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The Strange Case of
of the WORLD,

Part One

--- a colossal but intimate epic: one movie or three? Or a miniseries?

I was charmed by Wim Wenders' 1991 film, Until the End of the World, from the first moment I saw it. It had possibly been planned as a multipart television show for German television, and had premiered in Paris at a length somewhat longer than its American release.

Initial reviews and reaction to Until were not particularly strong, and its success did not equal that of Wenders' previous international hit Wings of Desire. Much of the negative reaction may have stemmed from its atypical structure. Until begins as an oddball thriller, with a semi-romantic couple pursuing one another across Europe, Siberia, to the Far East, to San Francisco and finally to the Australian Outback. The plot never really decides whether its main focus is a bank robbery, a runaway party girl, or a nuclear crisis. All three themes are backgrounded when the movie concentrates for its final third on a bizarre invention whose technical and philosophical complications bring the action almost to a halt.

Couple this nonstandard structure with a Wenders-like refusal to give Until a Hollywood pace or to dumb it down even for a moment, and you have a film typical audiences hate. They actually have to work a bit to 'get' it, and any expectations they had coming in are foiled because the film is almost completely unpredictable.

Claire and the Visual Miracle.

Love it or not, Until the End of the World is truly unique. It boasts a charming and convincing glimse of a near-future. There are cars that talk, VidFax machines, and an hilarious detective computer program called 'The Bounty Bear' ("I search them here, I search them there") that runs on those 'superior Vietnamese chips'. Beautiful imagery across five continents is accompanied by truly well-chosen alternative rock music.

If a synopsis must do, Savant suggests you visit the Official Until the End of the World website. There's more discussion there about such nice tangents as the Phillip Winter character played by Rudiger Vogler, who shows up repeatedly in Wenders' films. What the creators of that site need to catch up on, and Savant can provide, is a thorough rundown on the alternate five+ hour (!) version of the film that director Wenders screened here and there for museums and film societies in 1996. I caught the American Cinematheque show at the Preview House on October 12 of that year - a screening I'll never forget.

Wisely retaining control of his film elements, Mr. Wenders cut, mixed and had at least one answer print made of what might be his fourth version of Until. I'm not sure if the multipart miniseries was actually made, but I have the 158 minute Warners laserdisc and finally the longer 181 minute Japanese laserdisc. Apparently Wenders was looking for studio interest in a second release of Until the End of the World, not as a longer cut but as three movies, and was foiled by legal considerations: Warners has the rights to the 1991 version of the film in the United States (at the minimum), and parallel distribution of a version 'the same, only different,' would violate that agreement.

Any filmmaker set on a course of personal expression so compelling that he feels it necessary to make a film with so little conventional chance of being released, let alone be 'successful', will get Savant's attention any day.

This Is The Way The World Ends: Twistin' to Chubby Checker.

Wenders spoke after the marathon screening, and his rapt audience learned the following facts:

- The filming was done with a core group of talent that picked up crews and production personnel in new locations as they travelled around the world. Hence the endless credits at the end with enough production personnel for four movies.

- The money just ran out (or was permission denied? I forget) to shoot in China so actress Solveig Dommartin and one cameraperson surreptitiously shot the Chinese scenes (seen on VideoFax in Paris by Eugene Fitzpatrick (Sam Neill)) on their own.

- Most plot elements were known ahead of time but, in accordance with Wenders' working methods, many details were improvised as filming went along. Amazing then that the film seems so beautifully directed; Wenders has the 'gift of cinema' in that Until looks entirely conceived (never 'covered') and that his camera always has that uncanny 'exactly the right place' feeling.

- Wenders sent out a call to his favorite musicians for original compositions for the film and received so much good music he decided not to choose a winner but to use it all. He admitted without a hint of regret that this decision locked him into epic length ...

- Wenders also confessed his producers had to literally pull the plug on him for his own good to end the filming. He wanted to take the film to a conclusion in the African Congo. There, the Pygmies 'dream music' would have brought his characters and themes full circle, and end his epic with a statement about 'the community of humanity'. As it is he hit every continent except Africa and South America.

- Wenders cut the various versions of Until the End of the World from successive internegative copies, instead of letting his original negative be cut into any particular version. He never surrendered control of his original elements. Knowing it might take years for the film to find its 'final' form, he completely avoided the kinds of disasters that occur when the negative falls into hostile editorial hands - witness Greed, The Magnificent Ambersons, etc.

Claire dares peek at 2 MORE HOURS of epic science fiction.


What the far-flung but Internet-connected fans of Until the End of the World want to know most, is what they missed in the long, long version screened in only a few key locations. The domestic cut was a little over two-and-a-half hours long - of what do the other two and a half hours consist, exactly? As much as Savant hates spoilers, I'm going to list the major differences here as best I can remember them, without a great deal of detail, with the hope that it will help UNTIL be exhibited again in some form, somehow, somewhere. Scenes or elements in RED are included on the Japanese laser.

1.) Each of the three parts of the film has its own title sequence in German, distinguished by 'part one', 'two', & 'three' added to the title.

2) The songs heard in snips and snappets (skillfully woven into the fabric) of the domestic cut are all intact and full length. Forgive me if I can't recall a single one wearing out its welcome or upstaging other elements of the film ....

3) Claire Tourneur's (Solveig Dommartin) lost weekend or whatever it is in Venice lasts about ten minutes longer as she gathers her belongings and tries to get out of her boyfriend's lavish digs. On her way she picks a path through some broken glass, and stumbles into a room where two children are playing with some hi-tech dinosaur (or robot?) toys. We also get a much better look at the jetsetters and party lizards hanging about.

Robot toys in the party house.

4) Claire's journey includes a stop at the Italo-Franco border, and more wandering on those country roads not indexed on her car's computer guidemap ('You're on your own, Claire').

5) In Paris, there are scenes of Claire's friend Makiko (Adele Lutz) taking an apartment or viewing one; it is revealed that Claire's on-again, off-again romance with Eugene was a committed relationship that collapsed after he and Makiko had an affair. Claire's character takes on more gravity, and her fling with wanted man Sam Farber now seems less caprice and more an expression of her wounded heart's searching.

6) In Lisbon, Private Detective Philip Winter is referred to as a gentle soul, most of whose work was locating missing children. More news programs about the Indian nuclear satellite in the threateningly decaying orbit are viewed...

7) In Russia, there is a long walk to the apartment of the devious Krasikova (Elena Smirnova) with her fancy 'Bounty Bear' detective computer program. Here Claire defines what she means by calling Eugene by the pet name 'broken ladder': "You're like a ladder with a missing rung - I can only climb so high and I get stuck". Emotionally betrayed, Claire is at a romantic standstill because she can not force her love to develop any further. Eugene is doomed to watch her drift slowly into an ironic relationship with Sam Farber, an outlaw who constantly deceives and betrays her.

8) The Siberian train ride is considerably longer, with exactly what I cannot recall (some Savant, huh?). I do know Claire waits for Sam outside his compartment door much longer and interacts a bit with some interesting Russians.

9) There isn't any more racing around corridors in the Yakuza chase in Tokyo, but substantially more of Claire and Eugene tracking Sam down, more of Claire finding Sam in the pachinko parlors, and a tad more of Eugene and Detective Phillip Winter joining forces. And the sojourn at the rural Japanese inn lasts far longer. Sam's herbal recovery is slower and the introduction of the experimental vision-recording headset more elaborate. Here is where the two lovers find a bond. Solveig appears nude on the steps of their Japanese bungalow, a poetic scene reminiscent of Wings of Desire.

10) The San Francisco scenes are much more elaborate. In contrast to the sanity of the rest of the world, the United States is apparently a bizarre gangland of hopeless poverty. The squalor on display as the lovers hang out in a squatter's alley, awaiting monetary aid from French bank robber / good buddy Chico (Chick Ortega) shows America has become the New Third World, the Superpower Without a Clue.

11) A random and vicious raid (police? CIA?) terrorizes Claire and her equally helpless neighbors. Claire is arrested. Plainclothes agents brutalize citizens indiscriminately and crash warrantless into apartments in a pretty nervy criticism of what already passes for due process now in big American cities.

Busted on skid row.

12) Arriving after the raid, Sam has little choice but to wait in a bar for Claire's release. She indeed reunites with him there in a scene reminiscent of the bar encounters of Wings of Desire. This scene is used in the theatrical trailers.

13) A nervous man seen earlier in a tavern, wailing amusingly about the doom potential of the nuclear satellite, suddenly shows up on live television from Europe, where he holds a hapless diplomat at gunpoint. He illogically demands that the wayward satellite be dealt with, or else. The conversion of harmless worrywart into lethal maniac is both funny and disturbing.

14) The regrouping of the principal players at the Outback air hangar is longer. When the cops do an ID check on Sam, 'bells ring' both with Krasikova's Bounty Bear program in Moscow and with bounty hunter Bert, thus verifying Winter's explanation for the Yakuza problem in Tokyo, and explaining Bert's arrival at the outback laboratory. Also longer is Sam and Claire's trek across the wasteland.

Bert alert: interruption - Sam Farber located.

15) Once the journey reaches the cave-laboratory, the pace really slows down... I'd guess that the last third of the US domestic release constitutes the last half of the 3-movie version. There is easily an extra hour here. Edith Farber's (Jeanne Moreau) native 'sister' protests the unnaturalness of the experiment and Edith's part in it with a burst of emotion. There is much more elaboration of the little community that develops while waiting for the world to end. Besides more and longer Aboriginal rituals, there are a group of scenes that show the informal creation of a commual music-making group that slowly grows in size (Winter plays the harmonica, remember). The primitive 'society' born while Waiting for the World to End would thus musically relate to the primitive Pygmies. There is also a big party scene commemorating the millenial New Year, where Claire dances, and sings her own cover of 'Days' (Thank you for the days . . .).

16) There are far more dream images to study, so many that the film seems for a while to dissolve into abstract cinema. Also, the 'disease of images' is shown to affect Sam more strongly, and Claire's withdrawal is longer and more harrowing.

17) After the coda back in the states showing Sam visiting a grave (the film ends in 2001, by the way), there is an extremely affecting surreal bar scene where Eugene tries out 'a happy ending' for his book, Dance Around the World. Sam sits at a barstool as a hauntingly beautiful Claire enters their favorite rendezvous one more time.....

With many film restoration jobs, the anxiety is that the necessary elements may be found to have been poorly stored, or destroyed outright in some vault 'cleanup'. Thanks to Wim Wenders' shrewd forethought Until the End of the World seems fairly safe from such a fate; even though there as yet may be no video transfer of this 3-film version. There is none in the Warner Bros. computer system at present). Had the original been a popular success, no doubt this gigantic expansion would be a natural for some kind of video release (DVD! DVD!), especially with the successful precedent of Columbia's Das Boot, another film from a German director with a history of multi-length versions. If any cult film could take off from a position of relative obscurity and shine again, Until the End of the World might be just the one.

In the second half of
Video Savant explores the relationship between this film
and another science fiction drama so
similar that they seem to be bizarre

Eugene and Phillip, the Tokyo connection.

Try the following SAVANT entries!

Text © Copyright 1998,1999 Glenn Erickson.

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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 1997-2001 Glenn Erickson

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