"The Ultimate Road Movie" - Collin Kelley essay on Until The End Of The World
© 2004 Collin Kelley
Wim Wenders' cult classic,
Until the End of the World, resurfaces
In 1991, German director Wim Wenders released what has been called "the ultimate road movie." Wenders plunged into the making of Until the End of the World, taking his cast to 15 cities in eight countries on four continents, to follow a character named Claire, who searches for love under the threat of nuclear destruction from a rogue satellite plummeting back to Earth.
Wenders, fresh from his Palm d'Ore win at Cannes and international rapture over Wings of Desire, had been dreaming of making Until the End of the World for many years, but it wasn't until he became romantically involved with Wings star Solveig Dommartin that the film finally took shape.
When he told his financial backers and distributors at Warner Brothers that his completed film ran nearly five hours, they balked and ordered Wenders to heavily edit the film for theatrical release. Wenders relented and cut the film to two and half hours. What the audience and critics saw in theatres was a disjointed and confusing mess of a movie.
Critics savaged Until and it disappeared quickly from movie houses. However, there were some who saw a diamond in the rough, who embraced it, told friends about it, and spread the rumor that Wenders would one day release a director's cut. The myth began to grow. This is how cult cinema is born. Then, in the mid-1990s, Wenders announced that he had assembled a five-hour "trilogy" version for special screenings and retrospectives. Those who saw the director's cut were in awe; it was a completely different story. What was once confusing was now clear. Wenders had created a film on the Orson Welles scale, maybe even grander.
Film buffs will tell you that the first holy grail of modern cinema is Orson Welles' cut of The Magnificent Ambersons, cut to shreds by RKO and the clipped footage destroyed or stored away. The second holy grail was the five-hour version of Until, but unlike Welles, Wenders had kept his master negative of all the footage. Earlier this year, with no ceremony and no official word on his website, Wenders allowed the five-hour version of his masterpiece to be released in a four-disc DVD set in Italy, where he is a cinema legend.
Since Italy is in Region 2 for DVD releases, a multi-regional player is required to view Until. I'm lucky to own one. This is my favorite film. Ever. This is one of the reasons I became a writer. I had never been lucky enough to attend one of the screenings Wenders hosted; so when I put on the first disc and heard the first notes of Grame Revell's haunting score and heard Sam Neil's character intone, "1999 was the year the Indian Nuclear Satellite went out of control. It soared over the Earth like a lethal bird of prey..." I had tears rolling down my cheeks. I didn't leave the house for a day. I went on a journey knowing where I'd wind up; but like Robert Louis Stevenson said, it's better to travel than to arrive.
So what is it about Until that endures and has created a legion of fans, most of whom have only seen the bastardized cut? For me, it's the epic journey from loss and grief to discovering the true self. This was evident in the theatrical cut, but after seeing the five-hour version, the journey is more fulfilling, more realized and ultimately cathartic.
While the film was made in the early 1990s, the film is set in 1999, just before the turn of the millennium. Wenders took technology in its infant stages in 1989 and 1990 and projected them into the near future. That means the characters have video phones, talking onboard navigation computers in their cars, camcorders the size of cigarette packs, laptop computers, and computer software that can track one's every move around the globe. In 1991, all of this seemed light years away. Now that these gadgets are in everyday use, it makes Until seem less gimmicky than other sci-fi or futuristic stories.
Wenders was also eerily precognitive about what the state of the world might be. In Until, America has become the most hated nation, lording over the rest of the planet with its military might, while its economy has bottomed out and plunged the U.S .into an almost Third World scenario. In one later scene, government agents raid a neighborhood for dissidents who object to the U.S.'s plan to shoot down the rogue Indian Nuclear Satellite, and whisk them off for interrogation. While in San Francisco, Wenders has transformed the Bay City into a parallel of Havana, with crumbling facades and people driving ancient, sedan automobiles. The devolution of America, while the rest of the world flourishes, is an easy scenario to imagine in this day and age.
The story begins with Sam Neil's character, novelist Eugene Fitzpatrick, narrating the impending doom caused by the satellite. America wants to take charge and shoot it out of the sky (how typical), but Claire Tourneur (played by the luminous Dommartin) has other problems. She awakes from a drunken stupor at a stunning palazzo in Venice after a decadent party and begins to make her way back to Paris, where she lived with her ex-boyfriend, Eugene. In the mangled cut, it appeared that Claire had left Eugene because she was a party girl afraid of commitment. Shockingly, the director's cut reveals Eugene had an affair with Claire's best friend, shattering Claire and sending her on a "lost weekend" that lasted for months as she searched for solace in drugs, alcohol, and other arms. Fans will now understand that Eugene's unfaithfulness is why Claire always calls him "broken ladder." ("You're like a broken ladder, I can only climb so high and then I'm stuck.") While this nickname was left in the theatrical cut, it baffled audiences for more than a decade. This brief scene, cut for no reasonable explanation, adds more dimension to a film than I ever thought possible.
As Claire returns to Paris, she is caught up in monstrous traffic jams in southern France, as the media whips the populace into a frenzy over where the satellite will crash. Claire decides to leave the main highway and her onboard computer advises against it and says, "You're on your own, Claire." This one little choice sets the rest of the film in motion. Shortly thereafter, Claire has a jolting car accident with bank robbers, Chico and Raymond. They have robbed a massive amount of money and need to get it to Paris. Claire agrees to be their transport for a cut of the cash.
While having her car repaired, Claire bumps into Trevor McPhee, played by the film's other lead, William Hurt, in one of his best roles. Trevor is being pursued by a shadowy secret agent and flirts his way into getting Claire to take him to Paris. After she falls asleep, Trevor steals part of the money and vanishes. Claire is smitten and intrigued. She briefly reunites with Eugene, but then sets off to find Trevor with the help of Detective Philip Winter (played expertly by Wenders' veteran Rudiger Vogler). Thus begins the "dance around the planet" as Claire and Winter track Trevor; and Eugene, determined to make nice with Claire, goes along for the wild ride. Berlin, Madrid, Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, San Francisco and Australia are the main stops as the characters race ahead of the impending nuclear holocaust.
Along the way, the second narrative slowly unfolds. Claire discovers that Trevor is actually Sam Farber, who is being hunted by the U.S. government for stealing military secrets. The secret is actually a device created by Sam's scientist father, Henry Farber (a brilliant Max Von Sydow), that records images blind people can see. Sam is literally racing around the world to collect images of sisters, aunts, and family members with the device so his blind mother, Edith (an elegant and heartbreaking Jeanne Moreau), can see again before she dies. Of course, the U.S. government wants the device for use as a military weapon, so the Farber clan has moved into an elaborate underground lab in the Australian outback and befriended the local Aborigines. The last two hours of the film take place in the outback, and the story takes a dramatic 180-degree turn into a science- fiction adventure.
The satellite is shot down over Australia, the magnetic pulse frying circuitry and cutting off the continent from the rest of the world. As the principal characters reassemble at the lab, many think the world has been destroyed. All there is to do is move forward with the experiment to help Edith Farber see again. Good son Sam has nearly gone blind from using the device and cannot refocus on the images he has recorded to transform them into usable pictures for download into Edith's brain. The tension between Henry and Sam is palpable, and Von Sydow and Hurt play off their hurt feelings with ferocity. However, Claire turns out to be a natural at the recording and playback process. Edith sees her daughters and distant relatives, but the process is slowly killing her.
After Edith's death (and a shattering scene of Henry's grief as he takes part in an Aboriginal custom of covering himself in dirt), Henry returns to the lab and makes a new discovery. Those who wear the device while sleeping can record their own dreams. It's here that Wenders took full advantage of another technology that was still in its infancy: high-definition digital recording. The recorded dream sequences of Henry, Claire, and Sam are saturated in hallucinatory color and the images are haunting. The trio soon became addicted to watching their dreams, drugging themselves up to sleep and then hiding in dark corners with little playback monitors. Henry says the images are "the soul singing to itself."
The Aboriginals, who supported the Farbers, left the camp, superstitious and frightened by the new discovery. Eugene, who has been rewriting his novel on a typewriter after the nuclear blast destroyed his laptop, takes matters into his own hands. He moves Claire to an abandoned farm and refuses to give her batteries for her monitor. The scenes of Claire going cold turkey are disturbing. "My soul is dead," she screams at Eugene in one harrowing moment. As she begins to recover, Eugene gives her the manuscript for his novel, A Dance Around the Planet.
Sam has gone out into the desert with his Aboriginal brother to break his addiction, but while everyone is gone, the U.S. agents find the secret lab, dismantle it, and take Henry into custody. The world has survived the blast and is still as dastardly as ever. Claire and Sam will never see each other again. While breaking their addiction to the dreams, the tempestuous love affair they began is also broken. Eugene and Claire also go their separate ways. At the moving finale, we see that Claire has finally found peace and place for herself in the world.
There is a new rumor going around, unconfirmed by Wenders, that Anchor Bay will release the American director's cut of Until. However, the company has been in financial difficulties and no date has been set. In the meantime, if you own a multi-region player, the Italian boxed set is absolutely worth every penny.
The glue that ultimately holds the film together is the story and the actors. Solveig Dommartin would reprise her role of Marion in Faraway, So Close, the sequel to Wings of Desire, and then drop out of sight. She hasn't acted since 1996, a true loss. Her portrayal of Claire is one of cinema's finest moments. She's heartbreaking, moody, driven, and sometimes just wacky. She brings realism to Until the same way she did playing Marion in Wings and Faraway. William Hurt has only had a couple of roles since Until that come close to matching his depth and range here.
Max Von Sydow is once again a revelation as Henry, gruff and no-nonsense, but so obviously devoted to his blind wife, that when she dies he comes apart at the seams. Jeanne Moreau, in her sixties at the time of filming, is still one of the most beautiful women on the planet. She makes you believe she is blind and uses her face to capture the melancholy Edith feels after finally being able to see again. I must also mention the great Rudiger Vogler, playing the kind-hearted Detective Philip Winter (a character he has played in several other Wenders films). As always, Vogler imbues Winter with an "every man" appeal that makes him an emotional compass for the story. And of course there is the underrated Sam Neil as narrator Eugene. While he spends the early part of the film flailing after Claire, he becomes the true voice of reason at film's end.
Complementing the acting and adventure is the soundtrack Wenders (a self-avowed music junky) assembled. He sent out a call to some of his favorite artists and asked them to contribute songs that they might be playing in 1999. Wenders admits the soundtrack did better sales. Included are Talking Heads, Neneh Cherry, Depeche Mode, U2, Nick Cave, Julee Cruise, Patti Smith and the Jane Siberry/kd lang duet, "Calling All Angels," that has become a classic in its own right. In the theatrical release, the songs were reduced to snippets, but in the director's cut the songs play expansively over and under the scenes.
Wenders says, in a new interview recorded for the Italian release, that he wanted Until the End of the World to express his hope for love and finding peace of mind. Getting to those locations is never easy. Until the End of the World unfolds like a map of the human heart in all its delicate, strong, and bloody beauty.
Collin Kelley is an award-winning playwright, poet, and journalist. Visit his site.
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