(West) Germany, 1976
Directed by Wim Wenders
With Rüdiger Vogler (Bruno Winter), Hanns Zischler (Robert Lander), Marquard Bohm (the man who lost his wife), Lisa Kreutzer (Pauline), Rudolf Schündler (Robert’s father)
The meeting occurs in the most unexpected circumstances. Bruno Winter pulled off his jalopy of a truck on a drab riverbank to spend the night between two stops in his never-ending tour of small towns to do his job: he is an itinerant projectionist, helping one-screen theaters to keep showing their few customers some new releases at fairly long intervals. Now it is the morning and after getting dressed he sets out to shave. But then a Volkswagen Beetle hurtles along the road then the path leading to the river and takes a dive: Robert Lander, whom the camera has been tracking the antics in close-ups interspersed with wider shots showing how madly he was driving along a mundane, rather dry countryside with little people living around, seems to have managed to bust up his car – unless he seems to have spoiled a suicide attempt, it is not that clear at this point what was on his mind.
Robert swims to the spot where a mocking Bruno is waiting. The projectionist gives some help and then the stranger gets on the truck. Few words have exchanged – and not much would in most of the film. Both men now form a couple – and this unexpected situation would go on for most of the film, an obvious fact remaining unchallenged and unexplained. This is a friendship born out of chance and in a rush demanding no analysis and feeling truly natural and genuine. Bruno and Robert, despite clear differences in personality and background the film quietly suggests, just get along and the camera observes the subtle, powerful chemistry uniting these two solitudes.
They do part ways at one point, after talking with a dejected man whose wife has just committed suicide by riding their car against a tree: Robert suddenly decides to pay a visit to his father who lives nearby while Bruno goes to another small town for fun and flirts with a young woman who turns out to be the cashier of the local movie theater. The next stop on Bruno’s itinerary happens to be the small town where Robert was: both men pick up their wanderings through the countryside and even widen the scope of their adventures, as Bruno gets convinced to go to his native place, in search for his mother, on the Rhine river. Then they move back to the eastern regions of the then West Germany where their story has taken place, driving closer to the border with the then East Germany. After a long night drinking, chatting and sparring, both once again part ways, but this time for good – their friendship reaching a point of no return in a manner that is as natural and mundane as the beginning was.
If Bruno tends to be a quite open, easy to define character, a relaxed and artless young man moving through life without much thought and few inhibitions (when he wakes up the first time in his truck he gets busy in the buff and later does not refrain from defecating in the open – and the camera candidly pictures him in this carefree, wild attitudes without trouble or sense of provocation), Robert is harder to grasp – he is clearly an angry, fully dissatisfied man reluctant to articulate his problems. He would give different answers to the question about his occupation and keep calling someone on the phone even if no one answers him and even if it a nuisance for the people around him, including Bruno. It turns out that Robert and his wife have just broken up during a trip to Genoa; and that he fears he is as incapable of loving a woman as his father was, at least in his own opinion.
That echoes the mourning rave of the man who lost his wife; and that would spark the tiff creating some distance between Robert and Bruno, the latter first mocking his partner for his stubborn love and then owing up he yearns for a woman. The episode with Pauline, the young gal he seduced first at the fair and then on her workplace, emphasizes this need for having any kind of relationship with women but also, in a deadpan manner that is still somehow moving and delicate, the hard task it is for him to get along with them. Pauline is actually the sole female character who has some weight among the few, quick encounters the travelers have – her quiet, nice, if transient, presence points by contrast to the lack or the loss of women in the lives of Robert and Bruno, in particular the absence of mothers who did not have pleasant lives, it seems, and whose very absence reminds them of the flight of time. Their wanderings, made by design in Bruno’s case and by chance in Robert’s, are an arrangement with life, an opportunity to have adventures and to live freely enough to overlook the alienation those losses and lacks of women sustain. “Kings of the Road” claims the English title but they decidedly look like willful kids on the road, turning their lives into a lasting pause and a path to assert themselves on new, if better, terms.
“There is only life”, said the man who lost his wife, in the most dispirited way – and the narrative, shot as time goes by, to translate the original German title, looks like a long quest to come to terms with the more painful shortcomings a life can have. For Robert, it means accepting the failure of a love affair and at long last confronting his father; the voyage out was actually to him a voyage in, the welcome pause that widens his experience. For Bruno, things are more complicated, and actually deal with the nature of cinema.
The film is bookended by conversations Bruno, as he tinkers with projectors, has with those in charge of the small movie theaters he visits. In the first case the old man remembers his old days as a musician playing as silent films were screening – a talk heavy with nostalgia and the bitter memories of Germany’s troubled history. Bruno looks amused but sympathizes with the old man. He plainly shares the same passion for films although the rest of the narrative suggests he is not quite satisfied with his job and that the films he shows are not always appealing and even less remarkable. This is the point raised by the other movie theater owner in the closing shots of “Im lauf der zeit”. This middle-aged lady is keen on having her machines squeaky-clean and always up and running – but she is not using them and won’t as long as films released now in her country do not meet a higher standard; she would have none of the lurid contents and sloppy techniques coming so handily from the distributors (like the crap Bruno watched with Pauline). Bruno once again seems moved and touched – and this time, unlike what happened after the chat with the old man, which allowed the story ever to exist, it looks like he is not going to go back on the road and on business. Like Robert, he is putting his recent past behind him.
But to examine this move the film has not relied on the kind of narration and genres evoked by Bruno’s journey. This is not a film being grounded in any heritage and under the spell of nostalgia; this is not either a film trying to cater to the audience’s prejudices and habits, even less to pander to the instincts so curtly dismissed by the old lady. It does not bother to over-explained the characters, letting time and anecdotes cast enough light on their identities and problems, and even less to build a narrative sticking to a logic, with clear milestones and explicit conclusion.
Once again, director Wim Wenders uses the road movie genre but the meaning of his work has evolved. It is no longer an eager nod to a foreign culture that allows to examine how an artist grapples with opposing feelings, alienation and then sympathy and love, as it was the case with “Alice in den Städten – Alice in the Cities” in 1973. It is not just the frame for a voyage confronting a young man’s intellectual aspirations and his inability to connect with people that enables the narration to dismiss a cultural tradition epitomized by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and to suggest that cinema is better suited to capture the modern world – “Falsche Bewegung – Wrong Move” two years later. Now it is down to two people experiencing a basic story, actually no story at all, just a collection of moments: but filming the road, with an emphasis on long takes, offers the opportunity to delve deeper into human nature, in sync with the characters themselves and in the most spontaneous and generous way. This is about capturing the stream of life as time goes by without any contrived artistic mediation – the titles insist on the technical specs of the film, in particular on the fact it is the original sound recorded by the mikes: a statement that affirms honesty, transparency but also points to the lack of art, or rather of usual art. Road movie is cinema fully connected to the truth of the characters, fully anchored on the present time and fully embracing a vision shaped by authenticity and sincerity. “There is only life” said the man who lost his wife; and the fight is to seize it and keep it; and it turns out it is the only element that is worth shooting and that keeps cinema relevant.