Reviews and notes
1976 Cannes, Chicago, New York, Toronto
The quintessential Wim Wenders movie — an epic fusion of cinephilia, chic existentialism, hanging out, observations about the Americanization of Europe, boredom, and bad-ass rock and roll. It is a road movie without a destination — another Wenders specialty — but one with deep feeling for transience: Robbie Müller's claim to have taken inspiration from Walker Evans's photographs of Depression-era America is in no way pretentious. (The slightly grainy, though rich-in-depth black-and-white photography is so masterful that Kings
can be described as the quintessential Müller film, too.) The movie concerns a traveling projectionist and the bourgeois dropout who decides, on a whim, to join him on his tour of servicing rural cinemas. Their journey lopes from one poignantly observed ghost town to another, a perfect landscape on which to depict the men's alienation with contemporary life. The film's outlook is very much in keeping with the political defeatism of the New German Cinema, yet it would be inaccurate to describe Kings of the Road
as a pessimistic work. Wenders achieves a universal melancholy here, which makes the moments of humor and innocence that much more cathartic. Especially impressive is a scene in which the protagonists perform a shadow play on a blank movie screen for a group of schoolchildren in a town where they're working. It is a sweet, impassioned reminder of why movies exist and it alone is worth the cost of admission.
- Ben Sachs, Cine-File.
The pre-credits sequence to Kings of the Road
is a conversation between Rudiger Vogler (Bruno) and an elderly cinema owner and former silent movie pianist, in which the latter reminisces about accompanying Lang's Nibelungen
, and looks at the changes made with the advent of talkies. At the end of the film, an elderly woman explains to Bruno why she keeps her cinema ready to open but will not do so until there is something worth showing, other than the exploitation movies which she ignores. Her legacy is her father's dictum: 'Film is the art of seeing', and she believes it is better to have no cinema at all rather than bad cinema.
Wenders's film is, amongst other things, a film about the cinema both as a way of seeing and as a crumbling industry, already the terrain of the archaeologist. The thread which draws the three-hour narrative together is the wanderings of Bruno who travels from cinema to cinema along the deserted borders of East and West Germany, servicing projectors which seem to be mysteries to their owners, whose tumbled down cinemas look like remnants of a lost civilisation. One remembers the long look at the blank white wall of the Roxy, the half broken neon lighting on the cinema at the end of the film, with two W's still illuminated as if Wenders has made this a signature to the work.
The film itself takes the form of an American road movie when Bruno reluctantly picks up a companion, Robert, the 'Kamikaze' who has just abandoned his wife and driven his Volkswagen straight into the river. Wenders traces the development of the men's relationship, initially silent, unpredictable, and increasingly abrasive, into a shared recognition of the past that both would like to ignore, and an increasing articulateness as they at last talk freely to one another before the final parting at a deserted border guards' hut. Yet whilst the film is built upon the road movie formula it avoids the ready-made romantic myth of the all satisfying male friendship. With an unerring instinct, Wenders sidesteps the expected misogynistic sexual rivalry and underplays the inevitable punch-up at the end of the road. Even the American music which sometimes draws them together can also hit the raw nerve of their lives, as voluntary but uneasy exiles from the world of women ('The more I see you, the more I want you' is the first record played by Bruno).
In this film there are no oases of comfortable communities, where the travellers may refresh themselves as in Easy Rider
, for instance. The small medieval towns contrasting with the desolate landscape, intersected by railway lines and the occasional rushing trains, seem barely inhabited. Every encounter in this ghostly world, so similar to Wenders's vision in The Goadkeeper's Fear of the Penalty
, is an encounter with an isolated person: the shocked, incoherent young man, wrapped in the bloodstained raincoat worn by his wife when she committed suicide by driving into a tree; Robert's elderly father, a local newspaper proprietor with an incongruous American-style eye shade who still brings out the paper on his own; the young woman Bruno picks up at the half-deserted fairground, who makes it clear she lives alone with her daughter and intends to stay that way; the proudly isolated cinema proprietor who refuses to show more films.
What has been so finely observed by Wenders and his actors in this film is the personal response of individuals to their isolation, in particular, that of Bruno, who has deliberately rejected the emotional hazards of a life with formal relationships and a fixed address for the world of his removal-van in which he lives and travels. Vogler's Bruno is one of the most outstanding performances to have been seen in the cinema for a long time, largely because the length of the film allows a slow accumulation of detail to make him known to us in a way analogous to that in which we might get to know a person in real-life circumstances.
Explicitly, he rejects Robert's attempts to define himself in terms of his own past history, and although, through the other man's pressure, he returns to his childhood home, and is eventually able to admit: 'For the first time I see myself as someone who has come through a certain time, and that time is my history', his avoidance of verbal explanation underlines Wenders's whole style of film making.
Bruno's personality is built up for us like a mosaic from the early shots of him naked and curiously self-contained, shaving in his truck, intercut with shots of the agitated Robert driving furiously and ripping apart a snapshot of a suburban house. His reaction to Robert's suicidal plunge into the river, and his disconsolate return to land is one of silent curiosity, laughter, a touch of slowly awakened pity, as wordlessly he hands the trembling man a towel: without questions he drives on, his companion at his side covered in a blanket. In a later sequence, without comment, he observes Robert lifting a telephone from the open window of an office, dialling, and then, unable to speak, replacing the receiver, just as he watches him restlessly circling a small yard on a borrowed bicycle. When, at what seems to be a crisis point in the film, he wakes up and overhears Robert's encounter with the young man who describes the events leading to his wife's suicide, he neither joins them nor pretends not to overhear, but simply gets up and runs out to see the wrecked car. He has, at all times, the aura of a man accustomed to being on his own. After crapping on a sand dune he fastidiously covers his shit with a neat square of paper. He has the tidy habits of someone used to living in a very confined space, as he props his coffee cup on the door of his cabin or carefully leans a bottle of Coke on the indented rear door of the truck against which he is standing.
His moments of anger and irritation are beautifully timed, as in the tiny incident when Bruno, obsessed with newspapers, and bearing them triumphantly 'for breakfast', opens the cabin door sharply and spills the coffee, making only the most cursory effort to clear up the mess. Later there is a curious sequence in which Robert turns the lights on when Bruno is behind a cinema screen, and forces him into an impromptu slapstick double act seen as a shadow show by a delighted audience of children. At the time, Bruno appears to enter into the whole improvisation with spirit, yet some time afterwards, a propos of nothing, he tells Robert of his anger at being manipulated in this way and of his sense of impotence when he was forced into the glare of the lights.
It is, perhaps, the first hint of his vulnerability but this is more fully revealed in his encounter with the girl at the fairground. Suppression of desire leads to its loss, and the inadequacy of Bruno's way of life is most poignantly seen in the night he spends with this girl whose family own a cinema. The evening begins with all the conventional devices of the sexual adventure but develops into an evasion of the girl's desires as Bruno plays around with film loops or retreats whimsically behind an opened umbrella in the cinema. When he finally comes to her on her makeshift couch, the girl is lying alone, asleep, moaning slightly, her arms clasping her own body. Both fully dressed, they lie together and when he announces his departure next morning, tears come to the girl's eyes. Wryly, half apologetically, he touches a tear with his finger and places it in his own eye. It is an acknowledgement of a failure at several levels of feeling. As if to compensate for this, he seeks out Robert, visiting the father he has feared and hated for so many years. In doing so, Bruno is affirming that they are no longer together simply by chance.
To some extent, the film is built on a contrast between Bruno and Robert, a contrast brought home in a heavily allegorical sequence in which Robert finds two villages on the map named the German equivalents of 'Powerlessness' and 'Peacelessness' with a hill called 'Dead Man' in between. Robert is indeed, a 'peaceless' figure, a more transitory fugitive from the inhabited world and domestic structures than Bruno, haunted by the neurotic need to express everything in print, the only way in which he can ultimately talk to his father. Some of the film's few weak sequences are those in which Robert confronts his father in a jarringly theatrical manner, and at times his character seems too deliberately contrived to act as a foil to that of Bruno. Yet they are alike in their flight from the world of women, their inability to live with or without them and the sense that both have seen disaster and are fleeing from it. Travelling with Bruno teaches Robert not to sacrifice his own identity to a consuming relationship. Robert's insistence on a recognition of the past forces Bruno to confront the loneliness he feels in sexual relationships and to an explicit recognition that his nomadic existence is an evasion of emotions too hard to endure.
Nevertheless, Kings of the Road
is no easy moral tale. Robert leaves to take his chance in the inhabited world once again, with what success we cannot know. Bruno acknowledges Robert's parting message that everything must change, but again, there is no indication as to whether he will or will not give up his wandering life, suspended in time. This question mark over his future merges with the uncertainty about the future of the cinema at the end of the film.
Wenders has admitted to using considerable improvisation in the development of plot during the eleven weeks in which the film was shot but the vision he conveys, of a land hit by disaster and of its stray survivors, is strong and personal. Perhaps for Germany during the '70s Wenders is doing what Antonioni did for Italy in the '60s. Kings of the Road
, however, may well be a more lasting achievement.
- Margaret Tarratt, Films and Filming, May 1977.
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