Euronews Culture sits down with the recipient of this year's Prix Lumière: the great Wim Wenders.
The Euronews Culture team arrive at the rather swish Club Lounge at the Intercontinental hotel.
My colleague Fred is noticeably excited. Wim Wenders and his films mean a lot to us both, but they’ve marked him in a way that is actually quite moving to witness.
We’ve got an allocated 10 minutes with this year’s recipient of the prestigious Lumière Prize, the German filmmaker behind such classics as Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire and Buena Vista Social Club. An entire retrospective of his oeuvre is being shown at the Lumière Festival, including his new film Perfect Days, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.
Wender's most recent film is a quietly captivating gem about Hirayama, an aging toilet cleaner (Kōji Yakusho, who won this year’s Palme for Best Actor) in Tokyo. Both Wenders and Yakusho break your heart and put it back together again with a unique and delicate potency. It sees Wenders taking a lifetime of wisdom and distilling it into a meditative tale about the joys of routinely life. As if that wasn’t enough, the whole beautiful and poignant character study is soundtracked to the sounds of Lou Reed, Patti Smith and Nina Simone. And I love me some Nina.
Fred and I sat next to each other during the Cannes screening and we cried like lost children. Happy tears, mind you.
Our quick time slot is something of a problem considering all we want to discuss with Wenders. I desperately want to ask him about the use of music in his films, considering the filmmaker has collaborated with the likes of Nick Cave, Ry Cooder, Eels, and many more... But others journos are here to interview him, so we make do. We compare questions we’ve prepared, pick the ones that will work with the clock ticking, and c’est parti.
“He speaks fluent French,” shares Fred. “Let’s do it in French this time – we’re at the Lumière Festival, after all!”
More translation work for me on top of the transcribing, but what the hell. “You’re on.”
After some chats with Wender’s charming and very friendly wife Donata, who shares with us that Perfect Days was a joyful return to Japan for her husband, who was allowed to film at his own rhythm by producers, we head to the interview corner.
I clutch my Buena Vista Social Club vinyl booklet while Fred has a limited-edition picture package from 30 years ago. If this interview goes well, we could end up going home with a cheeky autograph. After all, it’s not every day you get to meet THE major figure of New German Cinema, a titan in his field, who also happens to be the president of the European Film Academy.
Honestly, no pressure. And the clock’s ticking...
Euronews Culture: You’re the recipient of the 15th Prix Lumière this year. It’s an honorific and symbolic accolade, but what does this prize represent for you?
Wim Wenders: The symbolism is already in the name - ‘Lumière’. It’s the source of cinema. They invented electricity, and 10 years later, there was cinema. That’s what makes a projection: lumière - light. You make films with light. Invention is light, in the mind at least. Light is the essence of life, so much so that this prize is hugely symbolic and gives me a joy greater than for any other prize I’ve received previously. Because sometimes, prizes are obligations. They are honours, but a lot of prizes are also for those that give them, in a funny way. But the Lumière Prize... The Lumière brothers aren’t here with us, but it keeps their name – the ideal name for being the inventors of cinema! And I have the impression now that I’m in this tradition – the tradition of contributing to invent cinema.
We’ve often associated the Lumière brothers with documentaries, but we know that there’s also a lot of fiction in their work - the intrusion of the real, if you will. You have also explored these two dimensions of cinema, with a reflection on image – whether it be photographic or cinematic. With regards to this, do you think that cinema has the power, in fine, to represent everything – the world, us, our humanity?
Cinema has the great power of keeping, treasuring things. People too – beings, faces... Cinema can preserve. A fiction – a quite advanced one – like Wings of Desire, which is almost a fantasy film, with guardian angels, which is pure fiction... And what is that if not the most advanced document of a city that does not exist anymore? That Berlin does not exist anymore. That Germany does not exist anymore. But it has been preserved in a fiction film.
If I were to explain to someone why I love San Francisco, I wouldn’t show them any photos or a documentary. I would show them Vertigo, because that is the essence of what that city is. Fiction and the cinema of fiction has the uncanny power to preserve, and to define what something is, what a city is, a landscape, a character...
You have filmed in Europe, in the US, several times in Japan – including for your last film Perfect Days, which was presented this year at Cannes. Could we call you a filmmaker sans frontières - a filmmaker without borders?
That’s funny. No one has ever given me that idea – a filmmaker without borders... I did a film for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and it’s one of the films that made me the happiest. It’s a film on violence against women, which I made in the Congo. It was for Médecins Sans Frontières, so that they could use it to educate, but also talk about this atrocious disease, violence against women, that becomes a weapon in every war in the world. You see it now in Ukraine, and in the last days in Palestine. Violence against women has become a weapon. And this film that I made for Médecins Sans Frontières was such a freeing experience, and I was where I belonged. So, the expression “filmmaker without borders” now gives me great joy. I’ll try to commit it to memory and to quote you!
With regards to the European sentiment, and your film Anselm, I heard this quote by Anselm Kiefer, who said: “I like being at home, but I also like being all over Europe.” Do you have this same sentiment?
Yes, for me, cinema was never a national story. I discovered it in Paris. I wanted to be a painter, and I discovered cinema, and it changed my life. I was born in 1945, and there wasn’t Europe. Europe was a territory of war, a story of many wars between France and Germany. When the Franco-German friendship started, it was an important day in my life – when De Gaulle and Adenauer shook hands, I was in tears. For me, it was the future, an incredible future, it was a utopia. I was there, and for me, it remained a very emotional moment. And I’m devastated what they did of this idea. They made it an economic idea, all about finance. They never created the Europe of ideas, or dreams, or culture. They always quote it when Europe has a problem, but they don’t use ideas. They never created a Europe that belongs to Europeans.
I’m a convinced pro-European. It was the biggest emotion of my life to have this idea – Europe, where there would always be peace, without wars, where we leave nationalism behind us. Sadly, there are too many people who have this forgetful virus, who have forgotten all of this, and who make promises with a new nationalism in every European country. And we’ve seen what it leads to. It’s a huge catastrophe, this loss of memory...
Fred and I were extremely overwhelmed by Perfect Days when we saw it in Cannes. We were struck by the poetry that decries from this film. It’s like it fills a void through the story of a man who has empathy, who serves the common good and others. Was that part of it for you – filling a gap with something that's in short supply?
I felt this when I was finally able to return to Japan with this vague idea. Maybe to make a few short documentaries about architects and their public works around a social project on toilets. And at that moment, I discovered this sense of the common good that exists in a very strong way in Japan, as well as the love of detail. All of that while, in Europe, it was very sad that the great victim of the pandemic was the sense of the common good, clearly. So I wanted to tell a story about why Japan, for me, represented so many good social ideas about living together and the future of humanity. We told, in a funny sort of way, a very naive story. It's very simple and a bit utopian. And we realised that even during the filming, we were really happy with our character. We liked him a lot, and we realised that a lot of our desires were reflected in his life and in his routine, as well as his way of living from day to day - being happy with what he had and the reduction he'd made in his daily life. It was intoxicating. You wanted to do that.
When I made the film, I wanted to apply his method and take away everything that was a burden. And, in the end, to be happy, you need a lot less of what you really have. The biggest illness we all have at the moment is that we have too much of what we love. We love the cinema, but there are too many films. I love music, but there's far too much music to listen to. I love reading, but I have far too many books that I haven't read, that I haven't been able to read. There's too much of everything, and it doesn't make me happy. It makes me unhappy. And if I could cut down, reduce things, I'd be a happier man.
I learnt that by mistake, from the film itself, from our own story. And this fictional character has taught us a lot. Everyone who took part in the film learnt a lot from this fictional man, in the way that he became very, very real and ultimately, we almost made a documentary about him.
Wim Wenders - Lumière Prize winner 2023.