It ought not be a surprise that the greatest cinematic study of American iconography, both tangible and nebulous, was unearthed by a German. That film is not Kings of the Road, a sort of slantwise proving ground for greater things to come. It was Paris, Texas, a later film by Wim Wenders and a film whose name evokes the sentimental but bristling irony of a slice of Europe in America. Wenders was that slice, always infatuated with American cinematic styles and moods but trapped in the mortal coil of separation from his ideological homeland, with an unforgiving body of water blocking his way to the land that his heart so clearly desired.
That being said, his American films have largely failed to evoke the fringe-dwelling, outsider innocence of his greatest works, and this irony is no coincidence. Wenders always filmed landscapes like a big-city boy in the 1900s day-dreaming of life out West; his best films treat the endless latitude of natural physical spaces as gauzy, romantic balms for skin torn asunder by the harsh monstrosities of the modern era. In his past, he was a dreamer, and a filmmaker whose best films to this day fixate on dreams that turn into obsessions, dreams that can never really be known in the flesh. Like so many of his characters, when Wenders actually found what he was looking for, when he actually made the leap from imagination to reality and started filming movies in the United States, something was lost. It wasn’t that he didn’t get what he dreamed up. It was that the dream was itself the point. With the abstract and mythical condemned to the new prison of the tactile and the earthen – with Wenders actually working in the US rather than simply dreaming about it in his films – he lost the purpose of dreaming. He lost the call that beckoned his films forth. Attaining his desire left him with nothing to dream about any more, and his films became stagnant and complacent. Dreaming was his prison, but also his release.
It is thus that all of his great films are, in one way or another, kindred spirits of Wenders’ own personal prison. The dreams which freed him to fly on the wings of cinematic beauty were always tethered directly to his inability to reach his goals. Like the angels of his most famous film, Wings of Desire, he would always be left just an arm’s length away, dreaming in color and feeling in black-and-white. Like Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas, Wenders found beauty in the pain of wishing, only to realize that, what he truly needed was with him all along.
In Wenders’ case, what he needed was to remain in Europe, sitting, dreaming, and filming, as he does in Kings of the Road, one of his earliest films and one sliver of the tripartite Road trilogy that elevated him to the heights of the New German Cinema along with reigning realist god Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the middle-but-not-safe ground between the angelic Wenders and the demonic Werner Herzog, who was the masterfully uncontained id to Wenders’ superego. All were different filmmakers; if Wenders longingly dreamed in laid-back melancholy, Herzog was and is notable primarily for nightmares in acid tones, and for demanding with an iron fist that his most impossible dreams would become a reality.
After all, Herzog, the mad doctor of German cinema, made a film about a mad director dragging a boat over a mountain. Herzog, the mad doctor of German cinema, did drag a boat over a mountain, his own demented, monomaniacal head trip, and a trip that Wenders preferred to leave in the head, for that is where he flourished. He was fascinated with empty, mundane places as ideological spaces of communal and personal imagination, and he was most drawn to the open road and the American cinematic tradition of contesting with that open road as a space for finding or losing oneself, often at the same time. Wenders preferred a journey of the mind – a journey in dreams, and not in reality, which is why his best films are about dreaming of other locations, and not existing within them.
Thus, in Kings of the Road, Bruno (Rüdiger Volger), who repairs film projectors, and the wandering Robert (Hanns Zischler), who Bruno picks up mid-trip, don’t seem to have a destination in mind. They are content to wander, to discover a little of their humanity again, and Wenders wanders with them. Herzog’s characters all have a tangible goal, and they are usually destroyed by it. A Wenders character usually pines for a more nebulous mental space only to learn that their destination wasn’t where they wanted to go. Bruno and Robert aren’t really questing for anywhere in particular; they’re just inhabiting the mental space of the “open road” idea and all that this idea represents in the American (and European) mythic traditions. They’re just floating around a little, stopping when they see fit, like Wenders did for a great long while. When he actually turned floating (into and out of the American cinematic tradition without actually inhabiting it) into the physical goal (actually making American movies), something was lost in the process. Bruno and Robert are clear proxies for not only American movie characters, but for Wenders himself, searching for an America (American film drifts in and out of the film and draws them forth) that is only in the movies, and never really there in reality.
But wandering is but a masquerade for discovery, both internally and externally. As the two kings drive along the East-West German border, the desecration of the space feels at once ever-present and lost to time; with Robby Müller lensing the odyssey with idyllic, consecrated woe and human loss, Wenders’ long, wide takes recall the empty spaces, both concrete and abstract, of John Ford’s famed Monument Valley films. But Wenders doesn’t merely copy. Ford’s films were about humanity conquering nature, but Wenders adds a dose of the civilized being reclaimed by nature, and not simply struggling on the fringes of nature to survive. In Kings of the Road, with the destruction of WWII looming as large as ever, nature, human nature, had won, and humans had paid the price already. The film’s world is destitute and forlorn, with the two wanderers searching, like Wenders, for a space to call home amidst the carnage.
Like Wenders, they also find space primarily in cinema. Tip-toeing the line of West and East Germany also allows Wenders to play with his muses, blending the open shots of myth-making grandeur found in American cinema and the machine-like clutter so central to Soviet filmmaking. On one hand, the film is quintessentially of the American road film, with two mid-century loners adrift amidst a world changing in stunted, indifferent ways. You might imagine the piece as a companion to Easy Rider, and Wenders clearly understands how the American road picture was primarily a parable for humans lost in a society that was forever changing and provided no safe ground for anyone to stand on. Yet the community of Kings of the Road, the way Wenders frames our two main characters amidst a backdrop of dejected human remnants still fighting the good fight to keep alight another day, is closer to the port of Eisenstein or Kalatozov (the emphasis on transportation is also a uniquely Russian-American bridge, reflecting the two countries’ outsized spaces and their ensuing gluttonous egos).
How fitting that cinemas from both the East and West meet as friends in this film, for the film is ultimately a guiding light to cinema the world over. The only ritualistic aspect of the film is its respites from wander when our two sage travelers stop to prop up old, woebegone movie theaters with repairs, bringing what little joy they can back into a region that lost more than they could ever imagine. Bruno and Robert are no foreigners to this forlorn aura; they ride the lonely path themselves. They feel the sorrow; it is why they are uprooted, and they find what little hope they can in the world of celluloid, which dances around their heads and eventually bears new fruit for a hopeful spring yet to come as their ride slides from the everyday into the surreal and celluloid begins to take over. Especially when the film cedes ground to wordless, exquisitely dry physical comedy out of a lost Keaton or Chaplin film, it feels as much like a love letter to the movies that Wenders loves as anything else.
Wenders was both a romantic (Wings of Desire) and a realist (Paris, Texas), and as such he knew both that cinema wasn’t really the answer and that it sometimes had to be the next best thing anyway. His study in cinema isn’t a pompous tale of directors alighting the world again, but a scruffy, blissful, often absurdly funny slice of necessary dream, as well as a realization that dreaming isn’t always enough. After all, if Bruno and Robert, and the world more generally, can find a little of their souls in the cinema they bring to each other, they still have a whole lot of searching left to do. Wenders spends Kings of the Road dreaming about a world turned inside out, a world where destruction meant everywhere was a new fringe, a new Wild West for him to explore and bring a little slice of cinema, a little slice of home, to. With Kings of the Road, he too had a lot of searching left to do – he still had yet to reach epochal heights of Paris, Texas – but in the meantime, bless him for dreaming.