Determining what a film is, is in itself a more arduous task than one may initially be led to believe. In its most traditionally accepted form, a film can be defined as a story or event recorded by a camera as a set of moving images and shown in a cinema or on television. This definition in itself takes for granted the fact that a film cannot be separated from a story. But already, the term “story” is rather two dimensional and evasive.
By eliminating the term “story” from the definition, we are left with the word “event.” In this case, the narrative of a film is defined by the way in which the event is represented. This is because, one could claim, that every film is necessarily fiction because through the editing process, it is a synthetic reconstruction of a reality that in fact never existed. This reality was shaped by an individual, or a number of individuals – whether it was an individual filmmaker of a group of filmmakers.
A number of directors have examined, through their works, the possibilities of separating events and story. This was done for two reasons in particular: one was to oppose the filmmaking process itself, often because of the capitalistic and political structure of the film industry; the other is commit to a true representation of life, and the way in which life itself is defined by stories that emerge, often, unexpectedly. More often than not, both these styles, or any other style that does not follow a traditional narrative form in which the viewer is supposed to experience a film in a passive and escapist manner, call upon a Brechtian approach, which relies on the audience’s reflective detachment rather than emotional involvement. This can also be seen as a refusal, on the part of the filmmaker(s) to accept the film as anything more than a film, i.e. an object that differentiates itself from life experienced in the “real world.”
It must be said that most films in circulation, the majority of films that are accessible to most potential spectators, are not Brechtian. They aim to render the filmmaking process invisible. Their ideology is often undecipherable. They are totally committed to the story. The classic example of a film that is more committed to the story rather than the ideological message is the war movie. Saving Private Ryan (1998) by Steven Spielberg is regarded by many as an anti-war film. Whether or not it is patriotic does not come into the picture of such a reading. The cruelty and physicality of the shots are supposed to make a statement on the cruelty and horrors of war. Nevertheless, because the film is entertaining, it can also be seen as employing the war theme for the making of a film that is supposed to be appealing to many. So, in this sense, its marketing powers rely on its message of war and, somewhat paradoxically, turn war into a spectacle of fun. On the other hand, Jean-Luc Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1963) is a war film that is morally ambiguous, structurally confusing and sometimes downright unappealing not because of its graphic depiction of violence as a result of warfare, but because of its dragged out sequences and a lack of heroic figure. This latter element is also a fundamental point of divergence between Spielberg’s and Godard’s film: representation in a movie is crucial in a traditional storyline that is supposed to, first and foremost, entertain, no matter what its ideological and political message may be.
David Lynch and Wim Wenders are among the most famous and celebrated directors on the international scene that have rarely been concerned with story in a traditionalist sense. Despite this very simple fact, they are also quite different. Lynch’s most representative works are of a more surrealist vein, so much so that one may take them to downright refuse André Bazin’s theory of the photographic image being the most realist of all the “plastic arts” (such as paintings or sculpture) because of the camera’s ability to capture an object through a mechanical process. On the other hand, one of the key elements of Wenders’ works is that, even at its most experimental, it strives to a commitment to camera’s primary task as an object that captures reality.
Wenders’ case is more interesting to elaborate upon in terms of story precisely because of this commitment to realism. In order to understand Wenders’ drive, we must briefly consider the socio-political context of the place in which it originated. Wenders is German, and emerged out of the late period identified as the New German Cinema, which came to the fore during the late 60’s. This was a cinema that countered traditionalist filmmaking with small low budget features with strong subjects that sought artistry in favour of sublime technical prowess. Not unlike the French New Wave (or others similar “New Waves”), it was seen as countering the escapist nature of traditional filmmaking. In the German sense, the reason for the emergence of this movement was significantly generational: arguably more than any other country, Germany had been lied to through propagandist imagery that promoted all aspects of Nazi politics and prevented it from revealing its underlying horrors.
Wenders, like many other filmmakers, was not willing to completely lie to the spectator by twisting the real identity of any image for the purpose of a “story.” In his works, the story is primarily a lie.
While exceptions in his filmography do exist, Wenders’ rejection of the traditionalist story can be seen from his early works to his latest ones. His feature debut, Summer in the City (Dedicated to the Kinks) (1970) refuses to introduce music to the film in a way that is non-diegetic. Music, a driving element of the film that to some extent also defines the film’s narrative, is always coming from a source visible in the film. In fact, in most cases, we experience the lack of music before we witness a character either call for a specific song, put the needle on a vinyl record or push the buttons on a jukebox. It could even be argued that the film would not have a story at all if it were not for a succession of scenes, or events, that are motivated by its central character playing music. His latest film, The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez (2016), is a conversation between a man and a woman that is simultaneously being written by a writer. As the characters converse, and the author writes, the film is occasionally interrupted by music from a jukebox – in one case, Nick Cave appears to perform one of the songs. Nothing happens beyond the conversation between the characters in this film, and this led many critics to define it a “snooze fest.” But perhaps what disappointed the viewers the most about this film is that it was very unlike anything Wenders had ever done before: it was a film that stood still.
Wenders’ filmography is renowned, largely, for some of the best road movies ever. Alice in the Cities is certainly one of the finest examples. Why does the road movie format suit Wenders so well? Mainly, this is because in its truest form, the road movie allows a structure in which, more than any other structure, the story can be built out of unexpected events. The events are a result of the road and rarely do his characters return to any given location more than once. The alienation of his central characters contributes to the free nature of Wenders’ road movies. This freedom is also represented by Wenders’ filmmaking process. In many instances, such as Alice in the Cities (1974), the screenplay was improvised or non-existent. Whatever had been shot in the first days of filming could not be used, so Wenders decided to start from scratch and let the road influence the film in a quintessential blending of realist imagery and fictional timeline.
Let’s take a step back and return to the definition of story; in particular, our statement that the term “story” is two dimensional and evasive. The Russian formalists of the early 20th century used the terms syuzhet and fabula: syuzhet is an employment of narrative and fabula is the chronological order of the events contained in the story. The easiest example that might help us understand this concept more clearly is that of the Agatha Christie-style whodunnit. The syuzhet is the way in which this story is organized in the film; it starts with a murder and ends with the muderer revealed. The fabula, on the other hand, is the raw material of the story and would therefore begin at the origins of the motive that led to the murder itself.
The difference in the definition of the syuzhet and the fabula is directly related to time. In many ways, the story is the primary indication of time. Because of this unavoidable link of time and story, we can deduce that every story ultimately ends with death, or at least moves towards it.
Wenders, in all his films, is obsessed by the concept of time and, as a direct result, death. Death is integrated in all of his most character driven stories. The story of Winter, the lead character of Alice in the City, is carried on into Far Away, So Close! (1993), the sequel to Wings of Desire (1987). Despite Alice in the Cities and Far Away, So Close! not being interlinked by narratives, we assume that they take place in the same universe. So, we reconnect with the character of the former film, and witness his death in the latter. More often than not, however, the death of central characters occurs in the duration of Wenders’ “syuzhet.” The most creative of these, and perhaps the most hopeful, occurs in Wings of Desire. Here, the angel who falls in love with a human woman is encouraged to kill himself in order to end his existence as an angel and begin one as a human. The catch is that his death prompts a completely different perception of time. The life of a human could be likened to the blink of an eye when compared to the eternal lifespan of an angel. On the other hand, because time and stories, as we have seen, are interlinked, the angel’s death also starts his story. But if time and stories are interlinked, this means that life can also be seen as a story, the “ultimate” story in fact, which can only come to an end in death.
We may consider other Wenders films in which a story, sometimes in unwarranted ways, marks the end of the film – and therefore the story of the film: Kings of the Road (1976), The American Friend (1977), Far Away, So Close, Million Dollar Hotel (2000), and so on. It seems that, in Wenders’ eyes, death is the only possible way to end a story. Therefore, whether death is shown in the film or not, the existence of this unavoidable ending is what each one of the journeys of his films is laid out for. In tying this human and unavoidable fact of life to his films, he is therefore not at all subjecting his viewers to the lie that is the traditional story. Compared to the traditional ending of, for instance, the romantic comedy, defined by the look and, sometimes, the kiss shared between the man and the woman, Wenders is constantly aware that there is a life, or there are lives, that happen outside of the beginning and end of his movie, and that a story that chooses to wilfully conceal this from a viewer in order to put a specific storyline in its foreground is essentially deceiving the viewer.
Essentially, a final observation on the story in the style of Wenders is mainly informed by the neutrality of the camera as a filmmaking device. It can be argued, in fact, that a living person may be aware of his story as one big movie, because it is experienced from a non-mechanical viewpoint. In Wenders’ works, as in the works of many other filmmakers, the origin of the story is the the equipment with which it is made. Because of the neutrality with which it is shot, it is experienced by the average spectator in a totally different way. The story, as it is seen by the spectator, becomes part of the life of the spectator. Because of this, the ultimate ending of a film by Wenders could be the death of the spectator himself.