Legendary German filmmaker Wim Wenders reflects on tragedy and artistic growth in Every Thing Will Be Fine below and in the latest edition of THE EXBERLINER PODCAST, sponsored by Met Film Berlin.
It’s certainly been a busy 2015 for Wenders so far. In the past two months alone he’s been honoured with a major retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, had his documentary The Salt of the Earth up for an Oscar, and received an Homage and Honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement at this year’s Berlinale, which also saw the premiere of Every Thing Will Be Fine.Wenders’ first narrative film in seven years stars James Franco and Charlotte Gainsbourg in a complex tragedy-bound relationship between a man who accidentally killed a young boy and the latter’s mother. Shot in 3D, it is an intimate and quiet portrait that meditates on the search for forgiveness, the obligations we have to those we’ve hurt, and how our lives can become intertwined in the blink of an eye.
Is it true that when you received Bjørn Olaf Johannessen’s script for Every Thing Will Be Fine in the mail, you immediately knew that you wanted to do something with it?
It came to me at exactly the right moment. At the time I received the script I was working on the documentary Pina. I was exploring 3D for the first time, and I had started thinking about potentially applying that technology to an intimate story. All of a sudden, this very well-written and compelling script fell into my lap. My producing partner Gian Piero Ringel and I immediately decided to option it. It was too good to be true! After that it took another five years…
Can you explain why you chose 3D to express such an intimate story?
So much in this story happens “inside our characters’ heads”, so to speak. Much of the tension is actually internal to Tomas, our main character. He is a writer. The challenge was: if things are not spoken out loud, how do you see the tension unfold? How do you really look into somebody’s soul? And I figured that’s exactly what 3D can do. It acts like a magnifying glass. The two cameras don’t just see twice as much, they raise everything to the power of two, I think. They can show who somebody really is, they can uncover the essence of a person. So I felt that this story, in which so much depended on the audience getting inside the innermost thoughts of the characters, was perfect for this new language. Of course, 3D had not yet been used for that. So far, it had been used for almost the opposite, where actors appear more as caricatures than real people.
A big theme within the film is the idea of what an artist can take from other peoples’ suffering. Tomas, the main character, is a writer, and at one point his editor says his writing was better after the accident. Have you yourself dealt with that in your artistic work – drawing from tragedy or negative experiences in order to grow?
My own most extreme experience was certainly the shooting of Lightning Over Water, a film that dealt with the death of a close friend, Nicholas Ray. I was scared and deeply worried that we were overstepping borders that shouldn’t be crossed, that I couldn’t direct my camera on Nick’s suffering any longer. But he insisted that we continue, and his doctors encouraged us as well. Stopping the film, they said, would be much worse for him. So we continued. I can’t say that I did it “in order to grow”, as you say, but it became a life-changing experience. I think there is no writer, filmmaker or musician who can say that they haven’t drawn on other people’s experiences in some way. As a filmmaker, at least, you constantly deal with “the lives of others” – this could almost be the working title of every documentary. But even in fiction there is no story that you can tell that is not somehow based on something that you’ve either experienced yourself, or that you’ve observed in others.
So much of the film is about the nature of tragedy, and if there’s meaning in it or not. At one point, the mother, Kate, says to Tomas, “We can only try to believe that there’s meaning to this.” What is your own personal belief on that?
It’s so hard to generalise. But in my life I’ve known some tragedies that in the end proved to be life-improving, or at least great lessons. Of course it is hard to see it that way at the time, that sometimes tragic things – painful separations, for instance – can have good consequences. But I can safely say that it has never helped me to refuse this possibility that a tragedy or failure was good for something. In fact, all the bad things that happened in my life, in hindsight, were more important than most of the good things. Success is terribly overrated.
Why? Because you can’t learn from success?
No. What would you learn from success? Except wanting more… Of course, in many ways, it is very nice to be successful, but as a person, it can eat you up. Failure, on the other hand, builds character, whether you want it or not. I personally have suffered far more from my successes than from my failures. Success is so very hard to overcome!
Because it builds up so many expectations?
Exactly. Success creates expectations, and the worst of them is to think of yourself as a better artist, person or whatever. It can deteriorate your relationships, because it gives you that inaccurate perception of yourself. It’s actually really hard to recover from acclaim, because whatever you do next cannot be based on it. If it’s based on it, that’s usually the first step to disaster. And you never get carte blanche, anyway. Success just subtly chains or ties you down.
You once said that if you had $100 million to make a film, you’d have less freedom than if you just had $100,000.
That’s right. Of course, those hundreds of millions will let you do plenty of fun things. But they’re not going to buy you the freedom to say what you want. You watch films that were barely able to be made, but they have the freedom to express everything that filmmaker wanted to say. And then you see movies that had a hundredfold budget and they say nothing. I really believe that in any artistic life, if it’s made too easy, it becomes hard to make something out of it. If I had an offer to make a film for $100 million, I’d probably have to reject it. I’d rather make one for $1 million, because chances are that it would matter more in my life. And in the lives of others…
Originally published in issue #137, April 2015