“It’s (spirituality) driving my work. You cannot separate. I cannot say I have a professional life and apart from that I am also a spiritual person. I cannot keep that apart.” – Wim Wenders
In Conversation with Wim Wenders and Donata Wenders by Sabine Mirlesse
Sabine Mirlesse: I’m going to try to ask you some questions you haven’t been asked before… but I’m worried I’m bound to fail.
Wim Wenders: New and unknown questions?! That’ll be tough. But okay, it’s a dirty job and somebody has to do it.
SM: Right. So given the subject of the exhibition, what are you each reading at the moment, if you’re reading anything that is…
WW: I’m always reading something. Now Patti Smith’s new book. “The M Train”.
Donata Wenders: I’m reading the book that the Pope just published, the encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si”. It’s his view on the situation of the planet, and I think it’s amazing that the Pope is writing this to the world.
SM: He’s quite different from the other popes it seems… kind of like a rockstar Pope… shaking things up a bit…
DW: Yeah. It’s the first time we’re really paying attention to something that a Pope says…
WW: He’s solid. He knows what he is doing. And he lives what he says.
SM: Do you have a strong faith?
DW: Yes. But at the time, when I became a believer… you know I identified as a Christian and was reading the bible a lot, but the moment I really began to believe in Jesus Christ, I left the church.
SM: That’s fascinating. It’s so taboo, nobody ever wants to talk about faith or religion. I think it’s an important subject.
WW: I’m a doctor of theology…
SM: You are? I had no idea.
WW: Well, it’s rare for a director. It’s an honorary doctorate that was given to me because some cinephile monks liked my films a lot, especially Wings of Desire. But the faith question is indeed not popular, as you pointed out. And as you wanted to ask questions that nobody else does: that is one taboo subject that no press even approaches.
SM: Well in that case do you mind if we talk about it a bit?
WW: Not at all.
SM: You were saying that you have a strong faith, how does that impact your work as artists?
DW: Very much. I try to… be led, in a way, by a point of view or by a certain look at things. For example I try not to have a prejudice before I go and photograph somebody, and I don’t want to have a certain outcome for the photographs. For me, the most important question is the attitude, is how I approach something…
WW: Can I interfere, because I think the answer is visible in Donata’s work even if it can’t be put it into words…
DW: I’d like to try and answer anyway…
Journey to Onomichi, 2001 @ Donata Wenders. Courtesy Polka Galerie & Blain/Southern
Wim and Donata @ Sabine Mirlesse
“In Donata’s pictures there is something like a loving look.” – Wim Wenders
WW: In Donata’s pictures there is something like a loving look. [To Donata] And that loving look certainly got something to do with who you are and what you believe in. That’s all I wanted to say…
DW: (nods) To photograph for me is to pray. I ask God to show me the person. I have to say it’s like falling in love with every person I take pictures of. Afterwards I feel very close to that person…
DW: …because you can see so much with a very open and loving approach.
SM: And you of course don’t mind Donata falling in love with everyone else?
WW: No. I know it’s a love that is bigger and more generous…
DW: And it has nothing to with attraction!
SM: And Wim you were saying you received an honorary doctorate… how did that happen?
WW: That started in Aix-en-Provence, in the mid-nineties, where I shot with Michelangelo Antonioni part of a film called Beyond the Clouds. We worked in a church there that was run by these apostolic monks for two weeks, and it turned out that they knew all our movies by heart, and that they could quote entire passages from Wings of Desire, also from Antonioni’s films. When they realized that Donata and I were spiritual people, they asked me if they could suggest me for an honorary degree in theology at their catholic faculty in Fribourg, Switzerland. I said yes, give it a try. I didn’t really believe that it could be done. The Vatican had to agree to it, it was serious business.
SM: The Pope has to agree to it personally?
WW: I think so… The Vatican has to agree – they can’t just give someone an honorary doctor of theology without an accord from high above. So I didn’t really think they could see this through…
SM: A kind of challenge.
WW: But they finally got it! And these monks, they were so happy! We had a ceremony in Fribourg, and they were literally dancing in the aisles. I had a sneaking suspicion they had became monks so they could watch movies quietly. I mean they knew each and every film! They knew all of mine, and all of Michelangelo’s. In this fraternity they would talk about movies a lot. And the film section in their library was impressive. They had others tasks and jobs, of course, working in psychology, working in charity, in their parish, but at night they watched a lot movies and talked about them.
SM: I love that. So your own spirituality inspired you to make Wings of Desire?
WW: It’s driving my other movies as well. It’s driving my work. You cannot separate. I cannot say I have a professional life and apart from that I am also a spiritual person. I cannot keep that apart.
SM: Some people do though. I asked a similar question in another interview once and the artist was actually a bit insulted, I think, that I should dare ask something so intimate.
WW: That’s one thing that we liked about living in America: people are very outspoken about their beliefs. If they are Buddhist or Jewish or Christian or Muslim, they don’t have any hesitation to stand up for it, at least more than here in Europe. In France nobody would ever talk about it. [laughs] Since the French Revolution.
“That’s one thing that we liked about living in America: people are very outspoken about their beliefs.” – Wim Wenders
SM: Well thank you for answering. As I said I think it’s a fascinating subject that can be approached in a number of different ways and most people are too cynical or judgmental to bring it up. Were you each individually “believers” before meeting or was it something you discovered more as a couple?
WW: It strengthened our relationship. We’ve been married for 24 years now.
DW: I knew that I could never marry a man who did not believe in God. So when I heard that he was, well… oh and once you even told me you wanted to become a priest when you were young!
WW: I got sidetracked by rock and roll and pinball machines…
DW: Which is cool… I don’t think it has to be one or the other. Anyway, this for us is the rock on which we stand: our faith.
SM: What’s the most difficult thing about being together as a dual artist couple?
WW: It’s not difficult! It’s a privilege! We love it.
SM: It’s a joy 100% of the time? There is nothing that is challenging about it?
WW: Donata has her own work, and she is her own photographer except when I’m making a film. Then she works as still photographer on the shoot. Which gives her the most privileged view on the set. She’s always next to the camera. She knows every shot I’m doing. She sees everything that happens on the set. Nobody else knows it so well. Everybody has their jobs, they’re too busy. Donata’s job is just to watch. In the evening, she knows exactly how the day went and what I shot, what I didn’t get, she knows the back story, she knows what I might have fucked up during the day, too. She is my best critic and she knows everything more intimately than even my assistant. That is such a pleasure to have someone who understands what happened. But when I’m not shooting, she works on her own.
DW: We don’t interfere with each other’s work. He does his work with the film camera and the actors, and I never say things to him, because he has to be alone when he creates something. But still I’m there and I know what’s going on during the shoot.
SM: Do you ever feel overshadowed by the brand of “Wim Wenders”, Donata?
DW: I feel it is more like a nice umbrella. It also has to do with our age difference. I think it’s more difficult for people who are the same age. But I don’t have to compare or compete. That’s useless anyway. It’s not the point. For us, it’s more about being together, going through life together, and making sure that each of us can blossom more.
WW: And we’re not stepping onto each other’s territory. Donata is photographing in black and white, and she’s mainly concentrating on people – people are her major interest. In my pictures, I always prefer when people are gone. I’m taking pictures of places – well, not like a nature or landscape photographer – just of places that speak to me. And my pictures are all in color. Donata is the only one who I can travel with, otherwise I have to be alone, when I go on a journey just to take photographs. In the morning we leave the hotel – wherever we are staying – and she goes her way and I go mine. We’re both looking for other encounters. In the evening, she comes back and tells me about the tea ceremony she witnessed or the workers she met in the fields, and meanwhile I found the strangest places and houses and city views. I’m completely not interested in people, as a photographer. I’m interested in people, sure, but strictly in what places can tell me about them. Donata has conversations and gets to know people and follows them and becomes friends with them, while I roam around alone. As a filmmaker, I’m always with people, anyway.
SM: So you don’t overlap. Donata takes portraits of people and you Wim, take portraits of landscapes?
Cowboy Bar, Paris, Texas, 2001 @ Wim Wenders.
“Yes that is true. Wim looks at landscapes like they were his friends. He listens to them.” – Donata Wenders
DW: Yes that is true. Wim looks at landscapes like they were his friends. He listens to them.
SM: Hence needing to be alone to hear better. So when you aren’t traveling alone taking pictures, but instead in the middle of a huge film set, how to achieve that same intimacy with your subject? Do you create it? Can you?
WW: Yeah, of course. In a movie, every now and then you have extremely intimate moments and you have to protect the actors so that they can enter that realm. You sometimes have to create conditions where you are just with actors and your cameraman, everyone else is gone. But when I’m working as a photographer I can’t have anyone – sometimes not even Donata – around. I have to be completely alone.
SM: What is the most beautiful place you have ever been?
WW: Mine would be the Australian desert. It is such an old landscape. It is inhabited by these beautiful and serious people, the Aboriginees. They don’t even have words for conflict or war. I think I became a photographer in Australia, in that landscape. That’s where I started to have a personal relationship to space, to the horizon, to places, driven by their ideology or belief – even it is not a religion – that landscapes are mythical beings. That is my favorite landscape. I have slept there in the open, on the ground, for months, under the big sky. I haven’t been back for years… And then we could also talk cities. I like cities a lot, but choosing a favorite one would be hard…. Lisbon?
SM: Lisbon? Not Berlin?
WW: I live in Berlin, so that is a very different story. Donata was born there…
DW: Again a different story. My family is there. For me, I think, the most beautiful place is England – rolling green hills, so sculptural. The old stone walls…
WW: [whispers] Donata loves anything covered in moss…
SM: You mentioned you became a photographer in the Australian desert… was that the moment you knew you were an artist? Did you have a moment like when you realized that?
WW: I always wanted to be an artist, but I’ve never known if I actually am one, because I have always preferred the term ‘craftsman’. I wanted to be an artist when I gave up studying philosophy and medicine and told my dad I was not going to become a doctor and I was not going to finish my studies, but I was going to go to Paris to become a painter. That’s when I knew I wanted to be an artist. Whether or not I am one now… I still don’t know. I’m very wary of the term ‘artist’, anyway. If people are calling someone an artist or call me an artist, I am not comfortable. If I see a painter in a studio the term seems easier or more correct.
“I think I became a photographer in Australia, in that landscape. That’s where I started to have a personal relationship to space, to the horizon, to places, driven by their ideology or belief – even it is not a religion – that landscapes are mythical beings.” – Wim Wenders
DW: I would not call myself a photographer, but an artist.
WW: I should call you ‘my artist wife’!
DW: If somebody asks me to take pictures of a certain person as a commission, that is not something I enjoy at all. For me it’s not about technology. When I am changing my lens, I always think of changing a pencil or paintbrush…
WW: I took pictures when I was five or six years old. I always had a camera and I always took photographs. So for me it was so much part of my everyday life that I never looked at it as an art. It was always there and necessary. I needed to do it. I loved doing it. But calling it an art, I have a hard time…
DW: But you don’t have to!
WW: I don’t have to. Luckily.
DW: You know your photographs are like paintings to you. For me they are paintings! The composition of colors and shapes, the framing. You are the painter in the family…
WW: ‘Art’ is such an overused word.
DW: Maybe it’s just the word you stumble upon…
SM: I know music is very important to Wim… possibly equally so for you, Donata. I was wondering if you guys have a song? In the US it’s very common, or used to be, for a couple to have a song they felt sentimental about, something related to their experience together.
DW: Our beginning song was… ‘The Miracle’
WW: Good old Leonard Cohen! An album of his called ‘The Future’ that we played over and over again when we met. The song in there that Donata is referring to is “Waiting for the Miracle”. We listened to it a few times everyday together, during the first couple of weeks. The song I really I identify with our relationship is called ‘Into My Arms’ by Nick Cave. Do you know that one?
SM: Yes, and I am a big Leonard Cohen fan especially after living in Montreal.
WW: Did you go to his house? We pilgrimaged to his house even though he is no longer there. We used to live in Mile End.
SM: Yes. But I never met him despite having lived in the same neighborhood. He was a bit of a magical unicorn for me, having apparently always just left someplace a few moments before I walked in. I was devastated that I spent four years there without crossing paths with him.
Blue Range, Butte, Montana, 2000 @ Wim Wenders
The Leaning House, Canada, 2011 @ Wim Wenders. Courtesy Polka Galerie & Blain/Southern
“I always wanted to be an artist, but I’ve never known if I actually am one, because I have always preferred the term ‘craftsman’.” – Wim Wenders
WW: You scared him away.
SM: Perhaps. Do you actually see stories when you listen to music you love, Wim?
WW: Oh yeah. But not stories. I see images. Music is a huge inspiration for me. A number of my films might have started with a song. ‘Alice in the Cities’ started with a song by Chuck Berry… But it’s more like a creative source rather than indicating the story of a film.
SM: Have you ever attempted to write music yourself? Do you play?
WW: I played saxophone, eventually went to a pawn shop to exchange it for a 16mm Bolex camera. I never really played an instrument again. I had a couple of guitars, but I was never really good at it. I didn’t become a musician although I would have loved to, and I didn’t become a painter although I would have loved to, and I didn’t become a writer although I would have loved to, and I didn’t become an architect although I would have loved to…
SM: And a priest?
WW: I didn’t become a priest although I would have loved to.
SM: Donata, what would you do if you couldn’t be a photographer?
WW: You’re skinny enough.
DW: I think if I hadn’t been a camera assistant – that’s how we met – I would have still met you as a dancer.
WW: We met on the film Far Away, So Close.
SM: Do you make work every day? Or does it come in waves?
WW: We work each and every day.
DW: It’s different kind of work in different phases. Wim became a lot of the things he mentioned before in a lot of different ways. He’s always got different tasks for different projects. When I have a little space of time, I go photographing for myself, otherwise it’s all his.
WW: Your boots are very old. Nice!
SM: Yes, I’ve had them for a long time and they have taken quite a beating, on my feet from Argentina to Greenland to Armenia. Do we have time for one last question? What’s something you haven’t yet done that you look really forward to accomplishing in your work, each of you?
DW: In photography, for me it is to get more to the core of abstraction. I would love to get more and more into abstract photography, meaning to translate something like Paul Klee did when he was drawing angels with just one line, it’s so full of expression. To reduce the photograph or the portrait of a person to something you see clearly, without being so ‘figurative’… To get to the core or the essence of a person! I would like to find that and translate it through photography.
WW: One day I will make a comedy. I’ve been slowly building up to it. I’ve been building up to it for fifty years now. One day I will be old and wise enough to make a comedy.
Exhibition : WIM & DONATA WENDERS PLACES OF THE MIND
NOVEMBER 13, 2015 – JANUARY 9, 2016
POLKA GALERIE 12 Rue Saint Gilles Paris 75003
Sabine Mirlesse is a visual artist and photographer living in Paris. Her project As it it should have been a quarry was published as a book in 2013 by Damiani. She tries to interview other artists whenever she can, for others you can read more here.
(All rights reserved. Text @ Sabine Mirlesse. Images @ Wim and Donata Wenders and courtesy Polka Galerie and Blain/Southern.)