February 1999
s m u g
feature
by David Hudson

Ein Cooles Produkt

"I think the train's a cool product." That's Wim Wenders mumbling to a television reporter. You can barely make out the words. "Ich finde die Bahn ein cooles Produkt."

On January 11, five 45-second commercials for Deutsche Bahn AG, the German train company, debuted on German television, each featuring a different prominent German personality and all of them directed by the last living standardbearer of what most people think of when they think of "German cinema." Another batch of five will be shot this month.

Wim Wenders is directing commercials. You could riff in a thousand different keys starting on that note alone. That's why the story laced the human interest pages of the German papers, why the television crews swept onto the set, cornered the 53-year-old director and had him explain himself.

In the reports that I've seen, Wenders, mumbling, tries to make the whole affair seem like the most natural thing in the world. He doesn't have to try too terribly hard because the interviewers are treating him like some sort of national treasure. None of them has asked, for example, "Do you need the money?" Or, more cruelly, "Would Fassbinder have done this?"

Which is fine. The first question is really none of our business (not that we wouldn't get a kick out of knowing anyway), and the second is simply... impossible. Impossible in an "if pigs could fly" sort of way. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was destined, programmed, bent -- call it as you see it -- such that he and the world knew he would never see the 90s, never face, never even find himself in the same neighborhood with an offer to shoot a commercial, a music video, a four-minute teaser of a trailer.

When Fassbinder died in 1982, having furiously wrapped up an ouevre inextricably bound to the 70s, that cathartic decade in which Germans dealt head on with the questions of national character posed by the '68 generation, the general consensus was that "New German Cinema" died with him. It's hard to imagine that the surviving directors who had once huddled under that umbrella of a moniker weren't at least a bit relieved, perhaps a lot. Not by the loss of a furious artist and genuine friend, of course, but by the opportunity to step out from under the collective coat of arms and forge their own very divergent paths.

Ten years after Fassbinder's death, Wenders wrote in an essay entitled "Christ, Rainer" (no comment), collected in The Act of Seeing, "Out in the rain, after the film "The Marriage of Maria Braun", with the little group of us standing around and congratulating you, there was a stunned feeling and a sense that the 'New German Film' was, all at once and just for a moment, a conspiratorial entity, and our solidarity was more than just a means to an end."

In retrospect, the key phrase is "just for a moment." If Fassbinder mercilessly rubbed salt into Germany's self-inflicted wounds, Volker Schloendorff set off to retrace Billy Wilder's steps, while Werner Herzog held his own twisted sťance, leaping over the war years to conjure the spirits of Lang and Murnau, and Wenders...

Wenders was the odd man out. The position Wim Wenders took regarding this post-60s Sturm und Drang was to take no position at all. Wilhelm Wenders was born in 1945 into a prim town of willful forgetfulness, Duesseldorf, nestled in the Economic Miracle pulled off by the western of two mirrored countries out to win points for good behavior from their respective conquerors.

Identity was imported. Young Wim grew up on AFN, the US radio network that fed him rocking and rolling songs of wanderers and jilted lovers, and Hollywood, where all the world was behind the wheel and only one question mattered: "Gotta light?"

Wenders likes to remind those interviewers that he once spent a full week on a train with Bruno Ganz and Dennis Hopper filming "The American Friend". The reporter is then cued to turn to his or her readers and viewers and elaborate knowingly. All Wenders films, so the refrain goes, are road movies, regardless of the means of transportation. Twenty minutes can pass before a word is spoken, much less a protagonist's name, and whether it's the filmmaker himself in search of traces of his chosen mentor's Tokyo or angels longing for an anchor hooked into something more substantial than heaven, nearly every soul cast on Wenders's screen is lost.

And that is precisely the selling point in Wenders's commercials for Deutsche Bahn AG. Throughout his career, intentionally or not, Wenders has used luscious cinematography and actors with faces worth far more than a thousand words to romanticize uprootedness and alienation in much the same way that Camus made existential angst fashionable as hell decades before.

Little wonder that rock stars have latched onto him as they have; between songs during a 1989 R.E.M. concert in Munich, Michael Stipe (who appeared with Wenders on the cover of Raygun in 1997) asked the audience if the trapeze scenes in "Wings of Desire" had been filmed in the Circus Krone building where they were performing. And how could an ego like Bono's resist climbing the gold-coated angel atop Berlin's Siegesaeule to reshoot the same movie as a music video starring himself? (But the popular appeal of Wenders's most sentimental flick to date is another story altogether.)

As a product, the train is cool because, as with a movie, what you're purchasing is intangible, a slice of time, a perfectly excusable mini-vacation from oneself, the weight of home and all those pesky responsibilities. Identity is deported.

All fine and dandy, you may be thinking, but what about the commercials? Are they any good? Judge for yourself; Die Bahn has put them online in RealVideo format.

Here's Marusha, Berlin's techno queen (nice retro double exposure going on). In the Soenke Wortmann spot, Wenders tips his hat to the new generation of German filmmakers who have made the startling discovery that entertainment sells. Then there's Guenter Netzer, a soccer player, Hardy Krueger, a travel reporter, and Peter Scholl-Latour, a journalist.

David Hudson has been known to drive the Texas highways for four or five hours to catch a German film and then drive home again. He's much older now, lives in Berlin and is terribly grateful for that whole home video thing that happened a few years back.

dhudson@smug.com

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