Filmmaker, playwright and photographer Wim Wenders is perhaps best known for his pioneering role in the New German Cinema movement. However, his complete body of works expands far beyond those seminal films. Most recently, Wenders was tapped by Persol to envision a black and white short that paid homage to the golden age of film in Italy. We had the opportunity to sit down with Wenders to chat about the project, his relationship with the Persol, and of course, his love of Italian film.
How did you marry Persol’s heritage with your own vision as a filmmaker?
When they approached me with the idea to evoke a classic period of Italian cinema in a little film, and then told me the story of these glasses, I understood that the glasses did the same thing the film was supposed to do. That is to transport us into the mythical era of Italian cinema. After that I had a lot of leeway. I just looked at photographs and films and images from the time, and I realized Cinecittà is still there, I could go and shoot there. I went to Cinecittà a long time ago. I visited [Federico] Fellini and worked there with [Michelangelo] Antonioni on a film that we made together, so I have a few ties to that era. After that it was just fun to think of something that was elegant, black and white, and sort of evoked the spirit of that time. Of course also featured are the glasses, but in the film they’re just a little accessory. The overall film is really a tribute to that lifestyle.
Considering you’re so well known for your part in New German Cinema, what attracted you to Italian cinema specifically? What do you find so magical and moving about it?
I think the Italian cinema incorporated in the films of Fellini or Antonioni or [Vittorio] De Sica showed us an image of who we were in Europe when I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s. These films gave me a sense of what our style was, and what Europe really meant. I didn’t know Italy that well, but I had a feeling after I saw these films, that it was a fantastic place. I love the elegance of these movies, and the sunglasses that so much came with the image of some of these actors. For instance, Gino Marturano, you almost can’t imagine him without them. That was something you could adopt for your own life. You could find out what it meant to hide behind sunglasses. It was just something beautiful to realize that you could almost be anonymous [behind sunglasses] yet at the same time project a different image of yourself. Movies taught me that. These films also gave such a great freedom to imagine a different life, and to imagine rebellion and joy.
How much would you say these kinds of films have influenced your body of work?
They formed my entire subconscious. When I became a filmmaker I already had this whole library of images and films in the back of my mind. Even if I didn’t pull any of it consciously, subconsciously they prepared me to invent a language of my own. You can’t really put your finger on what it is you’ve seen or what has formed your imagination, or even where it’s coming from. It’s a whole legacy that you somehow inherit. You have it in your genes if you were born after the second World War and if you lived in Europe in the ’50s and ’60s, and into the 70s.
For Persol’s film, how long did it take you to conceptualize and finish it?
Conceptualizing took a couple of weeks of looking at a lot of photographs and watching a few films again. It all came together with a visit to Cinecittà, and walking around for awhile. I had to shoot this film somewhere, and it seemed the ideal was to shoot it in Cinecittà where a lot of these great movies had been made. So the old studios themselves sort of invented the story. The film shoot, I thought, ‘well what story can I tell there?’ Then I thought, ‘best if I tell the story of a film shoot.’ Especially since there was the presence of these young actors who evoke the great Italian actors of the period. Also, in all of these photographs I had looked at, I realized the culture of the paparazzi was something so essential in the ’50s and ’60s.
I had seen these paparazzi photographs before ever seeing Italian cinema. My mom had all these magazines and they were full of these pictures, and so my first impression of movies were photos by the paparazzi. So I liked the idea of incorporating such a guy. And then I came up with this sort of love story that had a twist, and it was fun. We actually shot this in one day, believe it or not. It took a week to edit it and then another week to work on the music with the composer, and that was it. That’s the beauty of such a little film. You go through the entire process almost as if it were a big film. You do the writing and the casting and the location work. You shoot and do the editing and working with the composer, and color correction. You do everything that you have to do on a big movie, it’s just in a miniature, so to speak. It was really fun. When do you get to shoot a black and white film these days?
I believe I read that you actually worked with a camera from the 1950s? Is that true?
[Laughs] That is crap. In the pictures they photographed me with a camera from the 1950s. The actual shoot, we shot it with high-end technology of today. It’s the only and first movie camera that digitally shoots black and white. It uses the entire range of the capture to transform it into black and white images, and it gives you black and white like none of these great directors of the ’50s and ’60s were even able to dream of. It’s the most beautiful black and white you can shoot today, and it’s longer on film, but on this camera that only can do black and white. Which is in itself a technical miracle in that it was the first time I could put my hands on that thing.
So you’ve known about it for awhile, but this was your first time using it?
It just came out a year ago, it’s brand new. If you don’t make a black and white movie you can’t use it because it doesn’t do anything else. When Persol suggested the film I asked them right away, ‘can I do it in black and white?’ Some of these films we’re evoking were black and white so I liked the idea, and then I said, ‘oooh [rubs hands together gleefully] finally I can get to shoot on this camera.’ So sometimes you can combine a nostalgic look with high-tech, and it works!
When did you first start wearing Persol? Do you remember your first pair?
Well I wore them when I was skiing in the late ‘60s. I need prescription glasses, even when I’m skiing I can’t see anything without prescription glasses. So they have a second glass that goes around the corner of your prescription glasses and covers your entire vision; they’re the coolest sunglasses ever. They were stolen from me several times, and each time I’ve bought them again. So yes, I’ve known Persol ever since. Maybe I was also influenced in my selection then–because obviously I wasn’t a famous filmmaker at the time–by the fact that these cool dudes were wearing these glasses. You know, the Steve McQueen dude and Marcello Mastroianni; all these guys were wearing these cool glasses.
What parallels do you see between your own career and the history of Persol as a brand? It’s a heritage brand and you yourself have this long-spanning career.
You see, I consider myself a craftsmen. I’ve never thought of myself as an artist. I also think filmmaking is a craft, and I like the craftsmanship of these glasses. My whole profession is about seeing, it’s about the art of seeing. That’s what art, if anything, is about. You have to put this art into a product through craft. So the art of seeing and the craft of making something, that links me to Persol.
What’s your favorite pair?
My favorite is the foldable one. But I’ll tell you the danger of it is that you’ll sit on it. Glasses you can’t put in your pocket, but their [Persol’s] little foldable beauty you can put into your pocket, and then you sit on it. So that’s the big danger of the foldable one. It’s too good to be true…until you sit on it. [Laughs]