Falsche Bewegung – Wrong Move

(West) Germany, 1975

Directed by Wim Wenders

With Rüdiger Vogler (Wilhelm), Hans Christian Blech (Laertes), Nastassja Kinski (Mignon), Hanna Schygulla (Therese), Peter Kern (Bernhard Landau), Ivan Desny (the industrialist)

Overcoming his spleen and following the advice of his mother, Wilhelm decides to travel around in the hope to kick-start a career as a writer. He intends to go to Bonn, then West Germany’s political capital; but his travel becomes unwieldy and unexpected under the influence of people he meets. First alone he ends up as the leader of a motley and intimate group roaming across the industrial nation.

His first two companions are an odd couple sitting on the same train compartment than he: Laertes, an old, congenial and talkative street musician, and Mignon, a charming but mute teenage acrobat. They are later followed by a would-be poet, Bernhard Landau, awkwardly looking for appreciation, and they bump into an actress whose face has been haunting Wilhelm ever since he noticed it by chance on a railway station, Therese. Now made up of five, the group uses Therese’s car to travel along till they stop at a countryside mansion Bernhard mistakenly thought a property of his uncle. It is actually an altogether different place occupied by a dejected industrialist tempted by suicide. He still puts them up and later seems to be a future companion; but he does commit suicide, prompting the group to flee.

A confused quest: from left to right, Hans Christian Blech, Nastassja Kinski, Rüdiger Vogler, Hanna Schygulla

This is in fact the beginning of the end: without giving explanation Bernhard leaves his new-found pals; then Wilhelm and Therese, who have been attracted to each other all along, start quarreling and eventually decide to part ways in Frankfurt; Wilhelm also picks up a fight with Laertes who vanishes, leaving Mignon on her own. In a final move, Wilhelm goes to a famous mountain, hoping to find inspiration but in fact acknowledging how hard it is to translate experience into words.

The titles as well as the very name of the lead character signal the film is based on the landmark novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship”. Yet screenwriter (and great novel writer on his own right) Peter Handke does not use many elements of the famous Bildungsroman, if any. What is clearly left is a quality of language thoroughly reconstructed, a way to express feelings and a focus on the wanderings and reflections of the mind (there is a lot of talks about dreams, metaphysics and politics) which give dialogues and scenes a high-minded and literary character both riveting to observe and to listen but still a bit off-putting as far as cinematic expectations of most viewers, including those who watched previous flicks from the new generation of German filmmakers Wim Wenders belonged to, are concerned. But this language is not so much a tribute than a way to challenge the vision underpinning the source material and drawing in deadpan and dark ways a critical portrait of an intellect out of touch with his world.

The passion of the original Wilhelm Meister for theater gives way to an obsession with writing that does not get the new Wilhelm very far. The point is no longer to express the human feelings but to describe the human experience – the same endeavor that a filmmaker is committed to; interestingly, before he goes on the last stage of his trip, Wilhelm, who has just left behind him Therese and Mignon, is asked by a couple of men to hold their small camera, so he can shoot them making the fool around a fountain, no doubt to have a funny film to show to their relatives and friends back home; what he sees through the camera is what the screen shows, a stunning moment when his vision can be fully conveyed and fully conveys reality; the aperture of the camera yields a more candid and immediate results than a pen, but Wilhelm is not troubled.

In his final, disillusioned, words, Wilhelm wonders if his words could even reach the world, fearing that in approaching reality and people he would always make a wrong move – the film’s title. This is a fairly pessimistic view for a writer, which is not unjustified given how the relationships he has set up in the course of the narrative have gone wrong; but in a paradoxical and essential move cinema at least suggests it can handle better that demanding relation to reality, the moves of the camera recording how bodies and minds struggle to move along and get together and the stylistic choices of the director bolster that point.

The original travel of Wilhelm Meister is now processed through a vision influenced by the road movie genre that Wenders boldly explored in 1973 with “Alice in den Städten – Alice in the Cities”, starring the same lead actor, Rüdiger Vogler. The genre’s peculiar atmosphere shaped by never-ending transit, idle wait and odd encounters suits well that twisted tale of a group born out of chance and whose members try to get along and to make sense of life – that can resonate by the way with the broader urge to create new communities on the fringes of the modern, industrialized society in the wake of the counter-culture born in the 1960s America, a land that is key to Wenders’ imagination (and it is probably no accident that the industrialist eventually chooses self-destruction). Images, featuring a lot of surprising ideas of composition (like the first time Wilhelm sees Therese or a long, quiet wandering through streets as the walkers become attuned to the problems of ordinary people), sometimes remarkable sets (like the countryside mansion) and a sad, alluring score, capture the quest Wilhelm pretends to achieve while showing how his obsession with words clearly do not help him; carried away by his cogitations, which are moreover stirred by political aspirations, he is not able to grasp what the outer world and other people could bring to him – this time, Therese and Mignon would not be as successful as Alice was with Philip Winter.

In this way “Falsche Bewegung – Wrong Move” stands as a modern-day rejection of the ideas underpinning Goethe’s book, even as some shots do like to allude to Romantic paintings and other milestones of the German Romanticism are evoked (like the works of Joseph von Eichendorff): the confrontation between the self and the world does not bring enlightenment and emotions do not free the soul. This Wilhelm ends up being as stubborn and sullen as he was at the start; then he wanted to break free, literally and symbolically breaking windows to get rid of the screen keeping his sensibility from touching the world; but at the end he stands alone before a gorgeous landscape far away and impossible to describe (but not to shoot in a wonderful way), with few texts in his notebook and a sinking sense of failure that gives his story a depressing title at the opposite of the pleasant titles of Romanticism and their delicate quest for the wealth of the human experience, especially on a first person basis. This culture is obviously irrelevant to our world and what today’s culture can bring is a fresh vision that would not be duped by the self-centered heroes of bygone. The moving images have their own ways to connect to a changing world and with the touching people crisscrossing it. So this is a film with a somber mood and a sober view of intelligence.

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