us would make it unless we all did. We formed one company together. We all shared the risk with each other. Nobody would ever have given us any money. But when we were together we knew we would get things made. We disagreed about a lot of things but we knew we couldn't do it on our own.

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originally posted: 02/20/00 23:30:20
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