Sitting in a shady Cannes hotel garden, sporting a white T-shirt with a picture of a horizon, Wim Wenders is reminiscing about times past at the world’s greatest film festival. Arguably, his finest hour came with Paris, Texas, the 1984 tale starring Harry Dean Stanton and that unforgettable Ry Cooder, slide-guitar score. He won the Palme d’Or for this desert-set masterpiece, after cult road movies like Alice In The Cities and Kings Of The Road first launched his career. Back then, it was the days of 35mm film – and the German-born Wenders was still sound mixing on the movie when the festival opened.
With Paris, Texas programmed towards the end of Cannes that year, it was down to Wenders to transport the film reels from Paris (France, not Texas) to the Côte d’Azur on the train. “I tell you, seven reels of films are heavy,” he says. “I schlepped these heavy cans and nobody helped me. I came on my own – I didn’t have an assistant or PR person.” After a successful press screening that morning, Wenders got to enjoy a wonderful public premiere that night. “It was a beautiful day,” he sighs. “I remember it vividly.”
Still, lugging your own film canisters to Cannes? That rather sums up Wenders, a former painter who became a leading light in the German New Wave of the 1970s before exploring America – on his own terms – in films like 1977’s The American Friend, an early take on the Patricia Highsmith character Tom Ripley. Ever since, this archetypal movie maverick has ploughed his own furrow through the film business. Classics like the Berlin-set Wings Of Desire, nestle next to bombs like Palermo Shooting on his bulging, brave and ballsy CV.
Now he’s back with Perfect Days – his best narrative feature in decades and the reason the iconic 78-year-old is in Cannes. A sublimely simple tale, Perfect Days spun Wenders back to his spiritual home of Japan – where he’s made several films including segments of 1991 sci-fi flop Until The End Of The World, which saw him collaborate with U2 on the soundtrack. It was during the pandemic that he really got pangs for the Land Of The Rising Sun. “I was homesick for Japan very badly,” he says.
Then, quite by chance, came an invite from the team behind The Tokyo Toilet, an architectural innovation in the city’s Shibuya district. Seventeen public conveniences had been redesigned by architects from around the world. Wenders was asked to come and document the project in some modest way. But when he got there, ideas flourished. “If I wanted to make a film, it was not a documentary. It was gonna be a fictional story, and it had to be [about] somebody who symbolised that idea of the common good.”
The “common good”, as he puts it, came from witnessing his own city of Berlin in the wake of the pandemic. As people re-emerged, hungry for social interaction, things got trashed. “The parks were all destroyed. All public areas were wasted. People came back with a loss of [the] sense of what was common. The common good was a victim of the pandemic. And in Japan, it was the opposite: the common good was a way to celebrate this social glue. And people were still wearing masks and everything was clean, and everything was beautiful… it reminded me [of] why I liked Japan.”
“I own around 20,000 vinyl records”
Embodying this feeling is the lead character of Perfect Days, a diligent toilet cleaner named Hirayama (played by Shall We Dance’s Koji Yakusho), who lives a regimented existence built on solitude and simple pleasures. His lives an analogue life, snapping pictures of trees in his film camera and listening to music on cassette – artists like The Animals, Patti Smith, Otis Redding, Van Morrison and Nina Simone. Like many of us, Hirayama is locked in a time capsule, of the music he grew up on.
“Maybe he’s clinging to the past. But he’s clinging a little bit also to his youth and he loves that music,” says Wenders. “He chooses in the morning exactly what he’s going to listen to that day. And it’s not random.” Wenders, who penned the script with Japanese writer Takuma Takasaki, also appreciates the way Hirayama buys one roll of film and one book a week, “because he doesn’t need more”. For Wenders? Not so much. “If I listed all the music I have, I can listen to 10 percent of it,” he sighs.
Wenders admits he’s envious of his character’s pared-back lifestyle. “There’s too much of anything 1707385150 and you cannot handle it. All the books I buy, all the colours and paints I buy… because I always wanted to paint a little bit again… I can open a paint store! And I have too much of everything in my own life – like everybody else I know – and not enough time. And Hirayama was the man I have inside me who has enough of everything and he doesn’t need more. He never has the feeling he misses anything.”
Unsurprisingly, Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ is the film’s signature dish, beautifully served. Reed, who took a cameo in Wenders’ 1993 film Faraway, So Close!, has been a huge influence on Wenders over the years. “The Velvet Underground have saved my life,” he says, riffing on the lyrics of the Reed-fronted band’s 1969 song ‘Rock And Roll’: “Ooohhh her life was saved by rock’n’roll.” Also on the soundtrack is the Velvets song ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, another hugely influential track on Wenders. “Lou Reed is a mighty voice in the film,” he purrs.
Then there’s Nina Simone, whose breathtaking ‘Feeling Good’ closes out the movie. “Nina Simone is one of the great heroes of my life and for some other people,” he says, citing his late friend Sam Shepard, the legendary American playwright who penned Paris, Texas and Wenders’ later 2005 film Don’t Come Knocking. “Sam was her assistant. Sam Shepard was Nina Simone’s assistant for a year and did everything she needed on her shows… bring her coffee and water because he just wanted to be of service to her.”
“The Velvet Underground have saved my life”
Wenders, who was born in Düsseldorf shortly after the end of World War Two, grew up listening to rock ’n’ roll on American Armed Forces Radio and Radio Luxembourg. As a youngster, he used to hide a radio under his pillow, as his parents didn’t approve of American music so much. Without a record player in the house, Wenders started his record collection regardless, storing the discs at a friend’s house. As he told one writer, “My collection was, so to speak, in exile.”
Now, all those years on, he estimates owing around 20,000 records. A vinyl junkie – you can even glimpse him in a cameo browsing in a record store in Perfect Days – he’s delighted by the renaissance in the format. “Luckily, you can buy LPs again. Before I bought CDs… but I never bought stuff that was only virtual because I loved the liner notes and everything. So I’m so happy that LPs [in 2022] sold more in America and Europe than CDs. And they are on their way back up and people have rediscovered [them].”
A day after we meet, Wenders DJ’d at the celebratory party in Cannes when his leading man, Yakusho, won the Best Actor prize. “I have a DJ application,” he says, tapping his phone, when we reconvene in Zurich several months later. “It looks like a very professional thing. It’s two vinyl turntables and I can put my records here and I have about 40 days of music in here. I can throw any party.” Come March 10, Wenders may well have another reason to celebrate – with Perfect Days nominated for an Academy Award for Best International Feature.
While Wenders has been nominated for three Oscars in the past – all for his stirring documentary works, Buena Vista Social Club, Pina and The Salt of the Earth – this is the first time in a 50-plus year career that one of his narrative films has caught the Academy’s eye. Just the very fact his film was chosen to represent Japan in the Oscar race was incredible, he says. “The fact that they chose a film directed by a German was something that completely took me by surprise.”
Already these past months, Wenders has given us Anselm, a 3D-made documentary about the work of German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer – another vitally alive work that once again puts Wenders, alongside James Cameron, as a master of the three-dimensional format. The bottom line is, Wenders has been doing double publicity duties lately. “It’s twice as much work,” he groans. “And as I’m getting older, I sometimes get to the bottom of what I’m able to do. So sometimes I think it’s a curse. But then again, it’s a pleasure.”
His energy undimmed, his enthusiasm for cinema seems as fired up as ever. As our time comes to an end, Wenders is in full flow. Another Cannes anecdote – the only time his Paris, Texas experience was “overshadowed”, when he was the jury president in 1989. It was the year he gave the Palme d’Or to an unknown Steven Soderbergh for his spiky debut Sex, Lies, And Videotape. Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, also in competition, missed out. “[Spike] was very mad at me that he didn’t get an award and he wanted to wait for me in a dark alley with a baseball bat. He said that!” cringes Wenders. “And only last time we met, I asked him ‘You still have that baseball bat ready?’ And he said ‘No, Wim, it’s OK.’” Thank heavens for that.
‘Perfect Days’ is out in UK cinemas from February 23