And it’s not a real stretch to suggest we have as much existential angst now as Wenders imagined we would at the turn of the millennium. Released in 1991, Wenders took a gamble basing his artsy sci-fi road picture only eight years in the future. He was potentially building an expiration date into his own move. Yet, looking back, he accurately predicted the way technology would change and what would concern us, even if the look of his future was just a little more clunky than what turned out. Internet privacy, personal communicators, high definition, GPS, VR, digital preservatio, and digital escapism--all these things are at the fingertips and the forefront of the mind in Until the End of the World. To Wenders, technology was getting better, but also taking over in unforeseen ways.
It’s worth watching the director’s introduction to the movie to hear how long it took to get Until the End of the World onto the screen, how much longer it took to get to this version--final cut nearly twice the length as what initial audiences witnessed in theaters and on home video--and how the virtual world he shows then represented the cutting edge of technology. Amusingly, the filmmaker’s final product horrified the people who had loaned him their high-definition capabilities, as he used their inventions not to enhance and increase the clarity of images, but to tear them apart. But what better metaphor for technology’s propensity to overtake our humanity? It breaks everything down into pixels and data, abstracting the original, and the more removed it becomes from that initial experience, the more we seemingly want it.
Until the End of the World is a movie that has always fascinated me. I had listened to its now classic soundtrack album hundreds of times before I ever got to watch the movie itself. Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, Julee Cruise, R.E.M., Neneh Cherry, Depeche Mode--Wenders was in my zone. (Recently reissued on double-vinyl, I’m listening to it now, and the compilation still delights.) Eventually I caught the movie on VHS and was enthralled by its unwieldy, ambitious narrative. Even then, there were rumors of longer versions. The United States had a 158-minute version, but Europe got 20 minutes more, and Japan somehow got nearly an extra 100. Wenders’ original cut was anywhere between 12 hours and 20 depending on what you read, but his preferred version, as seen here, is 287 minutes--or nearly five hours. This longer version, or some semblance of it, has been promised on DVD since the early 2000s. Remember when Anchor Bay supposedly was going to release it? (Remember Anchor Bay?!)
That sounds like a lot of math, but it’s a classic cinema tragedy. From von Stroheim to Welles to Tati, there are persistent tales of directors whose mad visions were undercut by business concerns. These “lost” cuts become fabled, and it’s always a gamble of whether or not what was intended ends up being what was best. You could have Ridley Scott finally getting to finish Blade Runner properly or the rediscovery of Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, or you could get Francis Ford Coppola’s endless tinkering of Apocalypse Now and Oliver Stone’s exhaustive mining of Alexander [review].
Wim Wenders is somewhere in the middle. Until the End of the World is not a masterpiece, but it’s an impressive look at a celluloid Icarus almost making it to the sun. It is at times almost too playful with tonality, while later maybe becoming too ponderous, too in love with its own ideas. Not everything works, and the narrative structure is perhaps more befitting a novel than a film. Criterion smartly splits Until the End of the World across two discs to go with what is a very natural intermission. Part 1 is the international chase and long-term courtship of Sam Farber (William Hurt, Broadcast News [review]) and Claire Tourneur (Solveig Dommartin, Wings of Desire [review]), a con man/scientist and a morally questionable party girl, respectively. It treks across Europe, Asia, and the U.S. before sending the characters toward their final destination, breaking for Part 2 just as they leave San Francisco for Australia.
Part 2 is more serious and heavy, trading the madcap physical chase in for a more intellectual pursuit. Sam has been on the run from the law. He is wanted for industrial espionage and the stolen technology he is carrying. When Claire finds him, he is traveling around the world recording messages from family members using special glasses that will record not just the video and audio, but the experience of seeing the event, the waves that connect the eye and the brain. The intent is to capture something that can be re-created in the brains of blind people, to let them “see” again. Sam’s father, Henry (Max Von Sydow, The Seventh Seal [review]), started the experiment, and had to go into hiding rather than let government or corporate interests take over. He’s built a lab in the Australian outback, and his number-one test subject is to be his wife and Sam’s mother, Edith (Jeanne Moreau, The Lovers [review]).
The Australian half is all about trying to make the tech work and to understand the consequences and implications. It’s a struggle of fathers and sons, but also men and women, and ultimately played out against the backdrop of total annihilation. This whole time, an Indian nuclear satellite has been falling from the sky, and there is a full expectation that it will signal the end of the planet. In this pocket of waiting, a community forms; yet, as they wait, there is a bigger question of what will happen if the prediction is false.
That’s a pretty simplistic breakdown of Until the End of the World. As suggested above, it’s kind of all over the place. Wenders’ approach changes almost with every locale switch, as the cast expands and he touches on different genres. Is this a caper picture? Is it romance? Is it a literary character study? Science fiction? Family drama? Political?
Of course, Until the End of the World is all of the above. Some of it clicks, some is hokey. The acting can be all over the place. Dommartin is an alluring cipher, defined more by the vision of her presented in the authorial narration than anything she does on screen. Sam Neill (My Brilliant Career) plays a writer who, as her former lover, is writing a book about Claire and, ostensibly, this movie, and he spends much of the running time waxing poetic about Claire’s elusive sensuality. Wenders’ supporting cast is like a tour of the Criterion Collection--from Ozu-stalwart Chishu Ryu to David Gulpilil from Walkabout [review]--but dotted along the globe, embracing different legendary personages wherever his crew lands and integrating them into the outline. The effect, though, can often be of miscommunication, as some of the performances feel lost in translation. Rudiger Volger’s private detective or Chick Ortega’s French hoodlum never seem comfortable working in English and often go too broad and cartoony for the rest of the movie. Would that more of the actors just spoke their own language and subtitles did the rest.
Weirdly, this mish-mash serves William Hurt well. His character arc involves a lot of strange turns as he adapts his personality to fit the moment. As an actor, Hurt is perfectly suited for this. His quirky persona is appropriately malleable, but it’s ultimately that quirk that maintains a thread through every scenario. As an actor, William Hurt was already as weird as the movie was intended to be.
That Until the End of the World takes on so much with such audacity leads me to believe that its detractors will forgive it as much as they dismiss it. You have to appreciate that Wim Wenders went for it as boldly as he did, and as an independent production no less. It’s full of hubris, and thus folly. For those like me that take it on and accept it, however, Until the End of the World can be as addictive and dreamy as Max Von Sydow’s futuristic machine, leading us through the dread of a changing world toward the hope of a better tomorrow. It’s colorful and crazy and deeply satisfying, and pretty much unlike anything else out there. And for that, to borrow from its own poetry: I will love it until the end of the world.