Wim Wenders' Documentaries Review

Better known as a director of feature films that often involves introspective journeys of self-discovery that are reflective and not overly talky, Wim Wenders would not strike you as the type of filmmaker to make documentaries, at least not from any objective viewpoint. For a director who is consumed with the need to understand his own place in the world, it is only natural however that he would seek to extend this exploration outwards and it is indeed the question of identity that features heavily in the documentary work that has been a fairly consistent element of his career as a filmmaker over the years. All of the five features in the Wim Wenders’ Documentaries set grapple with this concept of identity to one extent or another.

Three of them, linked as they are to three people who personally mean a great deal to Wim Wenders, are as much about Wim Wenders coming to an understanding of himself, as much as they are about the ostensible subjects themselves and all three of them take the form of a personal journal in one way or another. In Lightning Over Water Wenders takes part in the final days of Nicholas Ray, a close friend who is trying to regain a sense of himself and how he is perceived through his work before he dies. In Tokyo-Ga, Wenders submits to and loses himself in the bewildering world of Japanese lifestyle and culture in order to try to understand why the work of Yasujiro Ozu is so important to him. In Notebook on Cities and Clothes he self-consciously questions the idea of identity and what the clothes we wear tell us about ourselves, trying to understand it through conversations with the Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto.

The other two films in the set are less personal and reflective on the part of Wim Wenders as a person, and instead consider the notion of his place in the world as a filmmaker (as indeed would Lightning Over Water and Tokyo-Ga to some extent). In Room 666, Wenders takes on the views of the Class of Cannes 1982 (including Antonioni, Spielberg, Fassbinder and Godard) in relation to the question of how traditional filmmaking can survive in the world of television and video. Undertaken as a film project with his Munich Film School students, A Trick of the Light seems like a more straightforward documentary subject exploring the pioneering work of the Skladanowsky Brothers, the first people to create moving pictures, but through Wenders’ docudrama techniques, he shows how cinema can create a link that keeps the past alive, informing and forming who we are today.

Nick’s Movie – Lightning Over Water (1979)

On account of personal and professional problems that saw the failing of his promising film career in Hollywood, Nicholas Ray was, and perhaps still is, more respected and revered as a director in Europe than in the United States. As a young European director making his first film in the United States, The American Friend, to have Nicholas Ray playing a part in the film was consequently something of a dream for Wim Wenders. Their friendship continued after the film, and when Wenders was next in the USA, shooting Hammett in the summer of 1979, he took the opportunity to travel to New York and stay with Ray at his apartment. Seriously ill at the time, Ray had just been let out of hospital after treatment for cancer and was in the process of reflecting on his life, wanting to take stock and perhaps regain his self-image and correct the image of him that had been presented to the world. Wishing to help his friend in any way he could, Wenders suggested that they make a film together to do just that, and Lightning Over Water is that film.

Making a film with a dying man is a tricky business and Wenders was wary of exploiting Ray’s illness, so initially the film starts out as both a film and a documentary of the making of the film. Wenders, Ray, his wife Susan and Ray’s assistant cameraman all play themselves, Wenders and Ray directing each other on screen, while Tom Farrell’s VHS footage records the in-between moments as they grapple with the concept and how best to present it. Eventually however real-life takes over as Ray’s condition deteriorates.

If the execution of Lightning Over Water consequently comes over as somewhat confused and fails to adequately meet its aim of touching on the nature of Nicholas Ray on any deeper level - something that was clearly impossible given the condition of the great filmmaker and the short time with which they had left to make a film - at least Wenders’ intentions are the best. Given an opportunity to make a film that would have been impossible any other way, Ray comes alive in those moments when he is behind the camera once again and puzzling out his approach to the film. Wenders seems less sure of himself, clearly identifying with Ray but unable to find an meaningful way to express that relationship, and the film consequently never really comes together.

Room 666 (1982)

The idea behind Wim Wenders’ documentary Room 666 is a simple one, both in its concept and execution. At the Cannes Festival of May 1982, Wenders set up a static camera in an empty hotel room for a number of directors to come in and give their thoughts, alone to the camera, on the future of cinema. With the growth in popularity of television, is cinema a dying artform?

Inevitably, the responses to this question are as varied as the directors who take part in the documentary – Jean-Luc Godard, Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Monte Hellman, Paul Morrissey, Steven Spielberg and Michelangelo Antonioni among them – some of them pessimistic and deeply cynical, others realistic but uncertain about the viability of the relationship between commerce and art, others cautiously optimistic about the artist’s freedom of expression and the medium’s capability to grow and expand to take in new technological advancements. Overall, in a short documentary – it’s only 44 minutes long - they do however give a fairly wide viewpoint on the subject, even if the views expressed are fairly personal outlooks and, perhaps unsurprisingly, you could probably guess which camp each director falls into before you watch the film.

Room 666 inevitably has more interest now as a document of where cinema and certain film directors were at that point in time. All of their views can still be seen as relevant however, and cinema could still be regarded as a dead artform, just as much as it can be regarded as having evolved into something new. With the expansion into home cinema, digital filmmaking and internet distribution, the same question about the future of cinema could be asked today and the answers would probably be much the same as those given by the film directors of the class of Cannes 1982. Some of those directors seen here – notably Godard - have embraced those new technologies and used them to expand the language of filmmaking, holding off for the moment – but only just – the realisation of Godard’s ominous premonition of Hollywood’s global domination and homogenisation of cinema.

Tokyo-Ga (1985)

An admirer of the works of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, Wim Wenders travelled to Tokyo – the setting of almost all of Ozu’s films – in the Spring of 1983 to make a documentary about the director. His intention in Tokyo-Ga was not however to examine Ozu’s works or uncover unknown autobiographical information about him – neither of which he realises, quite correctly, could possibly add to the brilliance already evident in his films – but to try and understand better the world and universal truths about families and human relationships that the director so incisively, obsessively and repetitively depicted in his films. If these truths are truly universal, does this world depicted so vividly in Ozu’s films still exist in modern-day Tokyo?

If that was indeed all that Wenders was setting out to examine in the documentary, Tokyo-Ga would have to be considered a complete failure. Walking around Tokyo in a kind of daze – the director confesses as much in his narration – Wenders completely fails to interact in any meaningful way with the regular people of the city. Like many documentary makers before him and many after him, he bedazzled and seduced by a superficial tourist view of Tokyo, its people and their bewildering leisure pursuits, clichéd and superficial images of the Japanese that really tell us nothing about real people, and far less how they connect with the lives depicted in the films of Yasujiro Ozu. If we are to take these postcard and touristy images he films of Tokyo as being the reality, we would have to consider that the world depicted in Ozu’s films no longer exists, and that is patently untrue. Fortunately, whether by design or accident, Wenders does stumble on the universal truths in Ozu’s works and rather than going to Tokyo to look for it, it seems that he doesn’t need to look any further than himself.

As a documentary Tokyo-Ga is over-long and filled with irrelevancies, failing to establish any meaningful connection between modern-day Tokyo with the one depicted in the films of Yasujiro Ozu. When Wenders focuses on the underlying principles of Ozu’s work however, and when he interviews Chishu Ryu and Yuharu Atsuta, he finds Ozu’s truth in people rather than in places and surface impressions. This is not a major revelation by any means, but Wenders shows the viewer rather than telling them, and in doing so says more about the power of Ozu’s films than any academic study or criticism can.

Notebook On Cities And Clothes (1989)

Commissioned by the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris to contribute to an exhibition/installation on the theme of fashion, Wim Wenders takes inspiration from a shirt and a jacket he owned that had been designed by Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto. In Notebook On Cities And Clothes then Wenders considers the nature of image and identity, not so much from what they say about the person who wears them, but from the impulse and inspiration that led to their creation. Interviewing Yamamoto and watching him at work, Wenders considers the influence of the locations of Paris and Tokyo, the designer’s favourite places, and his relationship with people, with the models wearing his clothes, and with the students and apprentices who learn from his work.

The idea of copying, duplicating and the questions this raises about identity is also of interest to Wenders. Both men are artists who work in mediums where, unlike painting for example, there is no unique original creation or expression of an idea in a single form. Clothes take on their own form away from the model on the catwalk and become something else when sold through stores and then worn by individuals. Film making is a collaborative process and negatives are duplicated and issued as prints, the films taking on a life of their own as they become a product and are seen differently by individual viewers. Moving towards a digital age, Wenders is also aware of the lines of original creation becoming increasingly blurred.

Notebook On Cities And Clothes is a fascinating visual essay that raises some interesting questions in its attempt to fuse the creative processes of fashion designing and filmmaking, but Wenders’ deliberated method, techniques and interviews work counter to the intuitive approach of Yohji Yamamoto. His designs are his language, and what he does cannot be rationalised or put into words. With a rather dry narrative, scarcely audible talking-head interviews and laboured filming technique of back projections and multimedia formats, the film lacks the spark of creativity that it is striving to capture.

A Trick of the Light (1995)

A mixture of both fiction and documentary features is used again by Wenders in Die Gebrüder Skladanowsky (The Skladanowsky Brothers), a docudrama that has the noble ambition of alerting the world to the lesser-known German entertainers whose early pioneering work in early cinema was overshadowed by the superior methods of the Lumière Brothers in France. Known in English as A Trick of the Light, Wenders pays tribute in the film to their efforts and innovation through documentary reminiscences of the daughter of Max Skladanowsky, Lucie, and through some silent-movie dramatic re-enactments of their lives and work.

The black-and-white silent movie technique in the dramatised sections is brilliantly achieved by Wenders, succeeding in capturing the sense of thrill at seeing moving images projected onto a screen for the first time and doing it with no small amount of charm. More than that however, the film is intercut with colour interview footage of Lucie Hürtgen-Skladanowsky – 93 years old at the making of the film – who guides the assembled film crew through the old photo albums, memorabilia and artefacts that she has preserved. The two sections are linked by dramatis personae from the fictional enactment interacting with the documentary filmmaking - coming to life as it were through the reminiscences. It’s a nice poetic touch, connecting the past with the present and thereby testifying to the power of cinema to breathe life and personality into the past, but showing how those memories are part of what we are today, something perhaps alluded to in a magical carriage ride at the end of the film through the on-going reconstruction of the post-Wall Berlin.

An apparently light and playful entertainment, worked on in collaboration with his film students, Wim Wenders’ approach to the documentary in A Trick of the Light is perhaps not as rigorous as one might hope for. The accuracy of a biopic depiction is always open to question, and even with documentary interview footage, the viewer is still likely to have a great deal of unanswered questions by the end of the film about the work of the Skladanowsky Brothers and why their pioneering efforts in cinematography are not more widely known. What is important however is that Wim Wenders raises these questions and does so in a charming and entertaining way that is at least true to the spirit of cinema, using the invention that the Skladanowsky Brothers helped develop and showing how powerful it can be, bridging years of memories and sentiments and keeping the past alive.


Wim Wenders: The Early Documentaries is released in the UK by Axiom Films. The five films, all relatively short, are presented mostly on single-layer DVD-5 discs, with only Lightning Over Water being dual-layer. The discs are in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.

Lightning Over Water is the second cut of the film, made by Wenders in 1982 (in the commentary track Wenders says that the original cut edited by Peter Przygodda is to all intents and purposes no longer in existence). The quality of the print here is excellent, presented anamorphically at 1.78:1, showing deep rich tones and colouration and a clear, sharp, detailed image. There are a few flecks here and there and tape tracking marks that are inherent on the segments filmed on VHS video, but otherwise this is most impressive, with fine grain and a stable transfer.

Mostly consisting of a fixed 16mm camera on a hotel room, the setting of Room 666 doesn’t place a lot of demands on the image, although the backlighting of the open window could cause problems. The transfer however is fine if a little soft, presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio on a single-layer disc, the image remaining, clear, stable and free from artefacts.

Presumably shot on 16mm in order to shoot the mostly hand-held documentary footage Tokyo-Ga is slightly soft and shows a faint level of grain but the image is very clear, free from any marks or scratches. Any other flaws in the quality of the image – a slight haziness in places – are almost certainly inherent in the negative, the film often shot using the natural light of locations. Night-time shots of downtown Tokyo however are well-toned and as colourful as you would expect. The transfer uses a single-layer disc and this is more than adequate with no visible artefact problems.

Presented anamorphically at 1.78:1 on a single-layer disc, it’s difficult to assess the quality of the transfer of Notebook on Cities and Clothes since there are so many different film and video formats used, manipulated as back projections and re-filmed off monitors. Any flaws, grain, flare, colour-bleed, light flicker would seem then to be inherent in the way the film was shot - mostly by Wenders alone as a one-man crew - since 35mm sections shot by Robby Müller are perfectly clear. In spite of the limitations of the video footage, the transfer looks excellent here, the image stable, showing no marks or artefacts whatsoever.

Although it’s the most modern film in the set, assessing the quality of A Trick of the Light is as difficult as it always was, since the majority of the film is shot in black-and-white on an old hand-cranked 16fps camera and the negative intentionally marked with tramlines and marks to give it an “authentic” silent-movie feel. The modern-day colour interview and black-and-white fantasy inserts however look well-toned and relatively clear. Presented at the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio with few other features, the single-layer disc is more than sufficient and the film is consequently stable, showing no evident artefacts.

The quality of the audio track on most of the documentaries - Dolby Digital 2.0 mono in most cases - also suffers from the documentary nature of their recording, but in the main all are largely functional and clear. Sections of Lightning Over Water and Notebook on Cities and Clothes (where Wenders was mostly his own one-man crew) can be a little bit muffled in places, but are probably about as good as can be expected. Wenders voice-over on these films, and Tokyo-Ga is generally much clearer, but is hampered by Wenders’ dull, detached narration. Room 666 is constrained by do-it-yourself nature of the recording, but generally, all sections are quite clear and well-toned. A Trick of the Light, despite being a relatively recent film isn’t noticeably better, but its intention anyway is to recreate a silent movie feel, so a wide dynamic mix isn’t going to work there. Nonetheless, it’s still quite clear.

English subtitle options for the films are basic, since most of them are in English. Lightning Over Water has no subtitles. Optional subtitles are provided for the non-English speaking directors only on Room 666. Since Wenders narrates a translation of what his Japanese interviewees say in Tokyo-Ga, most of it is not subtitled. Optional subtitles only really translate the bookending Tokyo Story sections of the film, rather superfluously translating the credits for this film from the fixed French subtitles. This may account for the mistranslation of pronouns at the end, where the “him” should really be “her” in the crucial closing section of Tokyo Story. Notebook on Cities and Clothes has optional subtitles only for the few sections of the film where Yamamoto speaks Japanese in interviews. Spoken in German, A Trick of the Light is subtitled throughout, the subtitled optional and with a strong border, the white font is clearly readable throughout the black-and-white film.

Lightning Over Water contains a full-length Commentary from Wim Wenders (recorded in 2002). He provides some background on his friendship with Nick Ray, the situation at the time and his intentions for the film, with anecdotes on what was happening off-screen. He talks also about his doubts about the project throughout and gives details on why the film was re-edited from its original cut. “Nicholas Ray: Especially for Pierre” (38:38) is the full video footage of the Q&A with Ray at the screening of They Live By Night, part of which is shown in the film. It’s a good feature that gives a bit more information on the man, his personality and how he made his films.

There are no extra features on Room 666.

Tokyo-Ga has Deleted Scenes (14:03) showing more captured scenes of life on the streets, cemeteries and amusement parks of Tokyo, but there still doesn’t seem to be any sense of a real Tokyo and its people here.

The Deleted Scenes (13:22) on Notebook on Cities and Clothes have a commentary by Wim Wenders (not optional), where he appraises the techniques used and wonders why the scenes were cut from the film. In most cases, they are just additional or alternatives shots of what is already in the final cut. Shot in Paris and Tokyo in 2000 Yamamoto: 12 Years Later (6:47) sees the fashion designer reflect on the experience of working with Wim Wenders, finding him a considerate filmmaker who is like “a very comfortable cushion or sofa”. The two of them have a rematch of the pool game in Tokyo. The full-length Commentary provides good information on locations and the technical equipment and techniques Wenders employed in the making of the film, as well as an admission of the Chris Marker influence, but other than that, it’s not essential listening, explaining where each scene was shot and what is going on in it.

A Trick of the Light has Deleted Scenes (12:59), nine minutes of which are further delightful material from the Lucie Skladanowsky interview, the remainder being tests and clips for the silent movie shows. Curiously, the deleted scenes are all anamorphic 1.78:1, while the film itself is 1.33:1. A full-length Commentary by Wim Wenders reveals that the film was made at the time of the 100 year anniversary of cinema as a project with his students at the Munich Film School, the 20 minute film being taken up by subsequent years until a full feature was made. Wenders initially goes into detail on the technical aspects of the filming, using an original hand-cranked camera from the 1920s and shooting at 16fps, doing all special effects in camera and using an old cinema organ for an authentic soundtrack. After that, there’s not much of interest to add than pointing out what was fact, fiction and what was exaggeration in their docudrama, and like the film itself, dragging it out to feature length.

Two booklets are also included in the set. One is an 8-page Interview with Wim Wenders where the director discusses his approach to documentary filmmaking and how it differs from his fiction work. A further 24 page Wim Wenders’ Documentaries booklet contains scene listings, cast and crew credits as well as technical specs for each of the films, including original and DVD aspect ratios. There is commentary on four of the films by Wim Wenders from a variety of sources and interviews, and an article on Max Skladanowsky for A Trick of the Light.

Wim Wenders documentary work isn’t as well known as his fictional features and the personal nature with which he approaches his subjects perhaps doesn’t make them accessible for the casual viewer interested in a deeper understanding of Nicholas Ray, Yasujiro Ozu, Yohji Yamamoto, the filmmakers of Cannes 1982 or the Skladanowsky Brothers. For fans of Wim Wenders they can also be frustrating, seemingly undisciplined, vague, lacking purpose and direction and failing to come to any particular conclusions, but this is very much a part of who Wenders is and how he works - exploring ideas, exploring techniques, going on a journey with no destination in mind and occasionally finding some truths along the way.

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