Where there's a Wim, there's a way.
Science fiction films of classic stature haven't been that frequent since 1968, when 2001: A Space Odyssey raised the bar for what audiences expected to see in futuristic special effects. Century City has torn down some of the buildings that represented the far future in the Planet of the Apes sequels. Jetsons- like architecture went out of style, anyway: when post-apocalyptic scenarios became the norm, it was replaced by rubble, blast craters and recycled muscle cars.
But the most ambitious film of post-modern sci-fi prognostication is a pure original, not part of either of those trends. Made just as CGI was transforming what could be depicted on screen, Wim Wenders' 1991 Until the End of the World is a strange movie to pin down. Its pedigree is the New German Cinema, a period of creativity that only occasionally turned to science fiction, and then mostly with scathing social criticism -- cite Uwe Brandner's Ich liebe dich, ich töte dich (1971) and Der große Verhau (1970). Wim Wenders made his name with his freewheeling 'Road' Movies, gained attention with his noirish The American Friend, and enjoyed major art house hits with Paris, Texas and especially Wings of Desire. Suddenly bankable in the eyes of the major studios, Wenders launched a pet project he'd been working on for ten years. It's a Road Movie with a science fiction premise, that roams the world while contemplating a future mutated by new technology.
This new Criterion disc isn't what viewers saw in 1991. Wenders' distribution contract forced him to deliver a show of a conventional duration, even after he established a 'short cut' of just under five hours! Wenders delivered a 181- minute International Cut, which was chopped down to 158 for U.S. release. Interesting as they were, these shorter versions attracted only tepid reviews, and few audiences.
Not to be deterred by corporate edicts, Wenders had delivered his 'Reader's Digest' version by making a duplicate internegative to Warners, and never surrendered the uncut negative. In 1994 he finished his intended long, 287-minute version as three separate films -- Bis ans Ende der Welt 1 Teil, 2 Teil and 3 Teil. He held several non-commercial screenings of this 'unauthorized' cut several times in the late 1990s, and the film's reputation as a hard-to-see masterpiece began to grow. Simply because so little information about the film was available, an article I wrote about it for the early MGM Video Savant, before I became a regular disc reviewer, became a very popular item.
A couple of European DVDs of the 'drei teil' version of Until arrived in 2002 or 2003. They ran at PAL speed, more or less spoiling the film's terrific score of pop songs. Wim Wenders stayed loyal to his creation, that's for sure: about twenty-five years after the first release, full rights reverted to his control. He's put together a fourth version, an uninterrupted one-movie cut completely remastered in 5.1 stereo. Although it showed once or twice on TCM, this Blu-ray release might well be considered its commercial debut.
A movie filmed in 1990, predicting the world of 1999, is finally seen in full in 2019... I call that evidence of a filmmaker's total commitment to his work.
Until the End of the World begins in the future of 1999, a month or so before the Millennium, when the world is worrying about the potentially apocalyptic re-entry of an Indian nuclear satellite. But live goes on as before. An aimless party girl named Claire Tourneur (Solveig Dommartin of Wings of Desire) who leaves a house party in Venice, to possibly return to Paris and her estranged boyfriend Eugene Fitzpatrick (Sam Neill of My Brilliant Career), a multi-talented artist. Along the way Claire meets a pair of bank robbers, Chico and Raymond (Chick Ortega & Eddy Mitchell) and agrees to transport their loot; she also meets Trevor McPhee (William Hurt of Body Heat), a mysterious fugitive being pursued by at least one bounty hunter, Burt (Ernie Dingo). On the slightest of romantic, adventurous whims, Claire abandons Eugene again to pursue Trevor as well. In Berlin she solicits the aid of private detective Phillip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler). He uses a Russian computer program to track Trevor, who Interpol says is wanted for industrial jewel theft. Eugene joins in the round the world chase, and Claire discovers that everything she knows about Trevor is questionable, including his name. Trevor is carrying a mysterious electronic invention with him as he travels. Meanwhile, waiting at a place so remote that it might be 'the end of the world,' Edith and Henry Farber (Jeanne Moreau & Max von Sydow) also have a stake in the invention Trevor is carrying.
Like Wenders' early Road Pictures Alice in the Cities and Kings of the Road, Until the End of the World does its best to maintain the illusion of a freewheeling, improvised adventure, where the filmmakers are just as surprised as the audience as to what's going to happen next. Wenders took his actors and a skeleton crew to four continents, picking up local crews as needed. In Japan he enlisted the elderly stars of Ozu's Tokyo Story to play roles. In Lisbon, our fugitive couple has a 'local cameo' on a streetcar with a famous Portuguese actress, Amália Rodrigues. Wenders had neither the time nor the approval to film a trip across China, so Solveig Dommartin and a single cameraman traveled through the country, shooting with a home video camera ... the episode is seen only as 'videophone' footage.
Spread across almost five hours in the long director's cut, the unorthodox storyline makes an abrupt gear change. The fast pace of the global chase comes to rest, and gives way to a highly technical, visually obsessive investigation of a world-changing, mind-altering invention. This is the kind of narrative anomaly that can alienate viewers: the criminal/romantic chase turns into a completely different kind of movie.
Until isn't like other movies in its particular genre pigeonhole. Wenders risks looking ridiculous by daring to project a future only ten years forward. But his 'futuristic' 1999 extrapolates trends in electronics, lifestyles and clothing rather well. It also predicts the rise of violent terrorism and the collapse of the United States as the model for other nations to imitate. Claire skates through a posh world of trendy fashions, recording video on a handheld device and 'phoning' it to Eugene with those costly telephone hookups. Her car has a GPS device that talks to her, and warns her when she leaves the highway for uncharted back roads. Winter's interactive bounty hunter program is particularly impressive for 1991. Tied into law enforcement and credit card databases, it displays information with clever animated graphics. This is before the world wide web, which Until pointedly does not predict.
The 'mystery device' turns out to be truly visionary, in more ways than one. Given access to Sony's experimental High Definition Video equipment, Wenders creates strange new imagery that is meant to have been 'downloaded' from the human brain. Although Until didn't envision a literal Internet, the effects of the new invention predict similar potentially negative effects of our fixation on the personal electronic devices and social media. A 'disease of images' creates an obsessive preoccupation with one's own dreams, cutting victims off from 'real' reality and 'real' social contact.
Until fights back against the Disease of Images through Eugene, who believes in the power of words. The 'family' of fugitives and others that gathers in the middle of a vast desert, also establish a social identity with the power of music. The show is a genuine epic with a mostly positive finale, another anomaly in a genre dominated by dystopian pessimism. If one buys into the quirky premise and the diverse parade of international characters, Until becomes fully satisfying. It is by turns funny, romantic, visually beautiful, and genuinely profound.
If we believe what Wenders says, and he's a highly convincing raconteur, the four-plus hour duration of Until happened when his solicitations for tracks from name musicians and bands resulted in an avalanche of great submissions. He decided that he had to use it all. Until's sensational soundtrack CD was for the longest time much better known than the film itself, with tracks by Talking Heads, Julee Cruise, Lou Reed, Neneh Cherry, R.E.M., Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, T-Bone Burnett and U2, to name fewer than half the artists that contributed. When Robby Müller's beautiful images merge this great music, Until takes on a post-MTV feel of its own.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Until the End of the World does justice to Wim Wenders' labor of sci-fi love. The movie does nothing for some people, yet for many is their favorite show ever. The 287-minute show is spread across two discs, with a good spot chosen for a changeover. We kind of miss the 3-movie version, and recommend taking the effort to see it, should a special theatrical engagement come your way.
The video image is immaculate, from the first scenes of Claire Tourneur stumbling through a decadent Italian party with a David Byrne music video playing, to breathtaking city views and landscapes around the world. Claire and Trevor are in a small plane when an atomic blast in space knocks out microcircuits with an Electromagnetic Pulse -- killing the plane's motor. They must land in the middle of a vast, barely marked desert, that surely feels like 'the last place on Earth.' Seen in true HD, the brain-tap 'dream images' have an impact different than DVD -- and they're more accurate than the compressed cable signal of TCM.
Criterion's extras will answer a lot of questions about the show. Wim Wenders is highly articulate in English, offering an introduction plus two pieces talking about the music. On one, Wenders and David Byrne discuss the opening tune 'Sax and Violins.'
Older video items include a Japanese show about the creative use of Sony's experimental HD equipment, and a mini-documentary in which Wenders explores Western Australia, entering through 'the back door' of the city of Darwin.
Especially welcome are thirty minutes of deleted scenes, much like the wealth of exciting editing-room-floor material we enjoyed on the older Criterion disc of Wings of Desire. The 1991 poster artwork for Until the End of the World was mostly terrible, and Michael Boland's excellent cover artwork is a welcome change of pace.
Until the End of the World
Text (c) Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson