#816 Kings of the Road
1976 // Germany // Wim Wenders
Criterion Release Date: 31 May 2016 (LINK)
Wim Wenders, along with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, were my introduction to German cinema, way back to my college years when my interest in world cinema started to grow exponentially. Kings of the Road was the first Wenders’ film I watched, which led to the search of Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987) in the Criterion Collection. Yet, it was not love at first sight, the dissociation evoked by the episodic, narrative structure and the three hours running time created a arduous challenge for anyone just expect for pure entertainment.
Instead, Kings of the Road is the exemplar of pure cinema. The spontaneity and improvisation of plot unfolding, the bleak yet mesmerizing landscape and location shots by DP Robby Müller, the enchanting musical score by the Improved Sound Limited and Wenders-handpicked 60s songs played in the record player from scene to scene (Heinz’s “Just Like Eddie”, Roger Miller’s “King of the Road”), all generate a unique atmospheric tone that encapsulated the still-healing and guilt-bounded post-WWII territory-split Germany. The film had the element of documenting that specific time, a time that was struck in the middle of unmendable past and unforeseeable future whilst the sense of living in present was missing. Here, Wenders used cinema as the allegory.
In the prologue, Bruno Winter (Rüdiger Vogler), the film projection equipment repairer, had a casual-as-usual conversation on the lost glory of German cinema and the present predicament with the cinema owner, who had to sue back the government in order to repossessed his own theater after the war invoked by Nazi. The film was book-ended with an epilogue of discussion with another owner who expressed a pessimistic view on the current exploitative films (“brutality, action, sex”, echoing a repeated montage sequence in the middle of the film where Winter wilfully reedited several frames of a film when he substituted as a film projectionist) and, hence the decline of “serious” cinema.
Kings of the Road was dedicated to Fritz Lang, the film auteur and German lost figure who left his country in the 30s due to the incoming war. Wenders paid another small tribute by having a cameo from Lang in a clip of magazine (the set photo of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt). The deliberate use of film reference and homage, especially to American films, reminiscing the notable characteristics of French New Wave figures. The numerous shabby, near-closing theaters as the one seen in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), Winter’s revisiting of his dilapidated childhood house is similar to Robert Mitchum’s character in The Lusty Men (1952), not to mention the motorcycle road film Easy Rider (1969), these are all spiritual counterparts enriching the viewing experience in Kings of the Road.
After all, watching Kings of the Road was none other than an experience. An experience of fateful encounter between two lonely men and their journey without an ultimate destination along the Inner German Border which separate the West Germany from the socialist East. The story started with Winter, with his truck loaded with projection repairing equipment on the bank of Elbe River, witnessing a half-hearted suicide attempt by the miserable pediatrician Robert Lander (Hanns Zischler) who crash his car deliberately into the River. Reticent yet virtuous, Lander soon tagged along Winter’s trip from crossing town to town to repair projection equipment in local theaters. There were not much introduction or explanation between the two characters, even not much talking for the first thirty minutes after their encounter. Things one considered as essential characters’ background information were left in blank, or occasionally revealed bit by bit afterwards.
We saw Lander kept calling someone, maybe his wife, but immediately hanged up when somebody answered the phone. He visited his father (Rudolf Schündler) who worked alone for a local town newspaper, there was a rift between son and father that left unresolved since the death of Lander’s mother. Winter met Pauline (Lisa Kreuzer), a cashier of a movie theater, and spent an unusual night together. They were lonely, yet afraid to be together. In Bruno Winter, we saw glimpses of Phillip Winter of Alice in the Cities (1974) and Wilhelm Meister of Wrong Move (1975), the preceding two films in Wenders’ “Road Trilogy” all played by Rüdiger Vogler: introverted, reticent, self-indulgent, engrossed in his own thoughts. But in Kings of the Road, it was the comradeship between the two leads that took the center stage of the film. There was no uplifting buddy moment but restrained or casual interactions, even when they brawl by fist-fight in a vacant shack next to the border of East Germany. The mutual understanding existed without any intimacy whatsoever, it was the path-crossing that really mattered, not the destination. At the end of the film, Winter and Lander separated and back to their own journey, Winter drove his own truck mounted with a Michelin Man up top at front, while Lander took the train as a routine passenger, camera cross-cut between their point-of-view while the two vehicle moving parallel to each other. They soon crossed path the last time at a junction, each saying their last word to the other (even they couldn’t hear).
The journey was presented like multiple anecdotes, or a short moment in the characters’ life story. As Winter said near the end of the film, “For the first time I see myself as someone who’s gone through a certain time, and that time is my story”. Kings of the Road was made without any script, except the first scene when Winter met Lander, everything else were created by improvisation or a short treatment by Wenders the night before shooting. The visual motives of the provincial Germany were inspired by the photographies of Walker Evans, the shots were like a time capsule that, like the story, represented that specific unreproducible moments. Kings of the Road is the summation of artistic vision and talents from multiple collaborators, they all took the same journey while the characters did their own, that’s the beauty of filmmaking, and the result of pure cinema.