One Who Set Forth: Wim Wenders' Early Years Review

Whatever happened to Wim Wenders? That was the most frequent question among film fans and fans of the director many of whom would have tuned into Wenders’ work during his most popular successes Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987), two films which epitomised his style and themes on a grand scale, one of them appropriately set in America, the other in Germany. These films having made such an impact, one was then able then to look backward and discover the riches in his early German films, but as to the direction that the director was moving towards, well, increasingly it seemed that he had hit a dead end. It wasn’t that Wim Wenders had gone away anywhere, he was still there making films in perhaps a lower key (at least after the overblown Until the End of the World, 1991), but there seemed to be something missing. Even now, it’s difficult to understand what drove Wim Wenders to break from making films in Germany and make that decisive move to America but, as Marcel Wehn’s documentary feature One Who Set Forth shows, the answer lies almost certainly within key events in those early years of his childhood and his beginnings as a budding student filmmaker. There more than anywhere the question of whatever happened to Wim Wenders is most appropriate and it would seem that the answers, perhaps unsurprisingly, can also be found in his films if one learns how to read them.

One Who Set Forth does that exceptionally well, going through those marvellous early films, up to about 1977 with his international breakthrough film The American Friend, and tying them to significant events in the director’s life. It has the willing compliance of Wim Wenders to put himself in the analyst’s chair and with testimony from all the key people in his personal life and the key figures involved in the making of those early films. If that makes it all seem a little psychoanalytical and even Freudian, it turns out to be appropriate, since there are significant events in his early life that apparently have marked the director deeply and led him to ask those big questions about life in his films. As varied as those films are, Wenders considers on reflection that there is one unifying theme or question in them, which is "How should you live?" – going through all that we have to go through, how do we manage to find our place in the world and find out what it is we have to live for.

That sense of soul searching is certainly the overriding subject of Wenders’ most famous films of his early period - Alice In The Cities (1974), Kings of the Road (1976) - and their greatness comes from the manner in which Wenders explores these personal issues in a universal, identifiable way. Even though those films are in the format of a road-movie, the journey to discovery is never in a conventionally cinematic or redemptive manner, the director seeking rather to find an original, truthful, honest way of describing the experience that he, through his characters, has undergone and perhaps thereby learning something from it. From the testimony gathered in this documentary there are at least three key events that have shaped Wenders life and set him forth on that journey of exploration – his relationship with his father, his break-up with his first childhood girlfriend and his near-death experience from an inadvertent drug overdose.

There is no need to go into any of these events in any detail here, as they are much more interesting to discover coming from the people involved, but there is no doubting the impact that they have had on the big, introverted and taciturn director who would turn to years of psychoanalysis and then finally filter his experiences though into his films. Actually, "filter" suggests a vague, indirect allusion to personal experiences, when in actuality the strength of those films comes with the profundity in which the experiences are examined after a long period of deep contemplation – the break-up with a girlfriend being key to Alice In The Cities, the deep-rooted anger towards his father driving Kings of the Road, and while there might not be a near-death experience from an inadvertent drug-overdose directly alluded to in any of the early films (though it’s right up there at the forefront of Wenders’ short film Twelve Miles To Trona in the 2002 portmanteau film Ten Minutes Later: The Trumpet), the sense of personality disintegration and complete loss of self is a common underlying predicament of his characters.

It’s on this side of Wim Wenders - his background and how it formed his outlook in his films - that One Who Set Forth is most successful. Trying to get the reticent, quietly spoken and contemplative director to open up about his feelings towards the people who have played a major part in his life and films is rather more difficult. On the part of those one-time collaborators who have been left by the wayside as Wenders’ career progressed (Bruno Ganz, Robby Müller) there is reluctance to say much on the subject perhaps simply through their incomprehension of how Wenders relates to people, but there is nonetheless certainly a hint of resentment expressed. For Wenders, it would seem to be a need to reinvent himself, move on, leave the past behind, and not really concern himself if others take the separation hard. The film consequently respectfully keeps its distance at such moments and avoids probing or delving too deeply, which is somewhat disappointing. Not that one wants any salacious details, but there are key working relationships and working methods, particularly with cinematographer Robby Müller, that have lead to the creation of some fine films and one would like to have those relationships better examined and illuminated.

Other than that, the documentary is quite well put together. Based mostly around talking-head interviews, the contributions are well edited to follow the progress sequentially through Wenders’ early films, keeping the points pertinent. A few other techniques are used to keep the viewer and Wenders himself interested, using a gallery of photographs of friends and collaborators as a way of bringing up talking points, and even following the director on a short road-trip of his own in search of the intriguingly named Himmelreich (Kingdom of Heaven) in Hanover. Inevitably and not inappropriately in the case of Wim Wenders, it’s the journey travelled that proves to be more interesting than the arrival at any destination.


One Who Set Forth is released in the UK by Axiom Films. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2 only.

Filmed in High Definition digital and consisting largely of close-ups of interviewees in controlled and well-lit interiors, the quality of the film material is inevitably of a very high standard and it is well presented on a single-layer DVD. There are no evident problems or artefacts other than in the footage used from Wim Wenders films. These include childhood home-movies, early adolescent film experiments, student films (Alabama from 1969 and the 1970 graduation film Summer In The City), and clips from his better-known movies. The audio track is straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0 and considering the nature of the film it is perfect for requirements. English subtitles are optional in a clear white font and seem to be relatively complete, even keeping up with on-screen captions.

While the subtitle Wim Wenders’ Early Years is a little misleading, since most of what one would consider important early Wim Wenders films (The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty, Wrong Move, The American Friend) are scarcely mentioned here. By keeping the focus fixed however on those films that most evidently relate closely to the personality of the director and his personal experiences in those early years (Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road), One Who Set Forth succeeds for the better in identifying those key moments in Wim Wenders’ life that inform and give force to many of his best films. And it certainly strikes you while you may not have understood where they came from at the time you first watched his films, certain scenes have an undeniable power and truth that still remains and will undoubtedly for that reason stand the test of time. Perhaps after viewing this documentary, you may be a little closer to understanding the mystery of just what happened to Wim Wenders.

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