Friday 8 July 2022

Circulations: "Kings of the Road"

After the overseas adventure of 1974's Alice in the Cities, the young Wim Wenders returned home and began poking around the German interior. Kings of the Road stakes out a hundred or so miles along the DDR border in the company of two drifters: this filmmaker's shaggy blond talisman Rüdiger Vogler, whose projector repairman is found deep in conversation with an aged former member of the NSDAP, establishing a clear route between Germany past and present; and sombre, just-divorced Hanns Zischler, who gets one of the 1970s art movie's most memorable introductions, driving his VW Beetle full pelt into a river. (He's out of gas; he's out of highway.) These two fall in together and hit the road again in the Vogler character's mobile repair truck, which allows Wenders and cinematographer Robby Müller to survey various small towns, play the records they like, and take the sleepy pulse of the German nation as it was in the summer of '75. The result is at once a young man's movie - made by emergent movers-and-shakers who appear to have all the time in the world - and one prone to a certain indulgence as it shambles on towards the three-hour mark. Yet it's also a road movie that develops its own critical, region-specific feel, something akin to what Chris Petit was doing in the UK around the same moment with Radio On.

Of course, Britain was on a long road to nowhere at the back end of the 1970s; the mood of Wenders' film, at least initially, is lighter and more playful. Throughout KOTR, there's a marked element of let's put the show on right here, with whatever comes to hand: it's a teachable example of a film that freewheels, making itself up as it goes along. Vogler drinks a cup of tea using a huge pair of tongs he finds on the counter of a railway station cafe, and curls out a huge shit in a quarry; while fixing one cinema's speaker system, our drifters improvise some shadowplay knockabout to entertain a class of schoolchildren. At every turn, where they are is more important than who they are, or what's brought them there. It's thirty minutes before we learn their names, and neither man seems the type to over-share. Still, they convince as travelling companions: folks whose relationship is contingent and temporary, will last only so long as it takes to get from here to there. They will bond, bicker, wind one another up and eventually go their separate ways with their own distinct memories of this shared experience (as the actors would have; as this entire crew would have), and Wenders deposits us right there in the back of the van with them.

Might we not, at some point, start kicking the back of the driver's seat and asking "Are we there yet?" Possibly. There are lengthy stretches of wheelspinning, extended diversions where the movie veers rather too close to replicating the experience of meandering through the flat German hinterlands with no particular place to go. (I think Wenders means to impress upon us that travel can numb as well as broaden the mind - that movement for the sake of movement is one way to becalm a hyperactive head.) And the current Wenders retrospective really has pointed up just how much heavy lifting Müller did on this director's early films: here, shooting ghostly, semi-deserted locations (a gas station overrun by capering children, an abandoned checkpoint, the office of a dying local newspaper) in an eternally handsome monochrome. Wenders' own choices at this point can seem a little functional, when not outright clunky (as in some of the early crosscutting between the two men). 

Yet the curiosity on display here absolutely explains Wenders' later work as a documentarian. More than anything, Kings of the Road is driven by a desire to go out into the world, set a camera or two rolling, and see what then comes to pass. (Exhibit A: the stretch devoted to the resurrection of a printing press, and thus the possibility of reconnection between a distanced father and son. Vorsprung durch Technik.) The film remains arguably as close as anyone's got to a successful movie adaptation of On the Road; like Kerouac, the young Wenders isn't a bunch of laughs, and has only a tangential interest in the opposite sex. More significant: having imported and rerouted several foundational tropes of the American cinema, it's just possible Wenders set down the itinerary for the next fleet of road movies. Given that one of the villages our heroes pass through is apparently called Dead Man, it wouldn't surprise me to learn Jim Jarmusch saw KOTR in the run-up to making Stranger than Paradise - thus pointing the American independent cinema (and eventually the American cinema itself) in an entirely new, unhurried direction. What drives around comes around.

Kings of the Road is playing in selected London cinemas as part of Curzon's touring Wim Wenders retrospective, and is available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema.  

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