Remembering the End of the Millennium

Until the End of the World, Director’s Cut

The director’s cut of Wim Wenders’ 1991 film Until the End of the World is both a masterpiece and a remarkably astute commentary on cinema’s demise as an artistic category, shattered into fragments by the technological advances he both celebrates and repudiates.

Eyesight for the blind: Jeanne Moreau.

At the time of its release, however, shortened by two hours to satisfy its financial backers, the film was mostly regarded as a confusing failure. 

Although any film would suffer significantly from cuts of that magnitude, this “Reader’s Digest version”, as Wenders termed it, now seems like outright sabotage.

That’s because Until the End of the World was intended as an asymmetrical diptych. 

While the first sixty per cent traces a fast-paced journey across four continents, all but a few minutes of the remainder take place within a few miles of a remote outpost in the Australian Outback. 

Disrupting that balance undermines the tension between motion and stasis that the German director worked so hard to get right.

During the “road movie” portion of the film, the principal characters are searching for new experiences. During the rest, by contrast, they are largely consolidating old ones, whether healthily, as the narrator Eugene Fitzpatrick (Sam Neill) does, or a destructive one. 

The cinema of touch: Solveig Dommartin and Sam Neill.

It’s only because so much has happened before the scenes in the Outback that we can understand why staying there poses a problem. 

The caves that wind their way through incomparable rock formations are appealing. The sense of community that the principal characters find there, connecting with aboriginal culture, is deeply meaningful. But after a while, the lack of outside stimulation begins taking its toll. 

Wim Wenders wants us to remember that the primary function of travel is to become a different person. Once that process of moving has stopped, individuals turn their back to the future, eventually becoming incapable of making any progress at all.

In Until the End of the World, this depressing end is figured by the portable electronic devices on which Claire Tourneur (Solveig Dommartin), Sam Farber (William Hurt), and Henry Farber (Max Von Sydow) incessantly watch their dreams, no longer interested in anything beyond their inner lives.

It’s a powerful conceit and one of the few aspects of the film that was almost as effective in the original theatrical release as the director’s cut. 

Henry Farber is an inventor who was inspired by the blindness of his wife Edith (Jeanne Moreau) to create a device that will permit her to see by communicating signals directly into her brain. 

All she cares about are the dreams on her screen.

At the start of the film, Henry has gone missing. His son Sam is on the run, carrying with him a kind of recorder that he has been using to capture the images his mother will most want to see. 

Claire ends up following him around the world. And her ex-lover Eugene and private investigator Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) pursue them in turn. 

The second portion of the film begins when everyone arrives at the outpost in the Outback, where Henry and Edith have been living while he refines his invention. 

After some difficulty getting everything to work properly, Edith is finally able to see, after a fashion. But the mental labour required for this task wears her out. 

She passes away, sending her husband into spasms of grief in which he decides to use the technology in reverse, revealing what is happening inside the mind. 

Considering when it was made, Until the End of the World portrays the end of the millennium in a surprisingly pessimistic manner.

The shadow world of memory: Sam revisits his youth (in the form of home movies from Wim Wenders’ own childhood)

The first half of the film is dominated by the prospect of a damaged nuclear satellite crashing to the earth, with potentially devastating consequences. 

Although the principal characters are too caught up in their own problems to register the full impact of this threat, we see and hear the panic the satellite inspires on the fringes of the narrative.

Indeed, Claire ends up playing a central role in the plot because she is caught in a terrible traffic jam as people try to flee the south of France, which is located within the territory where the satellite is most likely to crash.

Impatient at having to wait, she leaves the highway and resumes her journey on back roads, where she soon gets into a scary automobile accident. 

Witnessing how technology puts us at risk is a central theme of the film. Even more disquieting, however, perhaps because it remains on the margins, is the sense we get that the “peace dividend” promised by the Cold War has not materialised.

None of the urban areas depicted in the film seems to have improved in the decade between the year in which it was made and the year in which it is set. 

Lyon looks much more like the metropolitan Europe of today, beset by poverty and the black-market activity that follows in its wake. San Francisco seems even worse, dingy and menacing. Even Tokyo appears to have seen better days.

These days, remembering the end of the millennium is hard. The late 1990s increasingly seem like a work of fiction. 

In the United States and other highly developed countries, the first years of the consumer internet and the Dot Com boom to which it led suffused the world’s “haves” with a sense of limitless possibility. 

In Europe, the end of the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia and the initially smooth transition to a common currency reinforced this sense that massive progress towards a better life was being made in a short amount of time.

To be sure, there were major warning signs. The economic crisis in some Asian countries, the near-collapse of Russia, and the antipathy towards neoliberal globalisation heralded by the anti-WTO protests all indicated that the future might not be so rosy after all. 

But there was still a surfeit of hope for a better world until 2001. That was the turning point. 

In the United States and its close allies, 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror led to a massive shift in priorities. Then, just as things started to stabilise somewhat, the economic crisis of 2008 turned the developed world upside down. 

Ever since, pessimism about the future has been growing.

Wenders and his collaborators deserve credit for discerning this trend, even if they failed to anticipate the happier times that were destined to precede it.

Like most speculative fiction about the near future, Until the End of the World misjudged the pace of change, imagining that we would already have technology by the year 2000 that wasn’t widely implemented until a decade or two later. 

What the film gets right, however, is the impact that this technology would eventually have on society.

The extreme difficulty of evading tracking devices, the fragmentation — both social and aesthetic — that occurs when people have access to a portable device with a screen, even the consequences for cultural history when music is freed from cumbersome physical media: the film anticipates them with astonishing prescience. 

One of the strangest things about Until the End of the World is that it’s filled with spectacularly beautiful images that feel strangely superfluous to the story being told. But this apparent contradiction also explains why it’s so moving.

By repeatedly confronting us with the problem of blindness, whether temporary or permanent, Wenders reminds us never to take the power of sight for granted.

Because he combines this examination of sight with an unusually rich soundtrack, which brilliantly fuses diegetic and extra-diegetic material, with one of the most satisfying examples of voice-over narration ever produced, he makes it possible for us to experience the film as something we can picture with our eyes closed. 

There are few examples of cinema better suited to sightless immersion. 

Even scenes that would seem to depend heavily on visual information — such as the relationship between foreground and background or the way figures move through a scene — still work as storytelling. 

It’s just that the story will be different if you imagine it for yourself than if you watch what the film’s production team have imagined for you.

That, I think, may be Until the End of the World’s most profound gift to us now, over three decades after the abbreviated version’s theatrical release and more than two decades since the near-future it depicts would have passed into history.

Despite warning us about the potential for debilitating addiction to images and the portable devices that exacerbate our narcissistic relation to them, it remains a celebration of sight, whether alone, or gloriously intertwined with sound.

Wenders doesn’t want us to reject the sensory information available to us. 

His message, rather, is that we should pay extremely close attention to how technology divides the data that can easily be turned into ones and zeroes — the kind we see and hear — from the data that resists such transformation — the kind we taste, smell, and touch. 

When material can be conveniently digitized, it is certain to be reorganised according to a logic that distances it from the experience of perception.

This isn’t all bad. Without this conversion, it would be much harder to repurpose this content for new ends. And sharing it would be much more expensive.

The problem is that we tend to forget what gets left behind in the process. This includes the massive amount of data that is considered extraneous, discarded during file compression, but also input from those other senses that helps to situate what we see and hear in a personally meaningful context.

Wings of Desire, the film Wenders made a few years prior to Until the End of the World, tells the story of an angel, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), who falls in love with Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a trapeze artist, and decides to forsake eternal life for the chance to experience the world as mortals do. 

As an angel, Damiel can see and hear — including people’s inner thoughts — but cannot taste, smell, and touch. 

In an abstract sense, the film’s angels represent the limits of filmmaking. This is signalled by an inversion of the device which The Wizard of Oz made famous. 

After Damiel becomes a human being, the beautiful black-and-white footage we see throughout most of the film gives way to colour that feels all the more intense because of the absence that precedes it.

Although all of Until the End of World is in colour, it accomplishes a similar feat by contrasting the gorgeous cinemascope footage shot by Wenders’ longtime cinematographer Robby Müller with the pixelated images produced by primitive digital cameras, which are used both to show us the video that Claire takes during her trip and the dream images that consume her, Sam, and Henry towards the end of the film. 

In other words, both films turn on a paradox, seeking to communicate through images what goes missing when we reduce the world to images. 

This paradoxical enterprise is mirrored at the level of content. Over and over, we witness the power of touch.

The moments of community in the Outback, when everyone is cut off from the outside world, all depend on a physical proximity to other human beings that cannot be recorded or digitised. 

Claire follows Sam around the world and Eugene follows Claire because they understand that there is no substitute for being present.

The only reason the film has a somewhat happy ending is that Eugene is there to rescue Claire from her addiction to dreams, forcing her to go “cold turkey” until she can once again acknowledge the world around her, and Sam’s aboriginal friend uses his people’s traditional means to do the same. 

Watching Until the End of the World in the wake of a pandemic that radically reduced the amount of in-person contact people could have safely deepens the impact of this message. 

While we have needed technology to stay connected during this time, we must remember that the interactions it makes possible can never take the place of being with other people in the same physical location. 

Nor can we afford to forget that we frequently use the faculties of sight and hearing to distance ourselves from the suffering that is all around us, particularly when we pay more attention to the screens on our devices than to our immediate surroundings.

Back when Until the End of the World came out in 1991, the technological prostheses awaiting us in the years ahead were imbued with an aura of excitement. 

As we look back on the three decades since, it’s sobering to realise that it was lined with dread.

Screenshots courtesy of Wim Wenders. All rights reserved.