Wim Wenders with Pope Francis at the Vatican (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The Right Man for the Job

How Wim Wenders Came to Make a Film About Pope Francis

I really wanted to hate Pope Francis: A Man of His Word but couldn’t bring myself to do it. In fact, I ended up kind of…uh…loving it. What’s worse, by the time the final credits rolled, one tiny tear managed to roll its way down my cheek. Much to my resentment.

The thing is, it’s the kind of documentary I usually hate. The ones I love—The Sorrow and the Pity being a prime example—unfold a subject in all its complexity, discovering the evil that can sometimes result from good actions and the goodness that can survive wicked ones, and all the other surprises that life springs on us. Pope Francis doesn’t do any of this. Its director, the German-born but globally active Wim Wenders, fell in love with his subject before making the film, remained in love during the four-day papal interview that is its core, and lost not a bit of his admiration through many months of editing. As he said in his interview with Commonweal (“Worthy of His Name,” June 15), “I loved this man and what he stood for, so anybody who expects a film critical of the church or its policies is looking for the wrong movie.” I wasn’t exactly expecting adverse criticism of the church, but I did hope for a complex engagement with Francis’s various stands on various issues. What I got instead, and what I succumbed to, was a triumph of personality.

Wenders shot his interview with a device called the interrotron, pioneered by Errol Morris in his great documentary The Fog of War. In conventional documentaries the interviewees are positioned in front of the camera in such a way that their eyes never directly meet the gaze of the viewer; instead they look at the person asking the questions. But Wenders wanted to “share [the pope’s] eyes with the audience,” and the interrotron creates the illusion of eye-to-eye contact between Francis and each audience member. In effect, the director is giving us a private audience with the pope, as if we were sitting only inches away from him. On a movie theater’s big screen the effect proves to be not distracting but enveloping. We float within the aura of Francis.

The content of the interviews isn’t new if we’ve been paying attention to Francis’s past statements about capitalism, poverty, the environment, homosexuality, and the refugee crisis. But the physical presence magnified by the camera seems to certify and burnish the pope’s message. He never gives the impression of trying to cajole you into agreement but instead presents you with his entire self as testament to his beliefs. The usual talking heads on our various screens are trying to get you to see things their way. But Francis conveys the impression that his way has room enough for your way and vice-versa. Certainly there have been great commentators—I’m thinking of Swift, Orwell, Mencken—who have blessed humanity with their corrosive and necessary negatives, their anathemas on greed and violence. The pope takes aim at these same targets, but his presence bespeaks a constant Yes, a cherishing of the good things of the earth that greed and violence would destroy.

I don’t mean to imply that in this film the pontiff’s words count for nothing and his image for everything. When he counsels a gathering of cardinals not to succumb to a “spiritual Alzheimer’s Disease,” or when, at a Holocaust memorial service, he apostrophizes all humankind with the words “Adam, who convinced you that you are god?” his language is powerful indeed: but because these words are spoken by a man of such compelling presence—and because that presence is cinematically magnified—we may feel that the words are being directed at us personally. I’m pretty sure Wenders, in his initial conferences with the pope, felt this himself and was determined to convey it in his film, a work that he now calls his favorite, and one to which his entire career led him.

Born in Dusseldorf in 1945, Wenders sought escape, as many younger Germans did, from the dreariness of a bombed and occupied country and found it in the big-band jazz of American Forces radio and the Hollywood movies

Fans and critics of Wenders’s early work dubbed him the ultimate road-movie director, for his characters always seemed to be on the road looking for something badly needed but elusive. Born in Dusseldorf in 1945, Wenders sought escape, as many younger Germans did, from the dreariness of a bombed and occupied country and found it in the big-band jazz of American Forces radio and the Hollywood movies that had conquered Germany’s cinemas as decisively as Patton’s army had overwhelmed the land. Wenders was raised Catholic and briefly considered the priesthood. After studying medicine and philosophy, he decided to take up painting and etching in Paris, where he discovered Henri Langlois’s legendary Cinematheque, the ultimate archive and movie theater, and began his own cram course by taking in five films a day. A more formal schooling followed in 1967 at the University of Television and Film at Munich, and he soon became a film critic for Munich publications.

His early films—The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, Alice in the Cities, The Wrong Move, Kings of the Road—are all road movies, heavy with Germanic existential angst, yet loping along with an easy American rhythm reinforced by a soundtrack of American pop songs. Nevertheless, a viewer may feel that the protagonists are always straining to break out of their mental straitjackets, and that the German and Austrian horizons aren’t distant enough to satisfy their wanderlust. But the yearning within them signals a theme Wenders has pursued throughout his later career. As David Thomson wrote of Kings of the Road: “It seemed to predict Wenders’s future: an increasingly existential concern underlying the unforced dealings between lonely people.”

A very forced dealing is at the heart of The American Friend (1977), the movie that gained Wenders a large international audience and attracted the attention of Hollywood. An American con artist persuades a good German family man that the latter is dying from a rare disease (he isn’t) and that he ought to leave his family a tidy inheritance by taking on a mob-controlled hit job. The German discovers a new vitality within himself when he carries out the murder, while the American discovers his capacity for compassion when he decides to protect the rookie assassin after matters spin out of control. So the taking of a life can lead to a new lease on life? Murder can promote friendship? Or is this an allegory about NATO? Be that as it may, Wenders demonstrated an unexpected gift for melodrama and comic violence (his grotesquely funny staging of multiple killings on a train leaves Quentin Tarantino in the dust) that Hollywood was certain to notice.

However, once Wenders went to California to make Hammett under the patronage of Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope studio, he proved to be much more interested in those “unforced dealings between lonely people” than in making the detective story-cum-biography that Hammett was supposed to be, and the result reportedly contains less than a fifth of the film Wenders originally conceived.

But with his very next American movie (actually financed by a European consortium), Wenders made something very close to a masterpiece. Paris, Texas is the story of a drifter named Travis (played to shambling perfection by Harry Dean Stanton), who stumbles back into Texas from Mexico, mumbling that he’s “lost his family.” He seeks out his estranged wife and seven-year-old son. The reunion with the child is a Chaplinesque ballet of comic pathos, while the meeting with the wife (Nastassja Kinski) is one of the strangest, most haunting scenes ever put on screen. Mutual forgiveness follows but not the full restoration of family. Having reunited wife and son (after Travis abandoned her, she left the boy with an uncle), Travis takes off again because he can’t find within himself whatever would make him part of the family. Cherishing his loved ones, he still can’t cherish himself.

Photographed by Wenders’s usual cameraman, Robby Müller, in colors that can turn a peepshow booth into a confessional, and scored by Ry Cooder with wry elegance, Paris, Texas is a rarity: a work of pathos so understated that one never feels manipulated. Making it allowed Wenders—working from a deeply moving script by Sam Shepard—to come to grips with a theme that was present but inchoate in his earlier work: in a world that doesn’t prize community and even militates against it, people must secure their own micro-communities of loved ones before they can prevail or even merely survive in the larger world outside the home. (Did the conman and the rookie killer of American Friend form such a micro-community?) It’s no wonder that Wenders gives a prominent place in his Francis documentary to the pope’s declaration that no one can be happy without the three T’s: trabajo (meaningful work), tierra (land, and by extension a homeland), and techo (literally roof, a synecdoche for home and family). Paris, Texas dramatizes the importance of these elements by taking as its protagonist a man who hungers for but can’t secure them.

[In Wenders’s films] there is an ever-increasing awareness of both the preciousness and the fragility of human life, an abiding sorrow for the thousand ways people can be destroyed, and an abiding faith that wounded lives can be repaired.

But it is in the 1987 German film Wings of Desire, made in collaboration with the remarkable Austrian writer Peter Handke, that Wenders truly reveals his affinities with Pope Francis. Handke was inspired by the first of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, in which angels are portrayed as beings we might be tempted to turn to in moments of anguish but who would destroy us with their “overwhelming presence.” According to the Elegies, “Every angel is terrifying.” Wenders’s film reverses this conceit. Its angels, Damiel and Cassiel, are introduced neither as rescuers nor as impersonal forces but as figures hovering invisibly over scenes of childbirth, marital quarrels, worrying parents, circus performers, library patrons, a movie set presided over by Peter Falk (playing himself), and an elderly writer who might be the reincarnation of Homer. The angels are passionately benevolent in their feelings for humankind; like celestial anthropologists, they witness, collect, and savor large and small moments, and even get together to compare field notes. (Wings is, among other things, a very funny movie.) But they’re not allowed to interfere, even when they might save lives. This loving impotence is most grippingly revealed when a despairing man, unable to feel Cassiel’s comforting presence, throws himself off a high building, and Cassiel emits an anguished scream for the waste of life. Finally, Damiel has had enough of the “timeless, downward look” he’s confined to, and of the “world behind the world” that is heaven. Wanting to share in the wide diapason of human feelings, he chooses to become human.

In his program note for the Criterion DVD, Michael Atkinson nicely describes Wings as “a searing anthem for everydayness, as Buddhist as it is Christlike, but defined by its own metaphysic.” There are so many correspondences between passages in Wings and Francis’s various statements in the documentary that you could swear the earlier film was inspired by the later one. For instance, Francis emphasizes the value and difficulty of listening to another person. The angels of Wings can at first do nothing but listen and observe. Finally, that’s not enough for Damiel, who yearns to suffer and rejoice amid humanity, which Francis also instructs us to do.

Wenders spoke, during the making of Wings, of most people being like sovereign states, charging emotional tolls from others before allowing themselves to form relationships. The film was shot two years before the Berlin Wall came down, and Wenders felt that that physical barrier reflected the division within the hearts of Berliners. Divided from their countrymen externally and divided within themselves psychologically, West and East Berliners shared only the sky over their heads, and Wenders thought that only angels navigating that sky could pass over both Berlins without passports. (The original German title of the movie is Der Himmel über Berlin—“The Heavens over Berlin.”) Pope Francis, who has said he wants to build bridges, not walls, seems to want to do away with self-protecting tolls both between individuals and between states.

In all the films Wenders has made in the thirty-three years since Wings of Desire, both documentaries and fictions, there is an ever-increasing awareness of both the preciousness and the fragility of human life, an abiding sorrow for the thousand ways people can be destroyed, and an abiding faith that wounded lives can be repaired. This perception, implicit in almost every statement Francis makes, finds its finest expression in the director’s shockingly ignored masterpiece of 2015, Every Thing Will Be Fine, starring James Franco and Rachel McAdams, a film that concludes with a close-up of the hero’s face after he has repaired a significant portion of the damage he did in his youth. And that close-up is shot, like the close-ups of Pope Francis, as eye-to-eye contact between Franco and the viewer, one human establishing contact with, and inviting empathy from, his fellow mortals. Every Thing Will Be Fine or Wings of Desire or any of Wenders’s best work make it clear that when Vatican officials approached him to do the Francis documentary, they found the right man for the job.

Published in the August 10, 2018 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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