Until The End Of The World (1991) Directors Cut
When I was younger I went through a few distinct phases of celluloid celebration and fascination. I’m something of a auterist you may have noticed which means that whilst specific genre attracts me there are also a handful of filmmakers whose work I will go and see immediately upon release, regardless of story, stars or subject matter – Scorsese, Spielberg, Sono, Mann, Lynch, Haneke, Herzog, Nolan, Fincher, Malick, the Coens, P.T. Anderson and on and on and on*. Back in the dying embers of the 20th century I went through phases where I became fascinated with and ruthlessly hunted the work of certain directors, from Carpenter to Coppola, from Oliver Stone to Abel Ferrera, Cronenberg to Tarkovsky. These obsessions stretched across borders, genres and styles, but it may surprise you to learn that one of these filmmakers wasn’t that proponent of the German New Wave but the other one, the chief mechanic of the meditative road movie Wim Wenders. It’s probably all down to the soaring Wings Of Desire, that rare art-house & film festival crossover hit that catapulted him into a different stratosphere of fame, combined with a VHS release of some of his earlier, funnier work, alongside some musical kudos due to his connections to quite a few favorite menagerie musicians of the time. In 1990 the announcement of an extraordinarily ambitious continent leaping SF millennium mood piece was quite a eye-watering prospect for the adolescent Mint, with expectation levels appropriately elevated.
Unfortunately when Until The End Of The World finally arrived in cinemas across the globe it was something of a pedestrian pause, a film containing some fascinating ideas and a tempting travelogue narrative yet was as stilted and devoid of dramatic divergence as the weakest of Wenders work, and it subsequently sank without trace into the depths of cult movie obscurity. Naturally Wenders claims that the film was butchered by the executives who forced him into releasing a severely shorn version which diluted his vision, yet he cannily retained copies of all the material he shot, which was assembled and quietly released on Italian DVD in 2004 following a few exclusive festival screenings. The plot in both the ‘trilogy’ (the film is now spread across three disks) and the truncated version stands at the cusp of the millennium, with a malfunctioning Indian satellite threatening to crash to earth and irradiate great swathes of the planet. Against this imminent doom taciturn Claire Tourneur (Solveig Dommartin who wrote the screenplay with her then partner Wenders) traverses a nervous and confused earth, her distant demeanor contorted in a miasma of plot strands, mostly concerning a prototype machine that can record human perception – a Google Glass 0.5 perhaps. This cybercypher of new horizons has been stolen by an enigmatic 1940’s garbed hitchhiker (William Hurt, when he was seriously considered as leading man material) with a rogues gallery of bounty hunters and government officials on their trail, all at the behest of sinister industrialist Max Von Sydow who it appears is just as old in 1991 as he is in 2015 – has anyone checked his basement for Wildly influenced portraits?
I hadn’t seen this film in literal decades but my curiosity was piqued of absorbing an extended cut, being a SF and road movie fan this odd hybrid should have been on my radar, and as a completest I’m a slave to my obsessions thus the princely sum of £16 was extracted from coldly gripped talons . The experience was something of an epic journey as stuffed with a hideous cold I suffered through all 278 minutes of this film in one sitting – whilst I don’t wish to dazzle you with mathematics yes that is just shy of a five hour movie – and even through a Lemsip and Nurofen fuelled delirium haze I can confidently opine that although it is certainly improved by the deeper emphasis and time with the characters the film still suffers from some crucial engine failings. Opening in a slightly exhausted and decadent Venice the picture is immediately signaled as an internal journey for Claire writ large on the landscape of the near future world, she feeling disconnected and distant from various spheres whose wider problems and triumphs fail to trouble her emotional and internal journey. The vessel of delivery is the road movie genre with a speculative twist, the road dictating the intersection of lives and experiences with other travellers on their own individuals sojourns, where the characters yearn to understand and accept themselves amidst the irreverent highways of life.
Some of the films futuristic trappings are rather quaint now in their pre-social media, infant internet and cellphone saturated ignorance, instead the computerised clairvoyants are out in force including such marvels as (gasp) way-finding journey guidance applications that speak to drivers through some global system of positioning or something, international (get this) video phones where you can actually see the person you’re talking to, and some global information system which you ‘surf’ with digitized avatars in order to get answers to questions and unearth classified queries. I do find those elements fascinating from a social document perspective, a film set eight years ahead of its 1991 release which is now fifteen years past its fictional date that is receding in the rear view mirror, a periodical on the cultural issues, fashions, developments and designs of its making just as much as it cranks its neck to predict the future. As a SF film it dwells on the usual themes of dehumanization and detachment that our tools engender to all citizens of the world, the central McGuffin is a machine which enables subjects to relive and share simulacra of their dreams. Until The End Of The World is centered on images, their recording, archiving and retrieval, for a film bookmarking the surface visual excess of the 1980’s it still seems oddly prescient today, with our contemporary narcissist disease of selfies, snapchat and sextortion – now where is that pesky asteroid apocalypse to send us the way of the dinosaurs again?
If memory serves the film would have been conceived, assembled and shot just as concepts of globalization and unfettered trade were dominating discourse in the late 1980’s, as the wall fell and the soviet satellites were assaulted with shock-doctrine dissidents, so the globe hopping from Paris to Lisbon, Moscow to Beijing to Tokyo and beyond certainly keeps the narrative fresh from a visualised cosmopolitan perspective. The car stereo playlist which soundtracks the journey is an extraordinary collection of purveyors of fine aural pleasure, with rare and previously unreleased tracks by (big breath) Depeche Mode, U2, R.E.M., Julee Cruise, Talking Heads, Daniel Lanois, Patti Smith, Can, Neneh Cherry, Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, Lou Reed and others committing contemporary or previously unreleased material from what in hindsight can be considered the apex of their careers. In this enhanced version they all get their chance to really shine in combination with full plays of their contributions rather than snippets in the abridged cut. One of Wender’s primary filmmaking gifts is embroidering these aural delights into scenes and sequences in a fashion that feels natural and instrumental to the overarching plot, in fact you can see just how important an art form music is to him in subsequent work such as Pina and Buena Vista Social Club which form the loose quintet of his highest regarded works.
Classic cult cinematographer of the 1980’s and 1990’s Robby Müller articulates some handsome travelogue vistas which award the film an appropriate scene of psychiatric scale equivalent to the epic run-time, photographing a kaleidoscope color pattern of back-lit neon and primary reds, blues and purples, with just a dash of neon blazing futurism reminiscent of the work of Lili Lakrich and Bruce Nauman. Clearly Wender likes to slowly dolly his camera into scenes and situations after a wide-shot to establish the environment, an inquisitive movement before searching for the emotional tempo of the sequence, and he evidently never passed a gloomy bar where he couldn’t treat his protagonist to a maudlin drink to the melancholy strains of a desperate jukebox. For one versed in HD screenings this DVD transfer has a crisp, modern quality I wasn’t quite anticipating, although it might suffer from its German heritage with a lack of subtitles during some opening scenes unless you’re conversant in French. Again, in some meta-way this also seems to fit with the films expansive, sub-geographical framework though, and if you’re entirely retarded in foreign languages as I am you can still follow the brief of the action through tone and editing patterns alone.
So what’s the final score? Solveig Dommartin’s central presence gives the films the international flavor it sorely craves and Sam Neil’s ex-boyfriend/author role is hugely expanded away from the emphasis on William Hurt in the domestic cut, a decision which must have been at the executives instruction to better sell the movie to the English language market. It’s a fascinating curiosity, not particularly emotionally satisfying or illuminating, lacking any tangible human dimension in its near future speculation yet its languid, sprawling spread was strangely perfect for a cough-racked choke of Easter indulgence. When it is in Nostradamus mode the film is much more successful under its embryonic cyberpunk chassis, furthermore as a SF fan I enjoyed it as an artifact from a quarter century ago, but even with a run time double that of its original incarnation it still seems hesitant and uncertain, not entirely dissimilar to its visual and thematic period twin Strange Days with some odd echoes of Inception in its final dream weaving 90 minutes. When it comes to Wenders I’d love to review Paris, Texas which is a film I have a great deal of fondness for, and I recently rewatched Wings of Desire which stands tall as a film that was also very much a product of its cultural and social time, with Berlin still divided and the cold war thaw wrecking changes in heaven and earth. Until The End Of The World has similar lofty ambitions which drop from the sky like the EMP afflicted planes at the films mid-point, riddled with corrupted code, with shards of ideas and shrapnel of musings which while keen still never quite cut with the films meandering plot. Then as now, no-one wants a car or a computer which is prone for a crash;
I wish there was more women and international figures in that list but here we are, just to redress the balance I also really get excited about anything from Kathryn Bigelow, Gasper Noé, Kelly Reichardt, Alfonso Cuarón , Nicholas Winding Refn, Sophia Coppola, Kyiosha Kurosawa…..