NEWS REEL December 2002

A Conversation
with Wim Wenders

Interviewed by screenwriter and director Scott Derrickson for

IMAGE - A JOURNAL FOR THE ARTS & RELIGION

Image: You've been working with Sam Shepard on a screenplay for a new film. Are the two of you approaching the creative process the same way you did with Paris, Texas?

Wim Wenders: Since we had already worked on a script together, we knew enough about each other to assess the process beforehand. With Paris, Texas we had to start from scratch. We had to just tell each other stories for a week or two to see if we had a territory in common. The second time we didn't have to go through all that. The only problem to overcome was that writing Paris, Texas had been so thoroughly enjoyable, such a treasure in each of our memories, that we had refrained from trying to repeat the experience. We remained friends and spoke, but we were afraid a second attempt would ruin the whole glorious memory. But then seventeen years passed, and we felt we had waited long enough.

Image: Will this be another road movie?

WW: It is a road movie, although it comes to a grinding halt after the first act and then takes place in one location. But it's still a road movie because it's the story of someone who has never settled anywhere and has never belonged to a place.

Image: The screenwriter in me suspects that you typically don't start the process of creating a film with characters or story, but rather with a location.

WW: That's usually the case, in fact. Starting with a desire to tell a story in a certain place keeps things very open, because a place can tell a lot of stories. I knew where I wanted to make this movie before I even came to Sam, and luckily he accepted my idea. He knew the place well enough to understand my desire and to realize that it would be a great location-though no movies have ever been shot there, except the story of Evel Knievel.

Image: What's the place?

WW: Butte, Montana. I came there in 1978, driven by a novel that took place there. Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett takes place in a city called Poisonville, but Hammett admitted repeatedly that Poisonville is Butte. I went there as I was doing research for Hammett, and got completely sucked into this town. I took lots of photographs, met people, and decided that I wanted to shoot there. I tried very hard to get the rights to Red Harvest-or to somehow pull that part of Hammett's life into the movie-but someone else already owned the rights and I couldn't get them.
I felt that for this new film, Butte would be ideal. Of course, I wanted to suggest to Sam that we write a road movie, and I had an idea for a diagonal move across America. I had written a whole treatment, in fact, but the one condition you have to accept if you work with Sam Shepard is that you cannot come in with any preconceptions. I told him about all the ideas I had for the movie I wanted to write with him, and in the end, we kept one half of one of my ideas. Everything else is different. But I say this with no regret, because what we came up with is something that neither of us could have come up with alone. It was a beautiful process because it was never based on plot, always on character. All of Sam's work is character-driven. He doesn't think in story terms, only in terms of how characters respond to situations, so once we had somehow crystallized an opening scene and had it down on paper-and of course Sam does it all on his old, manual German typewriter-we read it together and asked, what can happen now?

Image: And you worked through the entire script that way?

WW: Yes. We wrote the next scene, and then the next, but with never a thought to the scene after the one we were working on. With this method it's only possible to write chronologically, one scene at a time. Meanwhile, as director, I sit there and have lots of ideas while he's writing, but most of the time they don't lead anywhere because he has his own ideas. We talk, and in the end we come up with a third thing-something that is neither what his instinct wanted, nor mine, but that comes out of everything we talk about. Then we move onto the next scene, and again, I have all sorts of ideas about where this is going to lead us, and then I read the scene and it all evaporates.

Image: Was there a lot of going back and rewriting?

WW: Yes, often, because we would write to a certain point and then realize we didn't want to be there. We'd go back to where we felt that things had gone wrong and start again from there. It took eighteen months to reach a point where we could finally say, "Okay, this is where we begin, this is where we end, and this is what's in between." Once we had a beginning and end, we could look at our story as a whole and see what we had to fix here and there. We had to make sure that all the characters are really themselves-that all the action arises with a certain necessity out of these characters. And now we both want to sit on it for a month or two and then go back and look at it one more time. Our working title is Don't Come Knockin'. We initially wanted to shoot this in the fall of 2002, but that turned out to be too tight with financing, so we'll shoot it in the spring of 2003. The film should be out in early 2004.

Image: Earlier in your career there was a real emphasis on the supremacy of the image over the story, but it seems you've been progressively acquiring more of a love for story.

WW: That's true. When I started out, film for me was related to images and not to storytelling. I came from a non-narrative point of view-it wasn't even a documentary position, because I wasn't yet interested in documentaries. Certain people inspired me to work with film as a painter would. There were Andy Warhol, Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner, Jonas Mekas, Michael Snow, and others. Those underground filmmakers from the sixties were painters first and foremost, although some of them eventually ended up as storytellers, too. I really was trying to become a painter then, but I felt that a camera and a movie screen were more interesting tools than a brush and a canvas. I began from a very naïve first position, influenced by New American Underground film, traditional painting, especially Dutch landscaping, and even painting up to, let's say, Edward Hopper, who was himself very influenced by movies. I saw filmmaking as image-making-the difference being that by producing images and cutting them together, you get something weird happening from one image to the next. I began to see that once I put two images together, a third thing happened, something I hadn't even necessarily intended. Very slowly, over the course of making my first short films, this third thing became increasingly tempting. This didn't necessarily amount to a story, but a chain of events that link together can get you through the day-a bit like in life.

Image: One thing that's consistent in your films is your love for wide-angle lenses-and not just in landscapes. I can't think of a single selective focus shot in one of your films. Is there a reason you always choose wider lenses over longer lenses?

WW: I've always felt that with your own eye, you can't go to a telephoto shot. The narrowest you've got is something like a medium-wide angle. I never liked wide angles either-the fisheye lenses are distorting and remind me of hallucinatory states that I'm not so fond of. I've felt the naked eye is something that should be respected, and that long lenses are an artificial condensation. And I certainly hate what you can do with a zoom; you can go back twenty years without finding those shots in any of my movies.

Image: Did you vary that perspective with Wings of Desire and Far Away, So Close! when you were seeing the world through the non-human eyes of angels? You certainly moved the camera more than you ever had before.

WW: My first narrative films had a very selective narrative position. They were basically shot from one person's point of view. Every now and then you would see that person more subjectively, but the movie could not possibly tell something which that person couldn't see-it couldn't switch to another perspective. From the beginning I was very much tied to the idea that a film had to have one point of view, preferably that of the hero figure. I remember The American Friend was very daring for me, because it had two points of view, from two very different characters-and the points of view conflicted. It was like my whole universe was exploding.
When it came to Wings of Desire, of course the angels were an impossible point of view. How can you dare to try to describe an angel's view of the world, or how we look to them? But then again, that was the entire predicament of the movie, and in a strange way that impossible point of view was the tool that I had been looking for. My first idea for the film had been to try to see the city of Berlin in the most complex and complete way possible (again, the film began with a desire to explore a location and a place), but my first efforts to find angles that would allow me to show the complexity of the city didn't work. I was using the perspectives of firemen, taxi drivers, mailmen, kids-people who would have a diversified view of the city-but nothing was complex enough to show everything I wanted to. Finally, out of desperation, because I couldn't find a point of view to represent the city, I wrote a note in my notebook that said, Guardian angels? It didn't lead to anything for weeks, but after a lot of other ideas had been crossed out, it was still there. It was impossible, I thought. It didn't sound like me. But finally I realized that it was a perfect tool for what I wanted to achieve. The only point of view that would allow me to see all the facets of Berlin would be that of somebody invisible, somebody who could go through walls literally.
I started to take the idea seriously, and immediately all the problems of how to represent angels began to arise. You can't just have their point of view without actually showing them, because if you don't see them, their point of view becomes very abstract. Looking at the way painters have represented angels over the centuries, you quickly find that there are only a few models, with variations. Angels are either warriors in armor, or they have long, floating white gowns and wings. We experimented. I tried all sorts of armor and weaponry, and then we went the theater route with floating gowns, and that was worse. Soon it was time to start shooting, and we still didn't know how we wanted to represent the angels. We did the first three or four days of shooting with the two leading actors, Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander, who played Damiel and Cassiel, still not in wardrobe. They came onto the set every two or three hours in different outfits. I was shooting the early scenes with the kids, since those were the only scenes I could shoot without the angels, and the kids were a great test. Whenever I turned around and did a shot of Bruno and Otto, and the kids burst into laughter, I knew it was wrong. Finally, out of desperation, because I was out of scenes I could shoot without my leading actors, we decided to drop everything and put them in long, black coats.
But that point of view question became the real obsession of the film, the real task. How do you make a film camera transcend its regular point of view? How can a camera look differently at things in a way that translates the point of view of an angel instead of a human being? We came up with the concept of the fluidity of the camera-the shots had to be much more flowing. We wanted to make the shots when the angels looked at the city more loving-and how do you tell your cameraman to make a more loving shot? He's just going to look at you like you're crazy. This was the major task of the film-to try to translate love and affection into framing. I think somehow we got it. I mean, it's impossible to achieve that perfectly, but somehow we got a little closer to looking at the world with affection than movies normally do.

Image: So for you, this attempt to render visible what is invisible wasn't so much about the angelic or the spiritual, but about love and affection. Those were the invisible things you were seeking an expression for.

WW: At first, yes. In the beginning the angels were just narrative tools to find a different point of view. But through the process of making the film and evoking these spiritual entities, my perspective on these figures slowly changed. As I was shooting, angels for me were still metaphorical characters. The two actors had a hard time because I could never give them any response to the usual actor questions.
How do you tell them they're just metaphors? Everything you normally tell an actor to motivate him or tell him how to play a scene didn't work. Angels don't have biographies. They have no history. You cannot make up what happened to them before the film started: their unhappy childhood, their parents, their education.... So I ended up asking them to strip it all down and play the scene without all of the psychological tools an actor uses to get into a scene.

Image: Do you believe in angels now?

WW: Yes, because of the film. This didn't come about during the shooting, and not really during the editing, although that's when I started to wonder. It was seeing what the film did in other people, how the film affected them, that changed my mind. These figures that I created, my angel creatures, started to work on me and my spiritual life. They were an idea that I had put out there, not trying to represent a religious perspective, but a poetic perspective (as you might know, the entire film was very influenced by Rilke). But then, as I saw people respond to the film, I realized that the effect was nothing I had made. Of course I produced the film, I had figured it out, I was instrumental, but the effect it had on people was beyond anything I would have been able to do. That's how I slowly came to terms with the fact that the angels had been present, or that something had been present, that had used me somehow. There was no other explanation for it. I realized that I had been used in the most remarkable way. It's strange, especially for a director, to find out that you are not the creator. You are instrumental in creating something, but even if you fancy the idea that you pulled it out of yourself, you have to acknowledge that you could not have done it alone.

Image: Do you look at the work you've done since then the same way?

WW: I've looked at my job differently ever since. I'm much less uptight about it. I realize it isn't so much that I have to do my best, which is more or less the attitude I took the first half of my career. I looked at the history of movies and my models-Yasujiro Ozu, John Ford, Nicholas Ray. They made certain suggestions, and there I was, walking in their footsteps, but trying to do something that nobody had done before me. So there was always a certain pressure, a certain competition, but I never felt that way after Wings of Desire. Not in the slightest. When we were doing The Million Dollar Hotel, and we had a difficult day ahead, my wife, Donata, asked me if I was nervous. I said, "Not in the slightest." She couldn't believe it. I'm so much calmer now, because I realize it's not up to me. I do what I can do. If you really want to hold onto that idea that you create stuff as a director, fine-every now and then you are in a position where you can help create. But I've given it up, and it's an incredible relief, I must say. It's beautiful.

Image: In The End of Violence, Bill Pullman plays a movie producer who loses his entire Hollywood world but gains his own soul. Does that character's transformation represent the sort of enlightenment you see Hollywood as needing to experience?

WW: Maybe I can answer by starting earlier in the process with my initial desire to make that film. There's always a first flame that represents the desire to make a particular film, and if I get through the process and manage to keep the flame going, then I've made the film I wanted to make. So often you see people switch when the flame goes out, and light a new one, but it's not the one that they started with; it's an arbitrary one.
The initial flame for The End of Violence was the idea that Los Angeles is a city suffering from its own creation. At the time, I was living here working on The Million Dollar Hotel, trying to raise money and get the project off the ground-so my daily reality was trying to get a movie made. I realized that I was living in a place that was very much a front. Everything I saw was like a movie set-beautiful, but when you looked closer, empty, cheap in its structure, with nothing behind it. I felt that this was the principal metaphor for this city: there were fronts on many levels, and the front was seductive. I liked this aspect of Los Angeles, the way it went for a certain affirmative look in its houses and projects and people, but the result was always the same: it was all a front, and what was behind it was very different from the surface. There was a huge gap between the appearance and the reality behind it. On the outside there was a certain coolness, but on the inside there was fear. There was a lot of fear wherever you went, especially in the mid-nineties. People were afraid of being robbed, of being assaulted, of being dragged out of their cars. People were afraid of their neighbors. People were running around with guns. I met an old lady who always carried a gun in her shopping bag. People had signs in front of their houses to show that they had armed response systems. Coming out of Europe, it was very noticeable to me that the city was trying to defend itself against some invisible enemy, an enemy, I thought, that the city had created itself. The murderer who lurks in the dark, the monster, the evil that everyone was afraid of, was self-created, was the city's main export article.
I felt this was an interesting idea for a film to be done on short notice in Los Angeles-a film about the front and what's behind it, and about the self-created monster. The character who I felt could symbolize the city best would be a cocky movie producer. He dares to step behind his own front, and he looks at the emptiness of his backyard and tries to fill it. Of course, if you live a little while in this city, you find that there is something invisible here that you can make visible-though in a very different way than in Wings of Desire. One invisible thing is that Los Angeles is really a Mexican city. Its front is white American, but there's a different culture driving it. This was the other idea of the picture, that if this producer character stepped behind his own front, he would find the real world, and that world would be Spanish or Mexican. So the story, then, was that the movie producer became his own gardener.

Image: Let's talk about Until the End of the World. I was fortunate to have attended a very rare screening of your four-and-half-hour director's cut, and I don't think I've ever seen a more significant difference between a studio cut and a director's cut. I found the two-and-a-half-hour studio version that was released in theaters to be mildly interesting at best, but your version is, in my opinion, among your best works. What was the studio's response to your cut?

WW: A lot of the people involved in the decision-making process on that film never sat through my version. Many were convinced that it was too idea-driven in the second half, and that I had really made two films, an interesting film about a journey around the world, and a brainy but less interesting film about making a blind person see. As a science fiction film (it was conceived in the mid-eighties and takes place at the turn of the millennium), its subtext was the future of our image-driven culture. The greatest invention there, it seemed to me, would be to give vision to the blind, and the worst nightmare would be the inversion of that invention: to suck out our dreams from our brains so that we could watch them like television.
Anyway, I dropped all the brainy stuff and reduced it to the detective story and the chase-but I did one of the smartest things I've ever done in my life, and I recommend this to any director in the same position. I gave the producers what they wanted, which was the two-and-a-half-hour, reader's digest version of the film, but I never cut my negative-and I did this without telling any of them. It was expensive, but I made a duplicate positive of the entire film and cut that instead. The final product looked exactly the same as it would if I had made it from the cut negative, and everybody got their inter-negative, and there was the cut duplicate positive, as the contract requires-but they never realized that I hadn't cut the original negative. Once everybody had accepted delivery, I went back and started to cut the film the way I wanted it. It took another year, and of course financially, it was very, very hard on me.

Image: You were paying for it out of your own pocket?

WW: Yes, it was all paid for by my company, Road Movies. And we owned my director's cut only for distribution in Germany. Convincing anybody to do anything with it was difficult. If the studio version had been successful, everybody would have wanted the director's cut, but since the reader's digest version was relatively unsuccessful in most territories, it was impossible to get distributors even to look at the director's cut. It took ten years even to make them aware of it.

Image: What's its status now?

WW: It will be out on DVD-accompanying the studio version in some territories, and hopefully on its own in others. We may have a limited theater release here or there.

Image: You've made a tremendous amount of work. Your website lists, as well as your many distributed films, a good number of documentaries and shorts that aren't available to the general public. Have you ever experienced any kind of creative block or burnout?

WW: Yes, when I was doing Hammett. For a while, it seemed that everything had come to a grinding stop, and everything I made was repeating something I had done before. I was just going through the motions, painting by numbers, so to speak. It was a pretty dark period of my life, when I wasn't in touch with what I was able to do, or even what I wanted to do. I didn't know anymore what kind of movie I had wanted to make in the first place. It had become so complicated. You write forty versions of a screenplay with four different writers, and in the end, you can't even tell what's good and what's bad about it. We shot Hammett twice-two entirely different movies, and only the second survived. We kept only ten percent of the first shoot. I just wasn't sure where I was in that picture. That was the reason I made The State of Things-it was made out of this creative hole. And it was a good move, a self-curing process. Normally I don't think it's all that great to make movies to find a cure for something, but in this particular case it worked strangely well. The State of Things was meant to say, "There's nothing you can do anymore. Filmmaking has come to an end. We have reached the end of cinema." It started as a desperate plan to announce the end, but instead it pulled me out of my hole.

Image: I recently saw you quoted as saying, "The future of the cinema lies no longer in its past." What did you mean by that?

WW: It's an idea I'm trying to develop about digital filmmaking. I feel strongly that with the technology that is now available, we are at a crossroads. For the first time since we went from silent cinema to sound, we have a similar groundbreaking change to consider. Digital filmmaking is not just giving us a few additional tools; it redefines all the possibilities at hand. You can look at how we were telling stories before, pick out a few things, and say, "Hey, I want to keep those, they're useful," but you can also take on a whole new stack of rules and start again without any baggage from the history of cinema. A number of people are looking at it this way, with no idea of the last hundred years of filmmaking. They just started right now, and they're doing amazing things. Today it's a privilege to be able to say, "I choose to carry in my baggage these ideas that developed from Eisenstein to Ozu," but you can also say, "I don't want any of it." These days, that's possible. I don't think filmmaking in the next decade owes much to the past, unless somebody knows exactly why it should owe something-and I think this shift has been helpful. I like to see films in which somebody isn't quoting previous movies-I don't like quoting at all-instead I like seeing somebody using their tools, technique, and narrative craft, incorporating stuff out of the history of cinema and making me see that it's still relevant. If it still works, I'm happy.
But if I see-and I think this is often the case today-a lot of filmmaking on automatic pilot, working from a formula, then I get angry. I'd rather see people who start from scratch. I'd rather go see work by people who haven't seen even one of the films that are dear to me, but who are still able to tell stories.

Image: I'm going to switch gears here and ask you about the spiritual transformation you've undergone in the last decade. You expressed some of that in describing the way you've changed since making Wings of Desire. How else have your experiences in the realms of faith and belief impacted your work?

WW: Far Away, So Close! was a film that was clearly made with religious intent. I mean, it even starts with a quotation from the Gospel of Matthew: "The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness."

Image: And aren't there other Bible quotations in that film?

WW: Plenty. Isaiah is quoted quite often. As I edited the film, I came to creating the level of voices, which is similar to the level of voices in Wings of Desire, though more complex. In Far Away, So Close! there's an entire film happening just on an audio level, and it's filled with all sorts of quotes, many from the Old and New Testaments. From the beginning, I felt that if we ever made a second film with these angel characters, I couldn't pretend that nothing had happened to me in between. I couldn't make another film in which the angels were metaphors, because they were no longer metaphors to me. If I made another film about angels, they would have to be messengers of God, the go-betweens. They could refer only to God, because as messengers, they were nothing in themselves-the message was everything. So the film had to be filled with their message. To do anything else with these characters would have been to betray my entire experience. The film would have to be with God from beginning to end, because that would be the angels' only intention. Unlike Wings of Desire, where their metaphorical choice was to become human, in Far Away, So Close! that was no longer an option. It does happen that the angel Cassiel becomes a man, but only so that he then can return to being an angel. In a strange way, in Wings of Desire the spiritual world was a metaphor, but in Far Away, So Close! life is the metaphor for something spiritual.
In hindsight, I must say, I was too didactic. The film was way too cerebral. In the first year you become a missionary or a priest, you probably make nothing but mistakes because you're too upfront about things. You're too filled with a certain desire, and that kills everything you want to achieve. When I see the film now, and I hear all those quotes, I must say that I was filled with too much missionary fervor.

Image: You were raised a Catholic, and now you attend a Presbyterian church. I wonder if this movement toward a more Protestant perspective has something to do with it as well. Catholic filmmakers are so rich in visual imagery, Martin Scorsese being the perfect example.

WW: Or Bresson.

Image: And when you compare them to say, Paul Schrader, who's a perfect example of a Protestant perspective moving into film, Schrader is very word-oriented, and the ideas are much more in your face.

WW: Yes, with Far Away, So Close! I was too much the Catholic who had finally left it all behind and converted, which I just had the year before.

Image: And yet your films have always reflected the Judeo-Christian view of man as a wayfarer and pilgrim. Do you feel a connection between your faith and the stories you've been telling all along?

WW: During those twenty years when, though I always remained a believer, I went as far away from the Catholic Church as possible, I thought that all churches were the same. The Catholic Church had made some tremendous mistakes, and I had taken these mistakes too personally. For twenty years I never attended church anywhere. I had left the church in 1968, and at the time I was very involved in socialist politics.
During the seventies, I was involved in psychoanalysis, another substitute religion, like socialism, which strangely enough has religious roots. Then in the eighties I was involved with Asian philosophy and Buddhist ideas, although that never really showed in any of the work I did then. When I came back to the church, it was a return to the beginning after going through a long circle-and Until The End of the World marks the end of the circle. At the end of that film, the writer character says that he has started to pray again. He quotes the gospel of John, "In the beginning was the Word," when he rediscovers the word against the image.
In the twenty years I had been absent from church, my films' main subject was alienation, being on the road, being on some sort of pilgrimage toward understanding, or realization, or fulfillment. Even though most of those characters didn't know what it was they were after, they were on the way somewhere. For twenty years, being on the road itself became the topic, as the destination was so uncertain. Looking back, I was like a pilgrim who didn't believe in the marked path anymore, but still believed that being on the road had to lead somewhere as long as I was relentless about it.

Image: And you were right. It did lead somewhere.

WW: Yes. I probably owe that most of all to my family-though the topic of family is not very present in my work, except in Paris, Texas. I had to go back to square one and forget all my objections about the Catholic Church. I had to look at the Word and forget about everything that people have added over the centuries. What really brought me to that place in the end was my father. He never made a big deal about his belief. He was Catholic and went to church regularly, but we never in our lives had a single discussion about God. When it was obvious to him that I wasn't going to church anymore, that I was angry with the church, and when I finally told him that I had left it officially, it made him very sad, but we never spoke a single time about Christ-and maybe this is a Catholic thing, too. This is one of my biggest objections to the Catholic Church. They are like the Pharisees of the New Testament; they create all sorts of rules and regulations, and they think that this house of regulations is the thing itself. My father was sort of caught up in the Catholic Church and regretted that I had left it, but we were unable to talk about it.
During the last six months of his life, as he was dying of cancer, I took care of him at home, which included all the things you do for somebody who needs shots every three or four hours and can't take care of himself anymore. Even then he wouldn't talk about Christ, and we wouldn't really have theological conversations, but what he lived and what he showed me-the confidence he had in God, and the way he died fearlessly, without a single regret, without a single worry that anything bad was going to happen, and with a total belief that he had done his best, and the way he was looking forward to what was coming-that really got to me. He didn't have to talk about it much, and for some reason we never had the kind of relationship where we could talk about spiritual things. He just lived it.
My father's example, the total conviction he had, his total confidence in God, and finally in Christ-I only realized in the last few weeks of his life that his entire life had been based on that, though he was never able to verbalize it. That really opened my eyes, and that year, which was 1989, I came full circle. There was no way for me to come back to the Catholic Church, but I came back to praying and began reading the Bible. I once had been very religious. In fact, when I was fourteen or fifteen, I thought I would become a priest, but, believe it or not, I had no knowledge of the Bible. If you grow up in the Catholic Church, your belief is not based on knowing the Word. In 1989, when I started to read the New Testament, I thought, "Wait a minute, why did they conceal this from me?" They read it, of course, in a Catholic service, but it's like a formula, a ceremony, and when I heard it then, it had nothing to do with my life. I couldn't really connect it to my deepest, innermost self-it was artificial somehow. So I started reading as if I had never read it before. It was all new to me.

Image: So much has already been said about the loss of life on September 11, but I'm interested to hear you comment on the loss of place.

WW: They had just finished building the Twin Towers when I was in New York shooting Alice in the Cities. In some of the images in that film, there are still cranes on the top of one of the towers. My first trip to New York was in the winter of '71 or '72 for a program at the Museum of Modern Art, The New Directors' Season, where I showed The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty Kick. Like anyone who visits New York for the first time, I got a stiff neck, because all I could do was look up at the incredible buildings. You step in dogshit because you never look down. And as you see in Alice in the Cities, in that view toward downtown, the Trade Centers were the stronghold of the entire skyline. That downtown skyline inspired a real sense that here was the center of the world. As we were discussing earlier, my films are all rooted in a place, and a number of my films have started or taken place in New York. The American Friend starts on Spring Street and West Broadway. Lightning Over Water starts with a shot of the towers forming the point on which all lines converge. And Alice in the Cities was dominated by the sense of place that New York offered.
To come to terms with the loss, I had to go there and see it for myself. I couldn't live with just pictures, and I certainly couldn't live with the images I had seen on television. In order to accept it, and overcome it, and to know what to make of it, I had to see it for myself. I was fortunate that Joel Meyerowitz, the only photographer who actually had a pass to go into the site daily, the mayor's official photographer, was kind enough to take me seriously, and smuggled me in as his assistant. It was a day about eight weeks after the towers had fallen. Usually I take photographs in order to preserve a place, when I have a feeling it might not always exist the way it is. Of course, at Ground Zero, there was nothing to preserve, but it was incredible to photograph this great wound that the planet was carrying-and to see that it was healing. You felt it; you saw it; it was obvious. The city itself was actually healing.
The early morning sun hit the site and was reflected from the towers surrounding the wound. It burst through all the smoke and the fumes and created a glorious sense of peace and hope and new beginning. Joel would look at me every now and then, shake his head, and say, "How lucky can you get? I've been here every day, but I haven't seen the site like this." Everybody working there was affected. I had never experienced a place like that, where all the people present-the firefighters, the police, all the workers-were carried by the same solidarity, the same responsibility, the same serenity. I had never felt like I did that morning, as if all those present were being lifted up, not so much by the sun, but, for lack of a better word, by God's friendliness. People all over the world had prayed nonstop for weeks-and that morning I felt I was moving around at the center of gravity of millions of prayers.
Still, the site was hell - it was smoldering and smoking, and everyone wore a mask to breathe through, and every now and then they would find a piece of a body, and everyone would be evacuated. It was as hellish as it could be, but the place showed me - and I see it in the pictures I took - that it was surviving. Something was beginning. There would be a future. It wasn't me trying to impose some wishful thinking on it. It was the place that showed it to me.

 

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