Director Wim Wenders Says All Of His Films Are About How To Live

In early 2022, “totally out of the blue”, Wim Wenders received an invitation to visit Tokyo and look at some public toilets. It came from from the Tokyo Toilet art project, which had commissioned several high-profile architects and designers to create 17 aesthetically beautiful public toilets in various locations in the Shibuya district of the city. “They basically contacted me and said: ‘We know you like Japan and we know you like architecture,’” he recalls, smiling. “‘So we would like you to come and see our beautiful toilets and, if you like them, maybe you could make a series of short documentary films about them.’”

The invitation arrived at an opportune time for Wenders, who, as he puts it, was “feeling very homesick for Tokyo”, a city he had visited often since since making a film about the fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto in 1989. “It seemed,” he tells me, “like a dream come true.”

He travelled to the city soon afterwards, during a short break from shooting the final scenes for his epic documentary Anselm, about the German artist Anselm Kiefer. What he saw there convinced him that the “beauty and calmness of these amazing little places” would be better evoked in a fictional feature film, which he assured his hosts he could make on a small budget and in the same 16-day shooting schedule. To his surprise, they agreed almost immediately. “It all happened so fast,” he says now, “but fast is beautiful. Fast is a gift. Fast is unleashed creativity.”

Kōji Yakusho and Arisa Nakano in Perfect Days. Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy

The end result, though, is a masterclass in slow cinema. Perfect Days is a film in which not much happens, but the little that does is oddly transfixing. Co-scripted with Japanese writer Takuma Takasaki, it comprises a series of small variations on a single theme: the daily work routine of Hirayama, a solitary but contented individual whose job it is to clean and maintain the Shibuya toilets. “It is a small film, yes,” Wenders agrees. “But it was also the first film I made after the pandemic. I saw it as a new beginning for me so I really wanted it to matter.”

In an era of audaciously big and epically long movies such as Oppenheimer and Killers of the Flower Moon, Wenders’s restrained meditation on the simple life seems to have struck a chord with critics and the public alike. Last May, Kōji Yakusho, who plays Hirayama, won the best actor award at Cannes. “His character is the film,” Wenders said recently.

Where, I ask, did the idea for such an ascetic lead character come from? “I drummed him up in my imagination and we cast him in two weeks. We knew from the start we needed someone who was attentive to everything around him, who could show what he lives in his eyes. You need a big actor to convey small gestures, to open a door in the morning, look up at the sky, and make it meaningful. I only knew one who could live up to this role and that was Kōji.”

Dean Stockwell and Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas (1984). Photograph: Channel Four Films/Allstar

The film is also in contention for the best international feature film at the Oscars, the first time that Japan has selected a non-Japanese director. “Wim’s understanding of Japanese culture is amazing,” says Takasaki. “There was a sense of wonder in working with him. We had a perfect relationship, and through his eyes and mind, I rediscovered my country, culture and values.”

I meet Wenders in the expansive headquarters of his production company, Road Movies, in the Mitte district of Berlin. We chat across a long table in a back room in which a tall, elaborate African carving stands sentinel by the door. One of Wenders’s large-format landscape photographs of the American west stretches across the back wall. At 78, the director exudes a relaxed calmness, his answers considered and often very detailed. “Films are a product these days,” he says ruefully at one point. “The beauty of Perfect Days is that I had nobody looking over my shoulder. I could do what I wanted. Takuma was a great help, but there was no control. They let the two of us just run free. There was only a little money but complete freedom.”

Perfect Days is his 23rd feature film, and has been greeted by critics as a return to form for a director who, of late, has been lauded more for his documentaries. They include 2011’s Pina, a portrait of the austere and influential dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch, and 2018’s Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, in which he gained unprecedented access to the current pontiff. Neither quite prepared me for last year’s Anselm, which, I tell him, is the most conceptually ambitious and illuminating study of compulsive artistic genius I have ever seen.

German painter Anselm Kiefer at work in a scene from Wenders’s 2023 documentary Anselm.

“Well, it was a challenging film to make, so that is gratifying,” he says. “We made it all through the pandemic, following all the rules about testing and everything else. It occupied me for three years in all – seven shoots in different locations and editing in between for a few months. I never had so much time to make one movie, but I don’t know what I would have done otherwise. I needed it to slowly understand and represent the vastness of this man’s work.”

I watched Anselm and Perfect Days in quick succession and was struck by how dramatically different they were in terms of subject matter and ambition. “Oh, for sure,” he says, laughing. “They are almost the total opposite of each other. For a start, I have never met anyone who works as hard as Anselm Kiefer. He is relentless. Perfect Days, on the other hand, is about a man who leads a very simple, pared-down life. So, one is about abundance, the other is about reduction.”

In Yakusho’s pitch-perfect performance, Hirayama, the toilet cleaner, comes across as a man out of time, someone who has walked away from another, more privileged life for reasons that are never explained. He lives in a small, spartan apartment in a working-class neighbourhood, reads literary novels he buys in secondhand bookshops, listens to the same few cassettes – the Kinks, Nina Simone, the Velvet Underground – in his van as he travels to and from work. In his lunch break, he sits quietly on a park bench, absorbing the ordinary world around him and sometimes taking photos of the surrounding trees. In the evenings, he eats in the same cafe and visits the same bar.

His interactions with passing characters, including his feckless workmate, his adoring niece and a stranger who is terminally ill, are fleeting but meaningful. The arrival of his estranged sister in a chauffeur-driven car, her obvious wealth a signifier of his previous life, briefly unsettles his equilibrium, but throughout he remains a man apart, someone who has found a profound inner peace through the simplicity of his routine life. “I think of him as a kind of secular monk,” says Wenders.

Pina, Wenders’s 2011 documentary about Pina Bausch. Photograph: Alamy

Hirayama is a stark contrast to the restless characters that appear in the director’s early films, whether Philip Winter, the enigmatic German writer adrift in the vastness of America in 1974’s Alice in the Cities, or the haunted Travis Henderson walking through the endless desert landscape in 1984’s Paris, Texas. He nods in agreement.Those movies are about searchers, characters who are seeking, but they don’t find it. Hirayama is not searching.” He pauses for a long moment, lost in thought. “All of my films are dealing with that question of how to live, even though for a long time I did not know that, because I was searching for answers, too. Perfect Days is quite a precise answer. I think a lot of people will watch it and feel a longing for a simpler way of life, for a reduction in what we have and what we consume. In many ways, Hirayama is a perfect example of how to live.”

Wenders came of age as a film-maker in the early 70s as part of a generation of German auteurs, including such mavericks as Werner Herzog and the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who made up a movement known as New German Cinema. Wenders was born in Düsseldorf in 1945, and his route into film-making was circuitous. Raised a Catholic, he briefly considered joining the priesthood, before studying medicine and then philosophy. In 1966, having dropped out of university to pursue a career as a painter in Paris, he became obsessed with films, often watching several in a single day at his local Montparnasse cinema. In 1967, he returned to Germany and began working as a film critic for various publications, including Der Spiegel, while attending film school in Munich. “It was the same one that had rejected Fassbinder,” he says, “and it was a hopeless place, really – a film school that did not even have a camera!”

A poster for 1974’s Alice in the Cities, starring Rüdiger Vogler and Yella Rottländer. Photograph: Alamy

Radical inspiration arrived in the form of the slightly older Werner Herzog, a visiting lecturer whose message to the students was, as Wenders says, “intense and brutal” in its directness. “Nobody teaches cinema like Werner,” he says, laughing. “He told us to quit school immediately. He shouted: ‘You are idiots if you stay here. It is not getting you anywhere. You have to leave this school tomorrow and start to make films. You will never do that if you stay in this place.’”

Did you take his advice, I ask? “No, but I did start to think differently about film-making from that moment. I had a 16mm camera and I started to produce films outside of school. I also became the cameraman for all the students, because I had a little Bolex camera. We made a movie every week from then on. We learned by doing it, mainly because Werner had really insulted us.”

Having completed his early “road movie” trilogy – Alice in the Cities, The Wrong Move and Kings of the RoadWenders became more well-known with 1977’s The American Friend, a stylishly noirish adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Ripley’s Game. Between 1974 and 1982, Wenders was married and divorced three times, each time to actors, including Ronee Blakley, who starred in his 1985 docu-drama I Played It for You. (He has been with his current wife, Donata, a photographer and sometime collaborator, since 1993.) Despite his creative productivity, he describes the 70s as a dogged time for him personally. “I was in really bad shape back then and I took a long, but useful, detour into Freudian analysis. I did it five times a week. It was a full-time job.”

After a bruising experience in the early 80s making Hammett, a big-budget Hollywood noir thriller commissioned by Francis Ford Coppola, who then insisted on a complete re-edit, Wenders found his mojo again with 1984’s Paris, Texas. Featuring another lonesome traveller, played by Harry Dean Stanton, its luminous landscapes, shot by Wenders’s longtime collaborator Robby Müller, haunting music and evocative iconography – billboards, train tracks, desert highways – seemed to confirm that Wenders was a European film-maker with a distinctly romantic American sensibility.

Bruno Ganz in Wings of Desire (1987). Photograph: Cinetext Bildarchiv/Road Movies Filmproduktion/Allstar

That changed abruptly a few years later with the release of the other film that made his name: Wings of Desire, an emphatically European film set in his home town, Berlin, and featuring angels who wander the city as invisible presences. It remains one of the most evocative portrayals of the city’s singular atmosphere in the years just before reunification. Nick Cave, who makes a cameo appearance in the film, singing two songs with his band, the Bad Seeds, in a local club, was living there then. “I watched it again recently,” he says, “and I was struck by how accurate a document it is about the Berlin of that time: the places the angels walk through, the makeshift bars they visit, the whole post-punk atmosphere of the place and, of course, the looming presence of the wall. There was a political edge to the place and a sense of a genuine artistic movement that drew a lot of creative people there.”

Wenders tells me that it took him an inordinately long time to accept the fact that he was a German artist, something he finally acknowledged with the making of Wings of Desire. “That was my film as a homecoming German. Before, I was running away from Germany. I was out in the world discovering other countries, other cultures, and I really felt I was so much better off there than in my own country.”

Wenders is the same age as Anselm Kiefer, both born in the year the second world war ended with Germany’s surrender. In the three years it took him to make Anselm, did he discover a cultural affinity with his subject given their shared backgrounds? “Yes and no,” he says, after a long pause. “We lived through a lot of the same experiences in our youth. I was born on the Rhine and spent every day of my childhood near that river, as he did too just a few hundred miles up north. We had the same Nazi teachers and we both lived in a country that had disappeared, tried to rebuild itself and have a future. For a long time, though, that future was based on the condition that it did not have a past.”

Dennis Hopper and Lisa Kreuzer in The American Friend (1977). Photograph: Alamy

As Wenders’s complex, multi-layered documentary makes clear, Kiefer’s art has, on one level, been a long interrogation of the Germany that both of them were born into: the ruins and the silences, the darkness of the Nazi years and the amnesia that followed it. “As a very young person growing up, you know that something is wrong and you sense it, but you cannot put your finger on it,” says Wenders, “Then slowly, as you get older, you start to see it more clearly and it makes you very uneasy. Personally, it made me so uneasy that, as a teenager, all I ever wanted to do then was get out. Anselm had the exact opposite intuition: he wanted to put his finger on it, he wanted to open it up and make accusations and remind people that they had to remember. He remained here and confronted the beast. I didn’t want to.”

It took him a long time, he says, to come to terms with the fact that he was German – “that I was always going to be a German romantic in my heart and that I had better accept it”. That learning process happened mostly in America, where, he elaborates, “I was trying to be an American and trying to make an American movie, before realising I did not have it in me. I was too German to do that.”

Wenders’s long journey as a film-maker has, to a degree, reflected his own preoccupations, particularly his abiding spirituality. The angels that wander through and hover above his home city in Wings of Desire and its underrated follow up, Faraway, So Close!, are figures from Christian iconography: heavenly arbiters of goodness and grace. Hirayama in Perfect Days leads an almost saintly existence, though he is more Zen Buddhist in temperament than Christian. The director has also described his documentary on Pope Francis as the work all his other films had been building up to. Ironically, having been raised a Catholic, Wenders converted to Protestantism at some point in the 70s, after experiencing a kind of epiphany while attending services in what he describes as “a very lively Presbyterian church” in Los Angeles.” Is he still, I ask, a religious person, as his later films suggest?

Photograph: Malte Jaeger/The Observer

“I would describe myself as a very spiritual person,” he replies, “which is to say I am deeply religious, but not a friend of organised religion. When I returned to Berlin, I could not find a church that was alive in the way that some American churches are, that had that kind of community. The kind of religion I want to be a part of is like the early churches, an almost communist society. The little that we know about them is deeply engraved in my life, how they lived together and shared everything, simple lives. All that has been lost.”

It makes sense, then, that, in the solitary but contented figure of Hirayama in Perfect Days, Wenders has created a kind of latter-day saint, whose almost holy life is lived without the baggage of organised religion. The film is quietly life-affirming in its insistence that an ordinary life lived fully and attentively attains a spiritual dimension. In this, it echoes the work of Wenders’s great cinematic hero, Yasujirō Ozu. “You come out of an Ozu film and you look at the world differently,” he says. “Even if it only tells an ordinary family story, it somehow transcends the ordinary because of his humanity and spirituality.”

Although he expresses disappointment that so many of today’s successful films are “franchises – movies based on other movies”, he is, he says, “an eternal optimist”. That optimism, though, has been severely tested of late. “I have this fictional project, Peace By Peace, a science-fiction utopian film that I have been working on for the past five years and a huge part of my film deals with Palestine,” he tells me, shaking his head. “I cannot do it any more. Right now, I have to rewrite it because the whole thing I wanted to base it on is bombed to pieces. Palestine might not even exist any more. It is going to be a wasteland.”

I ask him, in conclusion, if he looks back on his creative journey as a kind of continuum underpinned by the same preoccupations. “No, I think I’m in a different place now,” he says. “When I was younger, the lives of the characters in my movies echoed my own search in a strange way. The process of making a film was a search in itself, a process that was about finding out the deeper truth of the story you were telling. There is not so much room to do that any more, which is why I make so many documentaries.”

He pauses again for another long moment. “What I did learn early on is that film-making is transformative. It turns you into a different person. I sometimes think what would have happened if I had become the painter I so wanted to be when I was young. I think I would now be a very solitary, serious and withdrawn person. Film-making opened my mind but also my personality. I was a real loner. I’m not any more.”

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