Minimalist Excess: On Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road

The Criterion Collection

In 1962, a group of 26 young German filmmakers put forth a declaration they called Die Oberhausener. Disgusted, as so many pioneers of cinematic new waves tend to be, with the artistic bankruptcy they saw in the popular culture around them, these filmmakers declared their intent to found a new movement free of the suffocating conventions of traditional filmmaking—a New German Cinema.

At fewer than 200 words, it’s a brief manifesto, and though the signatory filmmakers claim to have detailed spiritual, structural, and economic ideas about this New German Cinema, the wave of films that would follow across the next two decades, a body of work that manifesto is now credited with inspiring, is notable for a lack of unified style and vision, setting it apart from other contemporaneous global new waves. More than anything, the New German Cinema is defined by what it wasn’t. “Papas Kino ist tot!” went the accompanying chant at the 1962 International Short Film Festival Oberhausener. Papa’s cinema is dead!

This patricidal impulse had a particularly loaded significance in postwar Germany. For a group of filmmakers born during Hitler’s reign and who created their early works in the wreckage of his atrocities, “their confrontations with the nation’s past often assumed highly Oedipal dimensions,” at least by the reckoning of Professor Caryl Flinn in her 2004 book, The New German Cinema.

Flinn goes on to identify two major thematic obsessions running through the films of this diffuse artistic movement: trauerarbeit and aufarbeitung—mourning, and the process of “working through.” The New Germans had spent their formative years amidst a population mourning and working through its past, and they would use their films to work through their own painful confusion over having been born into a country complicit in some of human history’s greatest horrors.

It’s a complicated thing, this aufarbeitung, and certainly not a process you can expect to happen quickly. In fact, as demonstrated by Wim Wenders in 1976 with Kings of the Road—the culmination of his post-hoc “road movie trilogy,” following 1974’s Alice in the Cities and 1975’s Wrong Move—it might take almost three hours of screen time just to effectively tell the story of two lost and lonely men doing their own quiet, anguished working-through.

The two men in question are Bruno and Robert, who collide into each other’s lives at the film’s start—almost literally, as Bruno sits by a riverside watching Robert’s car careen full-tilt across a field and straight into the river, a move that may be either a botched suicide attempt or a dramatic jettison from his old life using his Volkswagen Beetle as an escape pod—and then fall into a tacit friendship with childlike wordlessness. The remainder of the film sees the pair travel across a West Germany that seems almost supernaturally abandoned, skirting the border that bifurcates the country. Cautiously and quietly, and with nearly as much mournful distance as the angels that Wenders would conjure a decade later in Wings of Desire, Bruno and Robert prowl barren landscapes and vacant towns, observing and pondering, occasionally intersecting with lone tragic figures like the one identified in the credits as “Man Who Lost His Wife,” whom Robert finds weeping in a mining headframe, throwing coal down the shaft and snarling at anyone who dares approach.

Bruno is played by Rüdiger Vogler, star of all three of Wenders’ road movies, and as Vogler is often considered (as Michael Almereyda puts it in his essay “Between Me and the World”) “the director’s evident alter ego” across the trilogy, it’s hard not to look for personal significance in Bruno’s work as an itinerant film projector repairman. Living out of his truck as he moves from town to town rehabilitating broken-down projectors in small independent cinemas, Bruno never evinces a particular love for film—though as the films projected in the cinemas he visits are generally exploitative or pornographic, there may not be much to love—but the pride he takes in his work makes his mission seem like a type of stewardship, defending the integrity of the form until the land around him has struggled its way to rightness.

Robert is initially more enigmatic, if only because any time he attempts to open up, Bruno tells him he isn’t interested. Driving his car towards the river, Robert stares mournfully at a photograph of a house before tossing it out the window; later, he will reveal that he’s a pediatrician, and separated from his wife; later still, he will reveal the more complex details—he’s a linguist who studies the earliest stages of language development, a moment of singularly intense discovery and wonder before the world has restricted a child’s imagination, and he left his wife over his fear that she will commit suicide and leave him responsible.

In a film often devoid of dialogue, Robert and Bruno remain ever compelling largely due to their striking visual pairing. With Robert’s slicked hair and smart blazer placed next to Bruno’s shaggy mop and overalls sans-shirt, the two have the look of a classic silent comedy team, and in the film’s lighter moments—such as their rushed getaway after deciding to welch on an agreement to play substitute projectionists—they have the charming exaggerated physicality to match. But their enigmatic nature also invites the viewer to read them as representational figures on the order of Vladimir and Estragon, their behavior less naturalistic than symbolic.

In her book, Flinn suggests the New Germans experienced two primary urges, and while it would be an oversimplification to contend that Robert and Bruno each represent an avatar of one or the other, the characters do seem like sides of a coin, each created to struggle and spar and thereby allow Wenders to wrestle with his own psychic unrest. On the one hand, Flinn argues, the New Germans were compelled to examine the cultural detritus around them in search of tools to work through the country’s collective mourning (manifesting in their works through an appropriation of theoretically low-art influences analogous to the trash culture reappropriation of kitsch and camp); on the other, they tended to isolate themselves and their work from any attachment or influence for fear of associating themselves with their country’s past aggressions (manifesting in their works as a formal austerity that evinces an anxiety of influence, that pervasive and unattainable artistic goal of creating work devoid of any aesthetic debt).

Robert’s impulse as they travel is to wander and observe, sifting the wreckage of the country. Still, for as much as he may actively work to process the past, he’s paralyzed by personal anxiety and indecision, hitching himself to Bruno’s endless road trip—and, as Bruno occasionally makes clear, risking overstaying his welcome—in an effort to delay identifying a new destination. Bruno, meanwhile, prizes his aloneness above all things, and keeps any personal details a secret, an urge that slips only when he admits his father died in the war—he conspicuously elides his father’s party allegiance, a silence that speaks volumes. Still, for as much as he may push others away, Bruno has an urge to help shoulder their pain, from the inciting incident of inviting Robert into the truck to one of the film’s most emotional grace notes: after spending the night with a cinema employee, he awakens to find tears on her face, and wordlessly wipes them off one of her cheeks and onto his own, symbolically sharing her emotional weight.

Appropriately for a group of artists often wrestling their own contradictory urges, the New German Cinema was aesthetically polarized, tending to be drawn either towards garish excess or extreme minimalism. Each is an apt tool to aid in the struggles of working through and mourning—excessive works often strain the bounds of good taste, providing an opportunity to reframe the ugly into the sublime, an artistic effrontery only heightened by an excessive runtime (think of Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum, another New German film of almost equal length to Kings of the Road that pushes traditional good taste nearly to its breaking point in service of processing the agonies of the German 20th century) while through minimalism, the New Germans could express their anxiety of influence, stripping their craft down to the barest technical essentials (some more dogmatic proponents of the movement even discouraged the use of non-diegetic music in search of an ultimate verisimilitude to life).

It would seem paradoxical for a film to combine these two styles, to be both excessive and minimalist, and yet this synthesis is exactly what Wenders achieves with Kings of the Road, taking a storyline so small that it strains the very definition of the term and blowing it out to epic length. At 175 minutes, Kings of the Road’s runtime is equal to The Sound of Music and The Godfather while containing the smallest fraction of either film’s plot. Choosing to tell the story at such length is no minor decision; the German title, Im lauf der zeit, translates not as “kings of the road” but as “in the course of time;” Wenders knows exactly how long it takes to achieve the dramatic effects he’s looking for, the patience required to achieve a sense in the viewer of having truly processed and made sense of an experience, no matter how mundane it may seem on a moment-to-moment basis.

In this painstaking accumulation of minor incidents, Wenders’ film is one of the few to not just depict a road trip, but fully realize the experience of travel—anyone who’s driven a great distance alongside even their closest friend knows the cumulative impact of those long, quiet stretches, how the simple act of existing alongside another person, tethered to them by choice or necessity, can cause a minor remark or gesture to resonate with mammoth repercussions by the end of the journey. It’s an almost alchemical thing, this accrued intensity of feeling, and it’s one Wenders harnesses so effectively that by the end of the three hours the viewer spends with Bruno and Robert, the simple way each uses their body while singing along to a song as they drive (a moment Wenders is able to linger on at far greater length than most films would have time for) can seem transcendent. A road trip is one of the few experiences that can forge a lifelong bond in just a few days, and viewers can be forgiven for feeling they’ve forged just such a bond with this excessively minimalist film.

It approaches cliché to suggest that despite an excessive length, a film doesn’t feel long—in fact, such a statement not only stigmatizes the very idea of a long film, it discounts the notion that in a story, form can follow function. The ideal of a long film isn’t that it should feel short, but that the length should feel meaningful, that this decision to make use of three hours of the viewer’s day should be one of consequence, and one rewarded with a sense of having experienced something of unusual weight. The best long films should make the viewer not forget the length but relish it. It’s a trick that’s easier for some stories than others; films with maximalist formal qualities—Cloud Atlas, for example, or any given Tarantino film—have a far easier task of hooking the viewer than, say, a largely plotless, often wordless meander across an empty landscape.

And yet Wenders, with a skill that’s so intuitive it feels almost preternatural, manages to acclimate the viewer by degrees, inoculating us against boredom by gradually immersing us in the world of Robert and Bruno. With an opening set piece in which Bruno listens to an elderly cinema owner wax rhapsodic about the glory days of filmgoing and mourn the years he spent unable to maintain his theater due to exile by the Third Reich, Wenders offers the promise of conventional cinematic dialogue before robbing the viewer of conversation for nearly half an hour. Once they meet, Bruno and Robert speak in oblique single lines that hang unacknowledged in the air; the viewer has plenty to look at as Robert prowls eerily empty streets exchanging cryptic glances with the occasional mildly grotesque citizen, but the invitation is to ponder and meditate along with Robert, contemplating the significance of these tableaus—to join him in his working through.

Just when this stillness threatens to become monotonous, though, the gears shift—Robert and Bruno finally introduce themselves and proper dialogue begins, though the tone of the hour to come remains poetic and spare, the dialogue halting and often inscrutable. Once the story reaches its halfway point, the viewer is rewarded with an interlude of more conventional storytelling when Bruno and Robert separate for a night and each star in a self-contained one-act story: Along with meeting and charming the ticket taker he will spend the night with, Bruno confronts a projectionist over his poor technique, a clash that results in the projectionist abandoning his post and forcing Bruno to take over screening the remainder of the night’s pornographic program. Robert, meanwhile, travels to see his estranged father and confronts the old man over his poor treatment of Robert’s mother, a microcosm of that Oedipal tension that Flinn suggests motivated so much New German angst.

All of this groundwork having been laid, Wenders spends the storytelling capital he’s earned on a pair of languorous story beats that comprise the film’s final hour. In the first, Bruno and Robert cross the Rhine to an abandoned house on an island, heavily implied to be Bruno’s childhood home. The visit has the quality of a gothic fairy tale, as Bruno prowls the house, literally sifting through the wreckage of the past, finally breaking his willful taciturnity enough to work through some personal blockage and emerge out the other side. Bruno tells Robert, his voice overcome with an uncharacteristic awe, “For the first time, I see myself as someone who’s gone through a certain time, and that time is my story.” His compulsion to isolate himself from the past, to deny any connection or influence, has finally been lifted by his ability to locate himself in the chain of events that came before and will come after.

The catharsis is short-lived. Within the space of a cut, Robert and Bruno find themselves at the border of East Germany, their journey having brought them to a dead end. Bruno’s reckoning with the pain of the past has done nothing to clear away the schism that still infects his homeland, and the two men are faced now with the uncanny agony of being denied access to a space that is both theirs and not, a part of themselves they can never reconcile and put to rest.

Rather than turn back, they hole up for the night in an abandoned U.S. Army outpost, bedding down in a hovel of detritus from a foreign culture forever entwined with theirs (“The Yanks have colonized our subconscious,” Robert groans as they get drunk on Jack Daniels) while perched on the dividing line that prevents them, at least for another decade, from ever achieving spiritual wholeness. Here, Robert and Bruno finally fracture, drunkenly brawling in a moment of passionate fury that Wenders shoots from such a distance that it appears pathetically anticlimactic. They thought they’d worked it all through, and yet still there’s so much to mourn.

While there are plenty of long and quiet films that might be compared to the minimalist excess of Kings of the Road, Wenders’ humanist bent is so singularly his that comparisons to Tarkovsky or Tarr strike me as inapt. Instead, the work that I find most resembles Kings of the Road’s effects is not a film but a song: “Thin Blue Flame,” the penultimate track on singer-songwriter Josh Ritter’s 2006 LP The Animal Years. Running a truly epic 9 minutes and 39 seconds, “Thin Blue Flame” describes a series of visions experienced by the narrator—he sings of gliding along a countryside much like the one Bruno and Robert traverse, one ravaged by cruelty and war and seemingly abandoned by any benevolent guiding force. Confronted everywhere by the inevitability of pain, he struggles to conceive of a world defined by love and kindness rather than anger and fear.

Unlike other songs of comparable length, though—Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell,” for example, or Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland”—“Thin Blue Flame” isn’t constructed in movements like a rock take on an orchestral form. Instead, Ritter’s song is a straightforward escalating cycle, the same simple melody and AA/BB/CC/DD rhyme structure repeating and gathering almost imperceptibly in intensity until, after the temporal equivalent of three or four typical songs, the final catharsis can pay out with almost overwhelming power by virtue of the patience and deliberate build that Ritter took to get there.

Ritter may violate the standard norms of folk rock by composing a sprawling epic that hews to neither folk traditions nor baroque rock formal experimentation, just as Wenders may violate the polarized aesthetic aims of the New German Cinema by blending and remixing them. But I do believe that in the best art, form follows function. That maxim was first put forth by the early modernist architect Louis Sullivan, who’s now seen as the father of skyscrapers, a pioneer of ridiculously large structures that seemed improbable at the outset but needed their size to express aesthetic values never before seen in the form. “It is the pervading law,” Sullivan wrote, “of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression.” If Ritter and Wenders could have expressed what they needed to express by using traditional techniques, then maybe they would have. But these works succeed and endure because they are the only possible manifestations of these uniquely panoramic visions of despair and awe.

After Bruno and Robert sleep off their drunken brawl, Wenders’ patience will pay off in a pair of euphoric choices by these two figures transformed by their journey. In the morning, Robert will leave the outpost before Bruno wakes, at last returning his friend’s coveted solitude, and travel to a nearby train station where he will trade his empty suitcase for a small child’s notebook, leaving behind his baggage and gaining a blank slate. Upon waking, Bruno will stumble out into the misty morning and make his way to the east/west border, where he will let loose a cleansing, animalistic howl—but rather than screaming across the border, he will put his back to East Germany and direct his emotion homewards, at the past rather than the future. No longer content to live like a ghost, Bruno will plant his feet firmly in his surroundings and make himself known.

Though it will take a long night of restless, liquor-addled sleep, the aufarbeitung will be complete at last.