Wim Wenders on Movies and Music

in Istanbul IFF 2024

by Paola Casella

“It’s like matchmaking”

The German director and screenwriter Wim Wenders held a sold-out Masterclass at the 2024 Istanbul Film Festival highlighting the special relationship between music and cinema.

On April 26, 2024 Wim Wenders received the Cinema Honorary Award at the 43rd edition of the Istanbul Film Festival, and the following day the director handed the same award to actor Koji Yakusho, protagonist of his film Perfect Days and winner of the Palm D’Or at the previous year’s Cannes Film Festival. But the real treat for the audience and the students was the Masterclass that Wenders held in front of a full house, with people lining up even the back of the room of the Istanbul Kultur Sanat Vakfi.

Wenders recalled in particular his relationship with music: “I knew music before I knew movies”, the director/screenwriter recalled. “The idea to have something to do with movies professionally only hit me later in life. In Germany in the ‘50s and 60’s making movies for me was out of the question, it didn’t exist as a job option when I was growing up, it was like dreaming of being an austronaut going to the moon, being an astronaut. There were no film schools in Germany. We were basically colonized by the American culture. Germany had sort of lost touch with its cinematic history. When the Nazi came all good filmmakers were driven to exile and Hitler used cinema as mere propaganda. So I had grown up with American movies, without the idea that cinema was a part of my culture, or a part of me.”

“At the time I didn’t dream to be a film director but a musician, and since my idol was John Coltrane my father bought me a saxophone”, recounted Wenders. “But much as I tried hard to sound like Coltrane, I had little talent as a musician. Then I became interested in movies but realized that in order to make them I needed a camera. One day in a pawn shop I saw a 16mm camera, a used Bolex which I couldn’t afford. So I decided to trade in my saxophone for the camera, not knowing that the price tag for the saxophone was much higher than the cost of the camera: not a good deal for me.”

“But a good deal for us!”, shouted a young woman from the audience in Istanbul.

“Filmmaking was expensive, I didn’t have the money to buy film, or for lab development”, continued Wenders after a quick smile, “but I managed to shoot several short films, and I was accepted in the first film school created in Germany, which did not own a single camera, let alone an editing table.

They taught us sociology and communication science and history, but not the history of movies, which we wanted to know, and nothing about directing or screenwriting. All my friend shot film with my used Bolex and eventually we occupied the school demanding cameras. Luckily, it was 1968, everybody was in the streets up in arms against Vietnam, and we felt we too had the right to protest: 1968 was very usueful for that. We wanted cameras and editing tables and professors who would teach us fil history and how to become directors and deal with actors. Eventually my camera was stolen during the demonstrations, but the school bought one, and then another, then a used editing table, and we took two hour turns each to used them, mostly at night: we were 20 students and they couldn’t throw us out because without us there would be no hip school anymore. We could occupy it for three months without being evicted because they’re dependent on us.”

“The first time I sat at the editing table I had a lot of shots but no idea what to do with them, there was no real stirytelling, so I lined all my shots up in a row and put my favourite music on them to create a sort of soundtrack, and suddenly I could see my images together with music, and it was so much better.  Applied with music suddenly the images told something else, because music changes the meaning of anything you shoot, and whatever you have in front of you becomes better than the sum of the silent images. And I made the great discovery that with every movie you must answer a key question: what music will go with it? Since then the greatest thrill in making a movie is the moment when the movie first meets its own music, and when you introduce one to the other: it’s like matchmaking. Sometimes I know before, and sometimes I have to find it. And sometimes, of course, the music is really the subject”.

“And when music starts in a film it is also a key moment. Sometimes you go into a film and it doesn’t have any music. And after ten minutes the usic starts: setting that first note is such a thrill, also as a viewer, because it suddenly changes the way you see the story, it evokes something in you that is your own, and it asks you to bring something of yourself to that story. But as a director you also have to decide when that music ends, because you cannot have movies where the music plays all the time, although I’ve seen it in some movies, and it’s awful. I mean, music has to start and end to be part of the storytelling, part of what that film is all about. So the way the music begins and the way the music ends is a structural elements. And of course, it gives it rhythm and you learn to edit with the music. That is why even when you are first conceiving a film you start thinking about the musical element. And it’s after pairing music and images for the first time that I decided that I was going to be a filmmaker and not a musician after all.”

Registered by Paola Casella
© FIPRESCI 2024

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