Kings of the Road
Wim Wenders' sometime screenwriter, the brilliant novelist Peter Handke, says in his novel, Across, "perhaps only Greek has a verb expressing that fusion of perception and imagination (which is essential). On the surface this verb means only 'to notice', but it carries overtones of 'white', 'bright', 'radiance', 'glitter', 'shimmer'. Within me there was an outright longing for this radiance, which is more than any sort of viewing. I shall always long for that kind of seeing, which in Greek is called leukein" Later in the book the narrator says "I know there's no point in trying to describe people, however one goes about it."
In Wenders' Kings of the Road, the problematic is in many ways similar. What will allow for looking that isn't just looking from the characters' perspective and describing from Wenders'? This is partly why the film is fascinated by technology, and the things that help us to look. Here there's Bruno's work, fixing cinema equipment, where we realize his love for a cinema through the likes of Fritz Lang is giving way to soft-core movies and heavy comedies. But it's also there in the old motorbike and support car he and another character whom he befriends ride around in. It's as though Bruno is constantly looking for ways to see, ways to conjoin perception with imagination. We could see this as a variation on a filmmaker like Abbas Kiarostami and his comments on driving and communication, where conversations are often best not when characters are vis-a-vis each other, but sitting next to each other in a car. However, while Kiarostami is fascinated by the communicative possibilities of car rides, and has evolved a whole technique to accommodate this fascination, most evident in Ten, Wenders is much more interested in the failure of communication, and much more concerned with the problem of leukein.
So if for Kiarostami central to his work is the idea of the car-ride offering means of communication, in Wenders the journey is a search for a looking, a leukein, and thus in escape. It's much more about the difficulty of finding an authentic existence that allows for the conjunction of seeing and imagining. It's a point made in James Franklin's essay on the director in New German Cinema, when he says, "to Wenders as well as to his characters, children...represent values lost to the adult world." Franklin doesn't see these as values of simple innocence, but much more of a "self-reliant, pragmatic and sceptical perspective" - above all a perspective lacking the crisis of indecision, because the children can act their perceptions, even create imaginative games out of their perceptions, where the adult is caught in a paradoxical combination of seeing too much and seeing too little. They see too much in the sense that they see so much so that it paralyses decision making, they've looked and looked, and tried to live this looking but, as Sartre would say in Nausea, there wasn't a single reason for living left. "All the ones I've tried have given way, and I can't imagine any more." The seeing has exhausted him. But maybe it's because adults see too little. They can't see anew because one's adult identity is too fixed, too firmly in place to really escape from itself. When Handke writes about the shimmering, it is this idea of a loss of existential self for a firmer becoming, the sort of self proposed by Martin Heidegger when he suggested that there were two phenomenological problems. On the one hand "a phenomenon can be covered up in the sense that it has not yet been discovered at all. There is neither knowledge nor lack of knowledge about it. In the second place, a phenomenon can be buried over. This means it was once discovered but then got covered up again. This covering can be total, but more commonly, what was once discovered may still be visible, though only as semblance." When he goes on to say, in Basic Writings, that "even in the concrete work of phenomenology lurks possible inflexibility", one can see how a being too firmly rooted in his or her identity will fail to become at one with this radiance.
But in Wenders' film there are concrete reasons for this failure. One lies in the United States post-war, and the other lies in Germany, pre and during the war. Wenders obviously doesn't want to make any categorical statements about either, but if the characters are caught in a nausea bigger than themselves it lies in this geographical-temporal double-bind: an America of the present and a Germany of the past. As the paediatrician Robert (Hanns Zischler), who hangs out with Bruno (Rudiger Vogler) after running out on his wife says, late in the film, "the Americans have colonized our sub-conscious." And as he says at another stage in Kings of the Road, "I am my history". If Wenders' film is asking fundamental questions concerning being, then nevertheless these questions are framed historically, and also of course framed aesthetically. The film opens almost documentary-like as Bruno quizzes one cinema owner about his work, and we're privy to revelations about his Nazi past, and it is during their last night drinking together that Robert talks about the Americans colonizing their minds, as if American cinema and culture plugs the gap left by Nazi culture and politics. Wenders' looking isn't in itself abstract, even if it's dealing equally with fairly abstract ontological principles. The question we could ask, is, in relation to Heidegger, how does the film reveal this covering over, especially troublesome given the Nazi past and American cultural colonization, and is revelation enough to move towards the possibility of seeing the world once again?
At the end of the film a cinema owner quotes her father who says "films are the art of seeing, so I can't show those films which exploit everything that can be exploited in people's heads and eyes." There is this sense that when near the end of the film during their drinking session, Robert and Bruno tear strips off each other ("do you have no passion?" Robert asks) this is failed revelation, based too much on personal histories, too much on language. But Wenders' film, whilst detailing the failure, is in itself surely a success, a success in the sense that it's part of the process of looking, of pointing, but it's a pointing not in the accusatory sense of the term, but in the exploratory sense in which Gilberto Perez in The Material Ghost uses it in relation to Antonioni. "The photographic image is an index because it is an imprint taken directly from the things represented; it is also an index because, like a pointing finger, it tells us to look at those things."
Now in Wenders' book My Time with Antonioni he talks about how infrequently there are shot/counter shots in Antonioni's work, "and how Michelangelo has always conducted us through his stories with long, complicated camera movements." We could say this is because Antonioni, like Wenders, but in a subtly different way, looks to explore not intercommunication, but the intricacies of failed communication. This helps explain why when Perez once asked Antonioni about frequently breaking the hundred and eighty degree rule - the failure to match, say, a cut from one face to another - Antonioni explained that he did it "deliberately and instinctively." It is not necessarily that Antonioni eschews the shot/reaction-shot altogether, it's much more that he refuses it its conventional role. If he went with the convention the notion of miscommunication would be expressed conventionally, suggesting that even if communication can't be expressed through conventional language, it can be expressed through conventional film language.
Wenders is less radical than Antonioni in breaking with the rules, but that's partly because his problem is different. Antonioni's pointing is so often a problem of what to look at in a world increasingly accumulating objects that upset one's phenomenology. Often Antonioni's problem is one of late modernism; in Kings of the Road Wenders' is one of the passing of a mechanical modernism that he generally respects, and that helps us to see. There's no sense in the film that mechanical modernism is the problem; much more that both its passing will prove problematic, and that its present state is being abused. And it is in the two together - a respect for its presence, and its constant abuse - that the biggest problem seems to arise. Certainly Bruno's found a way of living that works; that makes him relatively contended, but is he caught in his very own bad faith as a consequence? For his work gives his life meaning but at the same time might be mitigating a deeper one, that any love he has of cinema isn't being advanced by his repair work but contributes further to its ethical disrepair. Does he realise at the end of the film that the daughter's comment proves the closest to good conscience in the circumstances?
It's in this sense we may see similarities with Godard's great early sixties film, Le Mepris: that Wenders generates a problem that he can answer more successfully non-diegetically than diegetically. Just as Godard's film arrives at profound bad faith on Paul's part, whilst Godard's film itself wonderfully escapes it as he finds a form to question many of the aspects of filmmaking that the character does not and cannot as he is bullied and cajoled by the producer, can we say that Wenders by the same token makes a film about bad faith but in the very making moves beyond that bad faith, manages to make a work of art out of Bruno's own troubled conscience and insecure career? We might say Bruno protects his own leukein, protects his vision of the world by travelling from place to place, and views the world from behind his truck window, but does his job not involve, now that so many cinemas are showing aesthetically dead films, a hollow existence?
So we begin to notice the complexity of the absent shimmering. Combine a potentially nauseous being with the problem of a national Nazi past, an American colonial post-war presence, and the decline of the art form in which one loves and puts so much of one's energy, and a dullness is almost inevitable. However, it is as if Wenders wants to make the dullness shimmer, and it's here we can see Wenders working through the Heideggerian problem of discovering what is covered over, and also why Wenders can famously, and justifiably, say that he thinks black and white is "much more realistic and naturalistic than colour. It sounds paradoxical, but that's the way it is." Wenders reclaims the despair on aesthetic terms but this doesn't make it an exercise in art for art's sake in the wake of the despair of life. No, it's much more an aesthetic good faith that can be part of the good faith of a broader existence. Just as Godard creates an enframing that allows him to explore the question of being aesthetically that moves the film beyond nausea even if the character is himself trapped within it, then we see in Wenders' film how again out of a nauseous diegetic state he tries in this instance to generate a shimmering. Now obviously Godard used a stunning Eastmancolor to capture the containment, as he wanted to show the beautiful blue of the Aegean sea and the lovely natural presence of summer, while Wenders uses a slightly bleached monochrome. But the purpose is in some ways the same: to transcend a nausea that the film may take as a characterisational given but not necessarily as an aesthetic one.
If Bruno finally decides to give up his work repairing cinema equipment, will it not be based on this notion that cinema's no longer capable of producing this twofold effect in the creative and the receptive sense? This is the reason why Wenders film is amongst one of the great cinematic works of melancholy. Certainly part of this melancholia lies in the way technology passes away, and there's something almost funereal and resurrectional about Wenders' relationship with it. We may notice the funereal aspect when we see the Volkswagon Beetle Robert recklessly drives into the Elbe in a half-hearted suicide attempt sink like the sword of Excalibur. And we can see the resurrectionary when Bruno and Robert dig out the old bike and sidecar and spin around the Rhine. But it's more especially the way this melancholy for modernist technology coincides with the question of perception. This is central to Robert's problem with his father's job. For years and years his father's been busy with his little newspaper to the detriment of any real thought or feeling, Robert believes. So what Robert does before leaving his father after an overnight visit where nothing's been said, is to detail his grievances on the printing press, and offer it to his father like the day's first edition. Thus central to the film's perspective isn't just a technological melancholia, though that's part of it, but the way a certain technological era is used and misused.
This clearly applies more in the film's eyes to cinema than any other modernist technology. If we earlier suggested Wenders and Antonioni are generally similar in the sense that they're both fascinated by the phenomenology of perception, Antonioni focuses this phenomenology of the present into the future; whilst Wenders is a great filmmaker of the past into the present. Michel Foucault says somewhere that the world is not so much bad as dangerous, and Antonioni, speculating towards this future, tentatively explores this dangerousness. For Wenders the problem is much more how to live within histories, stories, psychologies and behavioural modes that are simultaneously entrapping and evolving. Wenders understands this well. There's a Heideggerian side to the director here evident when Heidegger says in Basic Writings: "the essence of technology lies in enframing. Its holding sway belongs within destining. Since destining at any given time starts man on a way of revealing, man, thus under way, is continually approaching the brink of the possibility of pursuing and promulgating nothing but what is revealed in ordering, and of deriving all his standards on this basis." Interestingly Heidegger goes on to use exactly the same word as Foucault, when he says, "the destining of revealing is as such, in every one of its modes, and therefore necessarily, danger."
For Heidegger, though, the danger lies in the assumptions man may have about the centrality of technology in our unfolding existence, that man is inevitably caught in technological progress, and questions that try to create distance between man and technology are pointless. Wenders, fascinated by a kind of mechanical modernism, follows Heidegger in insisting on a perspective on technology. But in Wenders this fascination leads not to Foucauldian danger, nor even, really, Heideggerian danger, but a self-conscious melancholy of technology's passing. Wenders' nausea ties into a passing present that brings to mind Wenders' Cezanne quote where you have to capture things quickly because things are constantly changing. This isn't the phenomenological dangers of the future; more the desire to capture the past as its passing.
So it is in melancholia that Bruno feels the perspective on technology, as he's nostalgic for its presence as it passes through time, and as he himself, so tied to the job he does and the van he drives, feels the full weight of its passing, Now many people need not feel this melancholy, because their being and their social mode move at a mutually enhancing pace. Thus when in a passage in Testaments Betrayed Milan Kundera talks of two different modes of change - one essentially internal and ontological, and the other external and societal - he is talking of people's social and political habits, not of technology. But Wenders is asking something similar by incorporating, even making central, the technological. For his central character it's as though he's built meaning less out of an historical past than a mechanical one, with an awareness that the mechanical past contains the idyllic and the historical the ideologically problematic. He's based his perceptual mode, however, on technology that's passing, so that if he wants to search out Handke's shimmering, he must surely do so at the end of the film by other means.
But can we not say Wenders film then suffers the same problem - that it is itself caught in the process of a mechanical age that it nostalgically films? Not really. At the beginning of the film an intertitle explains when and where the film was shot, and Wenders wants to make clear his own film is an act of shimmering of a kind that itself may pass, and that we have constantly to regenerate our perception, may even use if necessary outmoded technology to see more clearly. Hence when Wenders insists black and white is more realistic than colour, it's an example of this shift in technological expectation (to use colour) for the purposes of seeing more clearly. Just as the cinema owner's daughter refuses to show films because she feels they're no longer about the art of seeing, so Wenders insists on regenerating the art of seeing through the use of monochrome. The question being asked here is really about what improves the quality of seeing. By repairing equipment in rundown cinemas that show constantly bad films, is Bruno doing a service or a disservice to cinema? Sure up to a point it seems to give him the opportunity in his life to see the world on terms that escape a degree of predictability, but does the work itself contribute to the viewer's obviousness of seeing?
It's here we see the character and the film parting company, with of course Wenders the filmmaker filming Bruno's journey and making Bruno's seeing ours - the viewer's. If the film concludes open-endedly it's because we wonder whether Bruno will continue the work he does - even if he believes in it less and less - because of the opportunity it allows for a personal seeing, or will he find a way of seeing that will allow others to see as well? As Wenders' film does Maybe to some degree this crisis resembles Wenders' own decision when he said, writing on Nashville when it came out, in an article called 'Nashville: A Film that teaches you to see and hear': "I am a filmmaker. Until about six years ago I wrote on film, but I stopped when I started to make my own films. Doing both seemed to me to be a contradiction. At that time, around the end of the sixties, there was even less German cinema around than there is today." (Emotion Pictures) Wenders doesn't pursue this contradiction, but we could say it lies in the idea that he believed he should film observation, not write on the work of others, especially when there was little of it around on which to observe. If there is not enough art of seeing, especially a German art of seeing, should one try and contribute to that very process?
At the end of Kings of the Road, Bruno looks like a man questioning everything, with the comments of both Robert who earlier accused him of lacking passion, and the woman's about cinema, working away at him. This we could say is Bruno's nauseous decision: should I stay in the job or should I go? It's the nauseousness of employment tied to existential meaningfulness, and resembles the crisis in Wenders' earlier Alice in the Cities, where Rudiger Vogler's central character, who's been commissioned to write a story about America, says that the story's 'about the things you see...about signs and images.' He leaves the story unfinished and leaves the country. The point is how to find the most pertinent form of employment with the minimum of bad faith.
This has little however to do with the forced choice relevant to Paul in Le Mepris, who is beholden to a beautiful young wife. Bruno's after all merely got to look after himself and his own interests. As he admits near the end of the film, "all women arouse my desire. But I know and I can't pretend I don't. So I don't get involved now. I'd know it could be any woman - not just the one I'm with. I don't know how a man can live with a woman." He adds, "Of course I'd like to be close to a woman. But I want to be alone just as much. I won't give that up again...when you fuck you're inside a woman. But have you ever felt you're really close to her? I always felt lonely inside a woman." If for Paul choice feels impossible because of two concrete realities - his wife and his producer - and he can't virtualise out of these realities a position of good faith, for Bruno it's much more about living life with not the nausea of forced choice but with attempt at forced meaning. By the end of the film his insistent need to do the work he does with an artisan's care, no matter the worthlessness of the product, leaves him strangely bereft. He undeniably believes, if in anything, in a world of mechanical production, but to what end?
It's as though he sees in the mechanisms of motorbike, van and cinema projector a more authentic mechanistic world than the mechanical reproduction of the emotions, where fucking a woman could be any woman. But we could say that if he's managed to invest so much meaning in his job couldn't he invest as much meaning into something else? When Bruno insists "I don't know how a man can live with a woman", Robert replies: "If a thing isn't possible you have to make it possible. It's not really a life if you can't imagine change."
Is that simply what Bruno's so scared of - change? This is maybe where the broader picture comes into Wenders' film, this sense of the absurdity of change, how impersonal it can so often be. When for example at the beginning of the film the cinema manager talks of his cinema's most profitable years in the early fifties, he also says that they were the years in which he wasn't in charge. Because he was in the Nazi party before and during the war, his cinema was taken out of his hands after it. It's as though Bruno's looking for a certain resistance to a world where one can be a Nazi one decade and an outcast in the next. Even when it comes to one's own consciousness, isn't there America colonizing one's consciousness in the post war years? There's this idea that adaptability - whether that be conforming to Nazism before the war, or accepting the influence of bubblegum culture on one's consciousness after it - seems too arbitrary, too suggestive of man's insignificance. How if one's so suspicious of one's personal history - Bruno talks at one stage of not believing in stories, and is wary of impersonal history - can one accept change? Better surely to focus on a small area of one's existence and rigorously apply ritual meaning to it than to live with the fluctuations that make an already fragile existence still more fragile. Thus Wenders is good on the details - Bruno's casual, explicit shit in the sand, the shaves he takes in his van - that fill a life.
In Wenders' film, dead time functions as micro-ritual time. If cinema usually focuses on time as change, of temporal shifts that at each stage suggest some sort of growth or a move towards a goal, in Wenders's film this doesn't interest him. When he once said he tries to show images, and if they don't form into a story at least he didn't lie, Wenders was getting at the whole problem of focusing on the shimmering to the detriment of the story, but by the same token how to sustain the shimmering without being aware of the changes that take place around you? After all, Bruno's fascination with mechanical reproduction is so obviously merely a stage in technological development, and would consequently create a far greater ontological problem than, say, that of a transcendentalist like Thoreau or Whitman - or a post-transcendalist like Robinson Jeffers - who will seek this shimmering through nature, not through a specific stage of technological development. Bruno is an intriguing Luddite, as if his disdain for history demands that he freeze frame it for the purposes of his perceptive possibilities.
Hence his bad conscience, and his nausea, lies in this sort of freeze-framed shimmering. Yet of course Wenders doesn't just want to contain Bruno within bad faith, he wants much more to understand its place in Bruno's life - the sense it makes to the central character, and in turn the sense it can make in relation to a wider ontological perspective. David Ferrell Krell says in his introduction to Heidegger's essay 'The Question Concerning Technology', "It is a question raised on all sides and always with a sense of urgency. On it hinges nothing less than the survival of the species man and the planet earth. Yet the question concerning technology is usually posed within a purely technical framework as one to be debated solely by technicians." By putting the technological at the heart of Bruno's crisis, at the heart of Bruno's search and retention of meaning, Wenders forces upon us the question of technology from a non-technical angle.
If for Antonioni technology seems ontologically dangerous into the future, for Wenders here its danger lies much more in its passing - that just as one inputs meaning into the technology we use it quickly moves on. This allows Wenders a twofold exploration. On the one hand we see Bruno searching for meaning within the mechanically technological, but at the same time Wenders can show the futility, thus revealing not only Bruno's absurdity - which would be too easy - but the absurd pace of change. Now when Antonioni would often talk in interviews about the speed with which we absorb technological changes and the slowness with which we approach moral change, we can see to some degree that Wenders is trying to reverse this equation. It's as though the moral changes - the changes that can make a cinema owner a social insider in one decade and an outcast in the next - seem rapid next to the technology, where he practices the same profession under two very different ideologies. Bruno seems to feel the full weight of moral change, but wants to still the technological.
At one stage in 'The Question Concerning Technology', Heidegger says, "what has the essence of technology to do with revealing? The answer: everything. For every bringing-forth is grounded in revealing". Heidegger writes about this revealing from the Greek, aletheia, which he says the Romans translated as veritas - truth. When Heidegger goes on to say "technology is therefore no mere means. Technology is a way of revealing", we can begin to understand how Bruno sees technology tying into the shimmering. Now most people do not see technology ritualistically even if they believe in it totally. When Heidegger says this truth aspect of technology "strikes us as strange", is it not because people usually see technology as a means to an end, so that we have to use it and disuse it when necessary?
But to hold onto it beyond its lifespan, to ritualise, even fetishize it, is to seek out not its use value, but its truth value: it reverses, if you like, technology's ontology. From the veritas to its use value of scientific research, Wenders suggests there's an equal truth as a lack of use value. There's something almost archeological about Wenders' use of the passing present, most obviously evidenced when Bruno fishes out the old bike and sidecar. Bruno, the scientist in reverse, and yet not quite an archaeologist of the past, seems to create out of his precarious emotional existence a sense of certainty to counter his non-being as a child of Nazi Germany and American colonization, but as readily exacerbates this precariousness as alleviates it with his own ontologically precarious belief in the passing present.
At the end of the film Bruno sits in his van whilst the camera cranes away from the van and over to the cinema sign where most of the letters are missing. The only letters remaining are WW on one side and END on the other. Obviously this could be read as a narcissistic ending to the film and the antithesis to the ideal Robbe-Grillet object as Roland Barthes defines it. "High on the pediment of the Gare Montparnesse is a tremendous neon sign that would read Bons-Kilometres if several of its letters were not regularly out of commission. For Alain Robbe-Grillet, this sign would be an object par excellence, especially appealing for the various dilapidations that mysteriously change place with each other from one day to the next." But Wenders is interested not so much in the world's chaos so much as in what Joyce called a chaosmos, a world of tentative, semi-made sense. If for Bruno the world makes sense neurotically as he tries to freezeframe it through his being in relation to the world, through his insistent need to live his life within certain parameters, Wenders turns those neurotic parameters into aesthetic ones as he turns the neurosis into an act of creativity. At the end of the film, diegetically we see an image of a cinema in disrepair, but at the same time we see non-diegetically a film resurrected out of that despair. As in Le Mepris we see non-diegetic possibilities revealing themselves out of a state of nauseous impasse. What does a combination of nausea, limited shimmering and a certain stage of technological development offer us positively we might ask. In this instance Kings of the Road is the answer, a film that is part of its one moment in history not only in the black and white photography that was a rarity by the mid-seventies, but also in the celluloid itself as film passes now resolutely into the digital era.
© Tony McKibbin