If you’re looking for trouble, that’s what you will find. —Talking Heads
In 1991, the world was resolving 20th century problems: genocide in the former Yugoslavia; the Gulf War and the liberation of Kuwait; the Rodney King case; the Anita Hill hearings; the eighth marriage of Elizabeth Taylor.
It was the year M. visited my high school as an exchange student. She was—is—Croatian, from Dubrovnik, an ancient port (now resort) town on the Adriatic. I’m probably misremembering that she was made to live in the basement of her first host family; in any case, she was self-possessed enough to request a transfer out of that house and town, and that’s how she ended up attending my school. M. was always singular—elegant, silent, unsmiling but not unfriendly—for good reason. In the year that she was meant to improve her English in America, her father, a politician, was assassinated, and her boyfriend, a photographer, was killed in a bomb blast. Her mother left Yugoslavia for safety in Germany.
The world was bigger than my experience. I recognized it, but there were few people who were a direct link, who were proof. In the hallways and the classrooms, M. existed apart. This wasn’t a considered retreat; she was polite. She didn’t complain or cry. She didn’t refuse to tell her story. There were many who wanted to befriend her; it was the flawed or slightly broken ones who became her confidantes.
I admired her difference: the compact way she carried herself, with arms and belongings held neatly to her body; her precise sloping handwriting, the product of some alien school of penmanship; the way she intoned poems in halting English when I helped her compose a letter. When you’re young—maybe, ideally, always—you’re looking for ways to be, for examples that lead beyond your experience. Here was a person whose every identity—from national to familial—was pulled apart within one year. I was sympathetic toward her, and reverent, awed at how inadequately I could understand her condition.
Movies about the end times are exactly what you want when you think you want truth. One of the films M. and I saw that year was Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World. Though not the director’s most successful, the film is arguably his most ambitious—a role-reversed Ulysses story that describes a woman’s travels across the globe and a man who waits for her return. It is a 20th century story: unlike current ideations of the apocalypse, there is a home to return to—the world is home. In 1991, global citizenship was still a fantasy and a privilege. And the year 1999, in which Wenders’ movie takes place, was a tessellation of unknowns, a metaphor for modern anxiety or, as in the Prince pop single, an opportunity for hedonism.
Until the End of the World is not a love story, though love’s byproducts, jealousy and desire, kickstart the plot. Claire Tourneur (Solveig Dommartin)—free spirit, commitment-phobe—is at the apex of an amatory triangle. She awakes in the aftermath of a bad party in Venice, and decides to return to Paris and her unfaithful boyfriend. En route, she crashes cars with two good-natured bank robbers, and she agrees to smuggle their stolen cash for a cut of the holdings.
Enter Sam Farber (William Hurt) who aids Claire when she’s pulled over for speeding. Farber’s a good con, which should red-flag his nature as a romantic prospect. But for Claire, elusiveness is catnip. Farber steals a bit of her money, and Claire is smitten. She uses the rest of the cash to track him around the world: Lisbon, Berlin, Moscow, Tokyo, San Francisco, the Outback.
There’s not exactly anything admirable about the relationship between Claire and Sam—the film describes the loneliness of obsession, how its dreams can feed without nourishing—but the lovers’ story also reflects the gloriousness of what an Other can elicit. Romance can be an anthropological excavation inward; but it is also the great voyage beyond the self.
Claire’s travels are a chief pleasure of the film. One of its best sections is relayed through video, when Tourneur travels the Trans-Siberian to Asia and faxes footage back to her ex. Suitably, Wenders’ production company is called Road Movies—the genre glamorizes the wanderer, even though the director’s itinerant characters have left home for unhappy reasons. Like the work of many of his German and Austrian contemporaries, Wenders’ films explore estrangement. For his characters, traveling seems to be a pathology as well as a consolation. Perhaps this is why devastated landscapes recur in Wenders’ films. These settings convey emotion in suspense or in holocaust.
We can divide fears of modernity into three periods: those of industrialization (depicted by the Dadaists, Surrealists and Modernists, who relished the acceleration that technology brought); those of the atomic age (when the world became aware of how technology can turn against us); those of globalization (where technology becomes either our demise or our means of escape). Until the End of the World manages to capture all of these views sequentially. At the time of shooting, Wenders arranged deals with Sony’s R&D department to inform the story. The technology in the film prefigures much of what we take for granted today— video chat, GPS, voice recognition, and our reflexive reliance and an endless appetite for these proliferating devices.
There is so much to Until the End of the World that there is arguably no definitive version of it. According to rumor, Wenders’ original cut ran up to twenty hours long. I switched my old laptop permanently to Region 2 settings so I could watch the 280-minute director’s cut, released on DVD because of his disappointment in the theatrical version. But perhaps his objections are as relevant as Ridley Scott’s on the release of Blade Runner—they’re useful as a window onto the director’s tastes but not necessarily as a blueprint for a better picture.
Wenders is a master of patient observation, but all you need to see is in the briefer American release. The story nests several films: there are noir conventions as a woman (and many bounty hunters) tracks her criminal lover; a road movie that conveys the beautiful, granular variety of travel, and then the film’s final story, a creation story.
To help Farber’s mother (Jeanne Moreau) regain her sight, Farber father (Max von Sydow) and son have developed a technology that allows the extraction of visual imagery from the brain and its digital recreation. (I thought of this movie when I first heard of Christopher Nolan’s film about dream thievery, Inception.) Even as a nuclear satellite detonates, and the characters are cut off from the world, the entire family, including Claire, becomes engrossed in the production of images.
The movie prefigures the solipsism of the virtual world: Claire, her lover, and his father, become addicted to the visual content of their dreams, which they record and play back until they run out of batteries. They ignore emotions, accountability, physical need. It is a compulsion that kills some characters and transforms others. We’re left with the idea that the only sensible person is the one tapping away at his manual typewriter; or he could be another ineffectual person consoling himself with his own mania for stories. The movie doesn’t linger on these questions, though. The film works best when Claire is aloft, and we are allowed the pleasure of watching her next incarnation, working in outer space.
Some of us learn to articulate emotion through communion with music. The sensational achievement of the film’s soundtrack is that it feels apocalyptic not because of darkness within the songs, but because of the thankfulness within them. Wenders asked his collaborators to write the songs they felt were ten years in their future. What we hear, what we see in Until The End Of The World is a commemoration of love, renunciation and grief, an elegy for time on earth.