Defense of Places
A lecture by Wim Wenders,
Bilbao, Spain, June 2002
I am much better known as a filmmaker
than as a photographer,
(at least in the past).
So I often face the inevitable question:
"What's the difference between making still images
and producing moving images?"
do I hate that question!
having shown my photographs at the Guggenheim in Bilbao,
during the soccer World championship 2002
I will from now on pull out a red card
and show it to every interviewer
who'll ever ask me that question again.
instead of talking about the difference,
I think it would be worth while,
to consider ONE aspect
that movies and photography have in common.
I want to make sure, though,
that you understand
that I'm strictly talking about my own approach to each.
I'm not presenting a new theory of the image here.
me start with looking at movies
(as they are so much popular)
and by asking YOU a question:
What do you think is driving a movie?
I mean not the money and the investment,
or a desire for profit,
which rules out a certain number of films from our consideration
I mean: What is the driving force inside the film,
its engine, its soul.
What keeps it going?
What gives it the strength
to convince a producer to invest funds in it
and the director and the actors to invest their time?
In contemporary cinema,
you will quickly find that this power comes from THE STORY.
A lot of energy gets invested into it.
Directors, Writers, Producers work for years sometimes
to develop the story.
Actors attach their names to a project,
because they believe in the story,
more than in the director, or in the budget or in anything else.
In fact, most films today get made because of their story.
Their commercial potential is based on "the good story".
Story" is the biggest hero of most contemporary movies,
overruling most other interests,
even that of casting.
The human heroes play second fiddle to the "hero plot".
To get the story right is the paramount objective,
more so than ever.
The actors are exchangeable,
the director, too, of course,
and so is everybody else, except for THE STORY.
It is my profession to tell stories,
so, don't get me wrong, I don't want to put them down.
I'm just questioning their primacy
and their tendency to make themselves the absolute center of attention.
on the other hand
can be at the service of another force that is able to govern a
another force that can create the desire to make it in the first
I want to introduce you to this "force",
especially as it's clearly a lesser known option today.
I would like to dedicate this lecture to a subject
that gets little attention in filmmaking AND in photography.
Actually, it's something that we take so much for granted
because it's mostly "just there",
that nobody seems to think much about it.
talking about PLACES,
and a "sense of place".
In photographic terms,
places are mostly identified as
"scenery", "locations" or "background".
are certainly considered the most passive element
both in film as in photography.
I'm very much opposed to this view.
I think it's downright wrong.
I would like to give "Places" a more dignified place here.
me explain a little bit
where I'm coming from with my argument.
I am sure some of you will recognize similar feelings or impulses.
travel a lot.
Sometimes I even think that's my real profession: Traveler.
I often come to places I have never been before.
Or to places I haven't seen in a long time.
I walk around.
I see cities, streets, houses.
I see people go to work.
I see kids play.
I look at an apartment building,
I see the lit windows, shadows moving behind it,
maybe a woman leaning out and calling a kid's name.
Maybe there'll even be an answer from somewhere.
can't help this feeling, immediately,
that I want to know everything about this place.
How it is to live there, how the seasons go by.
How these people spend their lives.
How they have fun. What they worry about.
How they eat, drink, sleep, work
I come to a place where nobody lives, let's say a desert.
I imagine the nomads roaming around there.
Or the hunters who come by occasionally.
Or the first human being who ever passed and laid eyes on these
this lake, this high plateau
Who made the first map
You see, places have this irresistible attraction for me.
They're a never ending source of inspiration, of stories
I lived for 8 years in America, from the late Seventies to the mid-Eighties,
in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.
Then I moved back to Germany
and settled for the first time in the city of Berlin.
walked around for weeks, for months,
staring at buildings and places,
listening to my mother tongue, German,
as if I never really heard it before.
I rediscovered my own country.
I wanted to know all about these people,
their past, their history, their secret thoughts
It was the city that induced this desire.
I wanted to tell THIS CITY'S STORY.
It was a divided city still.
2 different people lived here,
although they spoke the same language.
It was a city with a divided sky, so to speak.
I called my project THE SKY ABOVE BERLIN,
or THE HEAVENS ABOVE BERLIN,
but I had no story for it whatsoever.
Not a clue.
I didn't even have characters.
I had nothing but the desire to dig deep into this place.
course, I looked for characters.
I tried to find some that would get around a lot,
so they would meet a lot of people,
in order for me to be able to look into a lot of apartments,
and really see into all these lives.
I thought of making a postman my hero,
or a taxi driver,
or a fire fighter.
I thought of doctors or traveling salesmen.
I thought of strangers who'd arrive and get lost, like me.
none of my possible leading characters
only remotely fulfilled my desire to dis-cover,
to un-cover this city.
I was really obsessed with this place.
I felt very clearly that the city wanted to be turned into a movie,
and wanted to use me as its instrument.
And, hey, I was willing.
Walking around and staring at houses
I saw a huge amount of decoration, pillars, arches,
and stuff I had not noticed before.
A lot of them were incorporating angel figures, to my amazement.
Every second statue, and there were lots of them,
A lot of names evoked them.
Cemeteries, finally, were crowded with them.
So the city slowly imposed these figures on me: Angels.
didn't want to believe it at first.
It didn't really sound like me.
My interest in angels was limited.
They had inhabited my childhood fantasies, maybe,
as I was raised as a catholic boy,
but that was long ago.
That obscure, scribbled line from my notebook
"Tell the city through the point of view of guardian angels"
seemed to want to be there for good.
Other notes got erased.
This one stuck,
until I finally accepted my fate.
The city had imposed the leading characters,
I was sure the city was also going to take care of their story.
started this movie without a script.
On my wall in my office I just had lots of pictures
of all the places that had to appear in the film
and of all sorts of people
that I wanted to discover via these angels.
And lots of ideas for scenes.
Possibilities were endless.
These angels could appear anywhere,
and through their perception anything could be revealed.
Not only were they invisible,
They could also hear people's most secret thoughts.
really have to imagine this process of making a movie without a
like very similar to a writer writing a poem.
He wouldn't know what the next line would be, either.
I never knew what I would shoot the next day.
Anything was possible with these angel fellows.
were the absolutely perfect medium or intermediaries
for this journey of discovery into the soul of the city of Berlin.
Today, the film is a historic document of a place that has vanished.
This city does not exist anymore.
A new city has taken its place.
I don't think any documentary could do the Berlin of the Eighties
more justice than this "story-less fiction film".
there was a remake made of this film,
ten years later,
in the proverbial city of angels, which is Los Angeles.
Some of you will have seen it,
"City of Angels" as it was called.
Actually, 10 times more people saw the remake than the original.
had sold the remake rights thinking:
"How strange they want to acquire the story rights to a film
that was made without a story
I better take the money.
Nobody can ever find the recipe for this one again, anyway."
they made the film.
A fine film, don't get me wrong.
I do not want to discredit it at all.
But if you think you know anything about the city of Los Angeles
from seeing "City of Angels"
Because the driving engine behind this American film was
It was incredibly story-driven.
Powerful story. Good actors.
But it had no sense of place whatsoever.
"Sense of place" also needs place
to expand, to give space to, to breathe.
"Story" doesn't like competition for the room
that it wants to occupy with itself.
telling you all this not to put down "CITY OF ANGELS".
I'm quite proud to be the grandfather of this baby.
But you see 2 very different approaches at work.
TELLING A PLACE
or TELLING A STORY.
in American movies are mostly exchangeable.
There is very little local color in them, so to speak.
Most stories could take place somewhere else just as well.
Cities and landscapes are "background",
"locations", that are found by the "location manager".
They are no longer heroes,
like Monument Valley was in John Ford's westerns.
Of course, there are a few glorious examples that prove the opposite,
but there are no rules without their exceptions.
my book, the loss of place is a lost quality in movies.
It comes with a loss of reality,
a loss of identity.
Maybe it is a European distinction
to have more of a sense of place.
Of course: There are more borders,
more languages, more national identities.
you will often find films with a very strong local atmosphere,
local touch, local slang
films that are very "specific" by lack of a better word.
Very few American films are that specific,
or better: Have an interest in specifics.
They almost avoid it
as if they were afraid that it might turn people off.
As if too much "reality" and "local truth"
would interfere with "The Story".
Stories appear clearer, and dominate clearer,
if they are center stage.
Stories want to have first billings.
I'm not here to criticize,
I'm here to talk about a different approach.
And how to interpret it.
Not generally, but personally.
Sam Shepard and myself sat together
to come up with a script, back in 1982,
we told each other lots of stories, first,
to find out what our common ground was.
We realized, we would never find it "in a story".
There were too many of them, they were endless,
we would still be talking to each other
discovered our common ground rather in a place:
The American West,
more specifically, its deserts.
The border to Mexico.
Those little lost places in the middle of nowhere.
didn't have to convince each other
that it would be worth it
to start a movie there.
We knew. No question about it.
No second thoughts.
when we had accepted that our film would start there,
without any discussion, almost like in a silent agreement,
the desert gave us our character,
and our story.
A man without memory,
trying to reconnect with his past,
trying to find his lost family.
had traveled for months through Texas, Arizona and New Mexico,
until I knew every road out there,
Or at least it felt like it.
When Sam and I evoked a name of a place,
we could write the next scene.
Our itinerary became our storyline.
The film's title "Paris, Texas" was not so much the name
of a city,
but became a metaphor for the torn biography of our hero.
Shepard and I never wrote the entire script.
We wrote half of it,
and our intention was to shoot up to the middle,
get to know our characters,
learn everything about them
and then write an ending that would come out of these people,
not out of a story that we had invented
long before our characters had a chance to come to life.
Sam would be with me on the shoot,
travel with us, experience the place and the actors with me,
and then would write the thing as we went along.
It was a beautiful concept, but didn't work.
When we finally shot the film,
after postponing several times, mainly for funding,
Sam was under contract as an actor for another movie
that was shot way up north, "Country".
So I ended up shooting my film without the writer at my side.
Halfway into the shoot I ran out of script.
No more pages. We stopped shooting.
That was in the day before fax machines.
Is there anybody in the audience who remembers that time?
What did we do? How did we manage?
There was a machine called "Telex".
It was an unspeakable thing.
I'm not even going to evoke the horror of it.
in deep despair I thought about the second half of the story
and how to end the movie.
Somewhere in Texas, that's all I knew.
(I'm not testing here if anybody actually saw the film
or remembers it, so I will explain:
our man without memory eventually finds his son in LA
and then returns with the little boy to Texas to find his wife,
the boy's mother.)
So all we knew was that the movie was returning to Texas.
couldn't think of any decent way to end our story,
until I gave up trying to invent it
and just started to think of places I knew.
I thought about how much Huston had impressed me
as a "mushroom city" that had grown in no time out of
I thought about the excitement
of my first "drive-in banking" experience.
I thought about the abundance of "space" in Texas.
The story fell in place.
thought about the most desperate town I had ever seen.
It's only claim to fame being
that Janice Joplin went to high school there.
I remembered a picture I had taken
of a crummy bar, half peep-show called "The Keyhole Club".
The story fell into place.
I described these places to Sam over the phone.
He understood immediately.
He wrote what I considered the most amazing pages of screenplay
I had ever read
based on me describing places to him.
He wrote those dislocated characters
based on the knowledge of dislocated places.
dictated the scenes over the phone to me.
(That's actually what we did before faxes,
if time was off the essence
shot the second half of my film
based on an intense knowledge of places.
There was no time to do any more "location scouting".
And no need: Those locations had scouted their story,
Not vice versa.
don't think that I picked these examples out of my head,
and that the rest of my films belonged to the rules
instead of the exceptions.
I assure you: they are even more obvious affirmations of my thesis.
That places find stories
and make them happen.
Not that stories happen anyway,
and just need "locations" to "take place in".
most affirmative example would be LISBON STORY.
But the title already speaks for itself here.
The film is an exploration of a city via its sounds.
Very few cities have so much of a "soundscape" of their
own as Lisbon.
The noises of the old rattling streetcars,
the sounds from the harbor,
the strange texture of the Portuguese language itself,
that I have never mastered,
mainly because it sounds so different than what it looks like on
And then, Lisbon has its own music.
Like the "Son" of Havana,
or the Blues of the Mississippi Delta,
or the Tango of Buenos Aires,
Lisbon has the "Fado",
a very longing, mostly sad, slow music
that is not played anywhere else than in this city.
It is a Portuguese interpretation of the Blues,
with a melancholic Latin touch.
"Madredeus", a band from the working class area of Lisbon
that gave them their name,
gave me the soundtrack of the film,
before I had started shooting.
And those 12 songs Madredeus had given me
were like a guided tour through the city,
those songs became my script.
Again, you see, the city had supplied me with all the elements
to turn it into a movie.
I just followed all of Lisbon's guidance.
THE END OF THE WORLD is a good example, too.
That whole film started, 10 years before it actually got made,
when I first stumbled onto that beautiful ancient continent
and met its Aboriginal culture.
These are extraordinary people, in many ways,
but especially as far as their sense of place goes.
whole existence is based upon it.
Their belief, their religion is "The Land",
and its storytelling capacities
They are obliged, each one of them,
to keep a stretch of their land alive,
by keeping its story alive.
When they let that story die,
when they let that land die along with its story,
they themselves die with it.
They are "singing their country",
Homer was singing the Odyssey, not reading it.
encounter with the Aboriginal culture
of worshipping their places,
is what started this film.
END OF VIOLENCE, another example.
That movie did not have a story first,
but started as a desire to paint a portrait of a city.
The city of LA imposed the subject of violence.
It was its main export article,
and it was suffering heavily from its own inventions,
its own creations.
It might be my best example tonight
of a place designing and projecting not only its own imagery,
but its own catalogue of "content",
pitching its very own autobiography.
"Buena Vista Social Club".
(Finally a picture that some of you might have seen.)
I went to Havana to shoot it,
a place where I'd never been before.
All I knew was the music that these old men had produced,
electrifying, intoxicating, contagious music.
I saw and filmed Havana,
I realized what was so special about this music:
It came out of this city.
That music was the blood of this city.
The place had transcended into sound,
had found another form of existence in these songs.
And these old men were able to produce
that story of their own place,
because they had not abandoned it,
like so many other musicians before them
who had fled the country to go to Florida, to Mexico, to Spain.
(Which I am not saying to discredit those who left, believe me
I'm saying is that the incredible love of their own place,
their sense of identity and belonging,
that had made these old men undergo a lot of pain
and a lot of suffering,
that this had also turned out to be their strength
and their saving grace.
Music, great and moving music,
does not happen without a sense of place.
It needs roots to draw from,
it needs "story" and "his-story" (basically
the same word)
to nourish it.
Sometimes, the absence of a place,
the yearning for it, the exile from it,
can produce the same roots.
would be no blues without the South,
without the Delta, without slavery,
and without the lost home continent of Africa
forever removed like a distant galaxy.
but not least:
"The Million Dollar Hotel".
A film that is like the topography of one street block,
at 5th and Main Street
in Downtown Los Angeles.
friend Bono had first discovered the place
when his band, U2, were looking for a location
to shoot their video "Where the Streets Have No Name".
He stumbled upon the "Million Dollar Hotel"
and was so impressed,
that for once he didn't turn the experience into a song,
but into a story, which eventually became a script,
which I then eventually turned into a movie.
That movie could not have taken place anywhere else.
The story was conceived here, the film had to take place here.
It belonged to this street block,
where one of the city's prime hotels
had been built in 1914,
in the middle of what was then the center of the entertainment industry,
all around Broadway.
From being a grand place where Presidents and film stars had stayed,
the "Million Dollar Hotel" had declined over the years
to a flop-house,
the last refuge of outcasts, drug addicts,
the old and forgotten, the lunatics.
She had the courage to stay there for a while and get to know these
story in the service of a place.
I could go on with the entire list of my films,
trying to prove to you that they all start like this:
As a place wanting to be told,
as a place needing to be told.
That list wouldn't be complete
if I kept my biggest failures a secret.
Now, to prove my point through its reversal,
the following 2 films show where I got
when that sense of place was dislocated.
a beautiful, very American novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
That was my second film,
originally intended to be done I New England,
where it belonged: Salem, Massachusetts.
lost some of our financing,
a long story, I won't bore you,
when I finally started the film,
I had to shoot it, of all places, here in Spain,
and all the Puritans were played by Spanish Catholics.
My American Indian was an out of work bullfighter.
That could still have worked.
Actors can work with many handicaps.
What didn't work was
that we shot the film in a "Western village", near Madrid,
where they actually shot most of the so called "Spaghetti Westerns"
that a lot of people believed took place in Italy.
Well, I tell you: Those took place mainly in Spain.
a story that belonged to the East Coast of the United States
in the middle of Spain,
that is what did us in.
The STORY did not survive to be transplanted to another PLACE.
It fell into pieces.
my last and final example: HAMMET.
The great American writer
who influenced not only Chandler, Ross McDonald or Mickey Spillane,
but Hemingway and Faulkner.
I made a movie about him, for an American Studio.
A fictional story when Hammett lived in San Francisco,
worked there as a detective himself,
and started to write those detective stories and novels
that changed the face of mystery writing
We shot the film in San Francisco.
It was great. Authentic. True.
The sense of place was there.
The story was where it belonged,
the city of San Francisco carried it,
gave it its reason,
provoked it, to say it more clearly.
studio didn't like it.
Not enough action, not enough fantasy.
Too much rooted in reality. Whatever.
Anyway, I ended up re-shooting most of the film in Los Angeles,
both in the studio, and in the streets of downtown LA.
It was all fake, of course, all make-believe.
More story, that's for sure, but less soul.
film dissociated from its place of origin,
that's what I learned in the two cases,
where story and place were not connected vitally,
but put together arbitrarily,
such a film is doomed.
At least in my book it looks like a solid rule.
that rule doesn't apply in the case of most contemporary American
They don't even care much for that distinction
of "doing justice to a place".
They first of all do justice to their stories.
And that works, most of the time.
does that really mean?
Am I exaggerating with my theory of places inventing their stories?
Is it just a nice construction
made in the head of a European director
who cannot tell his stories without meandering,
who needs his "security blanket" of a place to root his
films tend to make up for their lack of place
with ever shinier surfaces,
with more spectacular special effects,
with greater, outrageous budgets, more luscious sets
They fill the hole they have created
with glorious material.
But it remains "filler" for the real thing.
might have exaggerated, anyway,
overdoing the role of "place" in storytelling a bit.
The other source of stories, obviously,
and maybe just important,
(and I#m very brief here)
Stories come out of amazing characters,
out of people.
again, just like with the places,
who were turned from "instigators" to "background"
we come to accept and believe the wrong idea about people as well.
Instead of people and characters being in charge of their destiny,
creating story and his-story,
movies teach us the opposite, more and more,
which is the utterly erroneous concept
that STORIES FORM CHARACTERS,
that people are subject to stories, not vice versa.
and places have become the scenery of stories,
they are no longer its origins.
In most American movies today,
the stories manipulate the characters.
People are the victims of the events.
And events, most of the time,
are nothing but a chain of spectacular action effects.
you understand why I come to believe
that movies more and more represent the world turned upside down:
Not people in control of their fates,
turning their lives into stories,
but stories turning people into their slaves,
no longer at the roots of history
and grounding people AND their stories,
so that they're no longer ANCHORS,
but exchangeable "locations".
me stick to my theory here, to the bitter end.
We're obviously talking globalization.
That culture where everything becomes interchangeable,
Globalized cinema has become a giant industry
the audiovisual culture, as a whole,
might end up eventually as the biggest world industry.
will have been promoted as the paramount force
to move imagery and imagination,
at the expense of the story-building power
of people and places.
shift will drastically shape and form future generations.
Not only their imagination,
but ultimately their image of themselves,
and their knowledge of our common place,
I might not have to explain much anymore,
why I called my exhibition:
PICTURES OF THE SURFACE OF THE EARTH.
why I love taking photographs.
After this long discourse as a filmmaker
you can imagine, maybe, how I feel
when I stand alone, just with my camera,
in front of a place.
you can stand there alone.
No need for a hundred people around you.
No need for an assistant to shout "Silence".
Mostly it IS silent.
I can just stand there and listen.
can almost use my camera like a sound recorder,
capture the place's sounds,
but most of all,
capture it telling its story
and its history.
Maybe my favorite Beatles lyrics goes:
are places I remember all my life
Though some have changed
All these places had their moments
In my life I've loved them all.
to be a photographer of places.
Others take great photographs of people.
One of them is here with us today, Peter Lindbergh,
and I can't tell you how much in awe I am of his portraits of women.
Another one is Donata, my wife.
She has an incredible gift to see people.
I couldn't be happier with my subjects.
where we spend our lives.
Places that we visit for just one moment.
Places we discover by chance.
Places that attract us by their name on a map alone.
Places we will never see again.
Places we can never forget.
we long to come back to.
Places that scare us.
Places that comfort us.
Places that make us feel at home.
Places we find repulsive.
Places that fill us with awe.
we dreamed about
before we ever got there.
Places we got lost in
and places that we lost.
Places protect us.
Places destroy us.
As metaphorical as they might appear,
places are always real.
You can walk around in them
or lie down on the ground.
You can take a stone with you
or a handful of sand.
But you can't take the place with you.
can never really own a place.
Even the camera can't.
And if we take its picture,
we're only borrowing the place's appearance for a little while,
nothing but its outer skin, its surface.
(I love the bask word I learned from the title of this exhibition:
"Lurrazalaren" which I understand means: "The Skin
of the Earth".)
of the places I photographed are about to disappear,
might already have vanished from the surface of the Earth.
They will only survive in photographs,
or better: The memory of them
will have to cling to the pictures we have of them.
Other places will outlive us
and even our efforts to capture them on photographs.
More so: They will survive any trace of us.
a million years,
when no one will be around any more
to even remember us faintly,
some of these places will.
Places have memories.
They remember everything.
It's engraved in stone.
It's deeper than the deepest waters.
Their memories are like sand dunes, wandering on and on.
guess that's why I take pictures of places:
I don't want to take them for granted.
I want to urge them
not to forget us!
I want to urge you, who see these photographs,
not to lose this precious ability that we were given:
To decipher the stories that places can tell us.
back to NewsReel August 2002