In a pre-title conversation between Bruno, a travelling film projector engineer, and the elderly de-Nazified owner of cinema, the film cuts to Robert, a newly separated depressed paediatric psychologist, who is driving his iconic Volkswagen Beetle at high speed into a West German border lake. Surviving the half-hearted suicide attempt he hitches a lift with Bruno, who is heading from Hof to Luneburg through the Zonenrandgebiet area along the border with East Germany. Following the border, they encounter a recognizably seedier side of life with derelict cinemas and morally derelict characters, overshadowed and overwhelmed by the post-war German history. The two men separate at an abandoned Border post, when Robert departs while Bruno sleeps. At a nearby railway station Robert meets a small boy who is writing a notebook of everything he sees. Robert swaps his sunglasses and his suitcase for the notebook, and boards a train. The ending echoes the beginning, with Bruno conversing with the female owner of a mothballed cinema.
There was once an open wound in Germany, a seeping scar that ran its length and separated East from West, dividing families, and provoking a national psychosis that only began to be healed with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The duality of a divided Germany was amplified through the massive influence that America had on the West, and that the Soviet Union had on the East, with each half increasingly removed, yet remorselessly connected. It was against this background that Wim Wenders presented, as the final part of his ‘road movie’ trilogy; the other parts being Alice in den Städten/Alice in the Cities (1974) and Falshe Bewegung/Wrong Move (1975).
Its opening of ‘Kamikazi’ (Robert) driving his VW Beetle into a lake, only to find that it is not deep enough to submerge the car is analogous to the situation of West Germany during the 1970s. The post-war generation, now adults, were facing the challenges of a divided Germany; challenges that led to psychological crisis. Bruno speaks with an elderly cinema owner at the start of the film with little understanding of his Nazi past. The impotence of this generation, cut off from their roots, meant that they too were suffering a deep psychological tear, mirroring the wound slicing their country in half. They were living in an Americanised version of Germany, where American rock ‘n’ roll filled the air, and American movies filled the screens, and where the country was still occupied by an American Army that had been there since 1945. Yet they still felt German, still were German, and not a sectionalised, divided, occupied and crippled by history German, but a modern, productive German at the heart of a new European sensibility.
Director Wim Wenders was not unaffected by this schism, placing it at the heart of Kings of the Road, both in subject matter and in form. Wenders borrows the quintessential American form, the road movie, to explore the snaking border line, where so many roads were now truncated by the barbed wire and no man’s land of the Iron Curtain. The road that Robert drives wildly down ends in a lake, one created as part of the border. The point where their journey ends is an abandoned American border post, graffiti covered, derelict, and watching over a border that the west seems no longer to care about and yet which looms silently over the German people, holding them in stasis. Indeed the very end of the film has a mothballed cinema central to the action; a metaphor for the youth of Germany, or possibly a comment from Wenders about the older generation, still quietly holding onto their past and hoping for a reunited Germany that will rise once again. As Wenders himself, put it:
“it has something to do with being born in post-war Germany in a land that tried to forget about its own history, tried to forget about its own myths, that tried to adapt to anything, especially American culture.” 1
Wenders’ sense of the rambling road movie is central to an understanding of the lingering, often empty, feeling of Kings of the Road. Shot in much the same way as the Hollywood westerns he grew up with, Wenders offers the landscape of the border as a character itself, with Robbie Muller’s photography emphasising its interplay with the principal characters. Part of the film has an intensity created through close up shot-reverse-shot sequences necessitated by the settings of travelling in Bruno’s van or of the confined spaces in the projection booths. This proximity to the central characters is mitigated however by other exterior scenes where the characters and their situations are dominated by an empty and often barren landscape of the border that serves to amplify their alienation and their rudderless, drift towards an uncertain future. Wenders had taken the model of the American road movie and filled it with European angst, replacing the optimism of a savage land facing civilisation, with the pessimistic remnants of a destroyed civilisation facing an aching emptiness. He combined the road movie with the western, reinventing them, inculcating a new sensibility and in doing so capturing the zeitgeist.
Whilst not formally connected to the founders of the neue deutsche Kino (New German Cinema), Wenders certainly fulfils their aims whilst rejecting their uncompromising nature through embracing American cinema and making it his own. Their Oberhausen Manifesto stated, among other things:
“The collapse of the conventional German film finally removes the economic basis for a mode of film-making whose attitude and practice we reject. the future of the German film lies in the hands of those who have proven that they speak a new film language. This new film needs new freedoms: freedom from the conventions of the established industry; freedom from the outside influence of commercial partners; freedom from the control of special-interest groups. The old film is dead. We believe in the new one.” 2
Kings of the Road can well be seen as a meditation on the Oberhausen Manifesto from a new generation of filmmakers, but it can also be seen as a living embodiment of the manifesto; filmmaking by those who speak a new film language, and who are operating outside of the old commercial parameters.
The film is dominated by Wenders’ predilection towards long takes of seemingly inconsequential matter, making the ordinary supra-ordinary, where the events of six and a half days are translated into just over three hours’ screen time. As such it captures a realistic sense of male companionship, where irrelevance and separation dominate, and the two men find it easier to bond through singing along to American rock ‘n’ roll, than through connecting over issues of substance. There is a palpable absence of women in the film (they are present but have no significant role and no significant connection to the male characters), echoing the divided Germany. Bruno and Robert cannot raise themselves from their own disfunctionality, cannot make themselves ‘whole’ in the absence of women, in the same way that West Germany cannot become ‘whole’ without embracing its dislocated other half. In capturing this dislocation, this disaffection, Wenders chooses to avoid many of the standard techniques of the Hollywood mainstream – the camera lingers on actions that are usually conventionally excised (Bruno’s lengthy walk from projection booth to his van), whilst the editing avoids the conventional cut to a reaction shot, favouring instead a cut to just after a reaction. This absents the conventional signposting and leaves the audience to capture significance from the events seen and engaged with, or not. It is the emotion sitting underneath the seeming emptiness, the moments of quiet, of hesitance between the lines of dialogue that are so affecting. Whilst Wenders cites American filmmakers John Ford, Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller as key influences on his understanding of landscape and character, it was Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu whose approach to filmmaking seemed to confirm so much of what Wenders had begun experimenting with. The decentred narrative of Kings of the Road, and its ability to deliver narrative without the imposition of storyline3 are central techniques that Wenders shares with Ozu, and this stripped-down approach is echoed in the foregrounding of elements of both style and content.
The film is shot in black and white (using a mix of 35mm and 16mm stock), flagged to the audience in the title sequence, alerting them to an immediate sense of the alternative to American and European film’s concentration on stylised colour palettes. It was a decision that betrays a longing for a past form that was less superficial, or that perhaps presages a distantiation device that he was later to use in Der Himmel über Berlin/Wings of Desire (1987). This choice also serves to add a resonance to the desolate landscape, with compositions that deliberately echo the photographs of America taken during the Great Depression by Walker Evan. This particularly stark aesthetic with its socio-political-historical connotations brings a particular depth to Robert’s statement that ‘The Americans have colonised our subconscious.’ It is not simply that the West Germans have been Americanised as the dress codes, the cultural reference points, and even the soundtrack of the film would suggest, but that they have been assimilated into a particular form of American duality – the consumerist and the victim of unrelenting capitalism.
While there is a sense of an empty Americana spilling out from the interaction of the two leads and the treatment of the creative elements surrounding them, there is a distinctly anti-American, or anti-decadent critique present in the film. This is most obviously manifested in the sequence where Bruno enters a cinema that is showing a porn film, where (like all good cinephiles) he finds himself unhappy with the quality of the image and goes to complain. In the projectionist booth the projectionist is caught masturbating and exits rapidly. Alone, Bruno cuts together a sequence of film into a loop of breasts, a burning house, and a woman being raped – a clear criticism of the influence of American cinema at this time. Less obvious but more powerful, is the sequence where Bruno walks to the foreground of a landscape shot, crouches, and defecates. This ultra-realism, this brutal acknowledgement of what it is to be human is defiant in the face of the exploitative fare of mainstream cinema, and also perhaps serves to answer a question posed by Wenders – How should one live?4 Morally reduced by conventions that barely relate to a national context, or free, even if within the confines of a no-man’s land of truncated roads and ambitions?
The film bears all of the motifs that dominate Wenders’ subsequent works, roads, railway lines, trackways, and indeed the ever-present separation – the border with its warnings, its watchtowers and its barbed wire. These form the backdrop against which the two central characters discover and restore themselves, and in doing so embody a nation discovering a past not talked of and thereby redeeming itself. Yet with this metaphor it is the border that still restricts redemption as it literally truncates the paths and symbolically truncates all journeys. Wenders concludes the film with the titular track ‘King of the Road’, a song of the rootless wanderer, and so grants Bruno and Robert their apposite title of ‘Kings’, though painfully of a divided and psychologically arrested kingdom.
1. Wim Wenders quoted in Sean Axmaker, ‘Road Movie to the Soul: The Cinematic Journeys of Wim Wenders’ (27 September 2010), on the Parallax View Blog. Available at: http://parallax-view.org/2010/09/27/ road-movie-to-the-soul-the-cinematic-journeysof-wim-wenders/ (accessed 27 November 2012).
2. Oberhausen Manifesto translation quoted in Nick Roddick, ‘The Road Goes on Forever’ in Sight and Sound (Jan, 2008).
3. Paraphrased from Wenders’ own description of what he learned about his own work from watching the films of Ozu in Wim Wenders, The Act of Seeing: Essays and Conversations, London, Faber and Faber, 1997.
4. Quoted in Glenn Kenny, Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report (20th July 2010). Available at http://mubi.com/notebook/posts/ tuesday-morning-foreign-region-dvd-reportkings-of-the-road-in-the-course-of-time-wimwenders-1976 (accessed 27 November 2012).
Cast and Crew:
[Country: West Germany. Production Company: Wim Wenders Produktion. Director and Screenwriter: Wim Wenders. Cinematographer: Robbie Müller and Martin Schäfer. Music: Axel Linstädt. Editor: Peter Przygodda. Cast: Rüdier Vogeler (Bruno Winter), Hanns Zischler (Robert Lander), Lisa Kreuzer (Cashier) Rudolf Schündler (Robert’s father), Marquard Böhm (Man who has lost his wife), Dieter Traier (Garage owner), Franziska Stömmer (Cinema-owner), Patrick Kreuzer (Little boy).]
Timothy Corrigan, New German Cinema: The Displaced Image, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1994.
Thomas Elsaesser, New German Cinema: A History, London, Palgrave, 1989.
Kathe Geist, The Cinema of Wim Wenders: From Paris, France, to Paris, Texas, Ann Arbor, Michigan, University of Michigan, 1988.
Sheila Johnston, Wim Wenders, London, BFI, 1981.
Robert Kolker and Peter Beicken, The Films of Wim Wenders: Cinema as Vision and Desire, Cambridge and New York, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
John Sandford, The New German Cinema, New Jersey, Barnes & Noble, 1980.
Wim Wenders, Emotion Pictures: Reflections on Cinema, London, Faber & Faber, 1989.
Wim Wenders, The Logic of Images, London, Faber & Faber, 1992.
Wim Wenders, The Act of Seeing: Essays and Conversations, London, Faber & Faber, 1997.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.