After a five-year break from feature filmmaking, German auteur Wim Wenders returns with two wildly different films. The first is Anselm, a career-spanning documentary about contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer. Shot in 3D, it's a piece of cinema that Wenders describes as "an experience" more than a film.
"With 3D, you are exposed to his work in a different way," Wenders tells A.frame. "If you show art on a flat screen, it is like a catalog. 3D gave me the [opportunity] for people to be there, in these places, that they could not witness otherwise. You see so much more."
The other film is Perfect Days, a character study centered on a middle-aged Tokyo toilet cleaner (played by Kôji Yakusho, who won Best Actor at Cannes). Unalike as they may be, the two projects exemplify the filmmaker's visionary approach to experimenting with format and function: Perfect Days was conceived of and shot like a documentary, while Anselm utilizes cutting-edge technology and pushes the boundaries on stylistic choices.
In tandem, the films become perfect complements to one another. They also prove that half a century after breaking through during the era of New German Cinema, Wenders — the filmmaker behind such classics as Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987) and a three-time Oscar-nominated documentarian for 1999's Buena Vista Social Club, 2011's Pina, and 2014's The Salt of the Earth — remains one of cinema's preeminent poets.
A.Frame: Anselm is your second film in 3D. A lot of filmmakers have embraced it and then moved away from the format. As a storyteller, what does it offer you that perhaps hasn't worked for other filmmakers?
When I first used it in Pina, it was for one reason: To be able to film space. Dance is an art that only happens with space, and if you only have flat space at your disposal, how can you make a film about dancers? Pina [Bausch] and I had wanted to make this film for a quarter of a century, and only when digital 3D showed up and only with the help of prototype equipment were we able to make it. 3D was made for that kind of film. For Anselm, it was not about space. It was the need to take people into these places of Anselm Kiefer's work — into his studio and the vast art territory he built in the south of France. I used 3D to give people that sense of experience. I use that word because Anselm is more like an experience than a film.
3D has the uncanny effect of enabling you to see more than ever. It's not just the depth in space. You have a multitude of things to see, because your brain works differently, so emotionally, you're also much more involved in a 3D film. If you use it in a poetic way and don't cut as much as you do in superhero movies or animation, it enables you to see more and be more involved. Sadly, the poetic qualities of 3D are overlooked or underused. It was a great language to use to make a film that found its own language in relation to its subject, which is the art of Anselm Kiefer.
The film is about a visual artist, but the sound design is very evocative. In some scenes, you have a male voice in the foreground and a female whispering in the background; then you bring them together. Where did that inspiration come from?
I did experiment a lot with voice. At some point, I did it with my voice. I used these female figures, [who you see] in so much of Anselm's works, as my allies and narrators. I had them whisper things and tell stories, but in the end, I felt if you had to listen to them and follow that flow of consciousness, the thing was overburdened. I realized it was enough as music; it was enough as an idea that these women are all thinking and whispering their thoughts, and sometimes you hear a word or two. It became more about the film's sound design and increased the complexity of the impression you have. You're in an entirely different world, because some of these women speak Greek, some speak Latin, and others speak Hebrew. It became a way to make people realize that this was a universal art that Anselm was creating. So, these voices complemented the enormous wealth of the visuals. In the end, I realized it is enough if you hear a word every now and then.
The film also utilized a mix of archival footage with real-time art creation. Many artists don't want to show people how the sausage is made. Was he open to you pulling back the curtain?
We talked about that a lot before we made the film. For about a week, we covered many subjects and asked every question about his childhood, mythology, history, and process. Then I asked him, 'Anselm, do you want me to write a screenplay?' And he said, 'For heaven's sake! I don't want to ever read anything, and I also don't want to come into your editing room. I only ask you for one thing: That you surprise me, and that's the only thing I want you to promise me.' That became the premise of the film. I would surprise him, and he wasn't aware of anything I was doing. Of course, he knew I was shooting, and when he was in front of the camera, he knew that we were there, but there was never any explanation, and I never had to justify anything I would do.
After this was all clear, he only said one thing: 'There are movies about painters and stuff, but don't you think that in all these movies, the most boring part is if you see a painter paint?' I said, 'Wait a minute, Anselm, are you trying to tell me that you'd rather I don't show you at work?' He said, 'Yes. Think about it. It's completely obnoxious to see a painter paint. This is what he does, but don't you think we don't have to show it?' I said, 'Sorry, I have to insist here. I have to see you at work.' We shot it in a way that he almost forgot that we were there, and sometimes he turned around, 'Oh, you're there.' It gradually became part of the process, and I did see some of the techniques he invented to mistreat his paintings and his art, to put fire on them or lead on them and bake them and almost destroy them in order to put time into them.
Moving on to Perfect Days, one thing that struck me was your choice of aspect ratio. Was it shot in 4:3, or did you shoot in 16:9 and then crop it in post? And what was behind that choice?
The choice was very much informed by the spaces where he lived and worked. These toilets are pretty narrow places. If you shoot them in Cinemascope or in a broader aspect ratio, you never see the floor, and it is essential to see the floor. Also, in the little place where he lived on his Tatami floor and his futon, it was important to see the ceiling and the floor. That's why we chose 4:3. It's a very ancient format and a bit of a nod to Yasujirō Ozu and his movies that were always shot in that format. It just so happens that this is the actual aspect ratio of the chip in the new Sony Venice, which was a state-of-the-art camera. I love the format, and it enabled us to see the places where it works fully.
We shot Perfect Days digitally, allowing us to shoot with available light. Sometimes, even the night lights in Tokyo were too bright. It was the first film I did where some of the cinematographer's work was to keep light away, because it was too bright. We prepared ourselves by spending a whole day and night in his apartment to see how the light was moving, how the light was coming up in the morning, and how this place looked over the whole day and night. We did light some things, but this new Sony Venice allowed us to shoot at amazing levels of film sensitivity. We shot the entire film at almost 3000 ASA, which meant we could shoot almost anywhere, even in public places in the middle of the night without extra light.
Are you fascinated with the world's observers, the characters in life who we often don't see, who we see through or overlook?
Absolutely. My wife is sometimes amazed at how much I see from the corner of my eyes. Films very often tell what's in the center of your vision, and Hirayama, the lead character in Perfect Days, is a person who sees a lot more and pays attention to some of the little things we forget to. He sees the homeless man who lives next to one of these toilets; he respects, greets, and treats him like everybody else. Hirayama is a person who sees everything that gets lost so often in movies.
The music choices in Perfect Days are so specific. Is there a story that they tell on their own within the film?
The songs are very much part of the storytelling process, to the point that we put them into the script when we wrote it. I told my Japanese co-writer, Takuma Takasaki, 'Am I not imposing my taste if I put these songs in, as if this was about me and my youth?' He said, 'Oh, don't you worry. In the '70s' — which would've been Hirayama's youth — 'you bet he listened to exactly the same songs you listened to. He listened to the Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones, and all the stuff you put into the film.' Then, I was happy to use music as a storytelling tool.
For instance, the lyrics to Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" were on the first page of the script. They were not even intended to be used in the film. For me, they described how I imagined this character, his philosophy, and his way of living. They were my prologue. It was only in the end that I realized they were the best way to end the film. As we filmed the last shot of the entire shoot, the scene of him returning to work for the last time and listening to that song, we realize as an audience that he lived that song. He knew exactly what she was singing, and that's reflected in his face. He was laughing and crying simultaneously, and he wasn't the only one crying. My DOP was sitting next to him and weeping like a baby filming Hirayama listening to Nina Simone. My only concern was that my cameraman was giving up on shooting, because how could he both cry and hold the camera? He managed it, and the shot looks great.
Japan has picked Perfect Days as their official entry for the 96th Oscars. As a German filmmaker, what does it mean to you to represent another country?
I was a little shocked when they called me and said, 'Wim, sit down. Perfect Days is the Japanese entry for the Oscars.' There were several great Japanese films in Venice and Cannes this year, so they could have easily chosen another film! I just took it that their nomination is really an act of recognition towards the lead actor, Kôji Yakusho. After winning Best Actor in Cannes, when he got home, hundreds of people met him at the airport. He's very much loved there, and this was the first time he won international recognition. The way I look at it is that he was sent into the Oscar race and I, as the director, am his sidekick.
How do you feel the role of the camera differs in your documentary work from your narrative work?
The camera in Anselm tries to be part of Anselm's world and the art that he creates. It tried very much to enter the universe of Anselm Kiefer and be part of the painting process itself. We invented a lot of things to create a 3D language that we'd never seen before that would correspond to Anselm's work, his methods, his thoughts, and the art that he's creating. In Perfect Days, although it was a fictional story, we had a much more documentary approach. The camera was always on my DOP Franz Lustig's shoulder — never on a tripod, never on tracks, never on a gimbal or a Steadicam or a crane. We were very much shooting it in a documentary style. We'd rehearse every shot, and then we'd shoot it, and each time, I thought, 'Why didn't I shoot the rehearsal?' After a few days, I asked my actor, 'Would you allow me to shoot the next rehearsal?' He was a little bit amazed and said, 'Why not?' That hadn't happened to him in his professional career, so we did, and it was perfect. I didn't need another take. In the end, he got used to the process and really loved it, because he was so much in control of his characters. You wouldn't rehearse in a documentary. Also, we only had 16 days to shoot the entirety of Perfect Days. We had five times as many days for Anselm.
We talked about the music in Perfect Days. You've worked with musical artists like U2 and, of course, the Buena Vista Social Club. Concert films are becoming popular again thanks to Beyoncé and Taylor Swift and the restoration of Stop Making Sense. Do you see yourself ever returning to that space?
Combining music and movies always excites me. Right now, here in New York, they're doing Buena Vista Social Club as a Broadway musical, showing how much music and the entertainment industry go hand in hand with visuals and things like that. I still have to see U2 in Vegas, but I will see them before it ends. I have not had a chance, because I'm traveling with these two films. I would love to continue to work with music, and I would love to continue to have music be a part of a storytelling process. Many people today hear stories more through music than anything else. Music is a very creative field. With movies, they can sometimes be more built on recipes, and the amount of films based on other movies disturbs me a little. So, I love the idea of storytelling through music.