“At age twelve, [Wim] Wenders was given an 8mm film camera by his father […] Wenders positioned himself at the window of the family’s home, fixing the camera on the street below. Filming the goings-on at an intersection, he was questioned by his father: ‘What are you doing there with your camera?’ The original German words, ‘Was machst du denn da mit deiner Kamera?’ sound inquisitive, and rather than expressing interest or curiosity, they seemed to express a sense of impatience and lack of understanding on the part of the father. They marked a certain parental disapproval, and Wenders answered promptly: ‘I’m filming the street, can’t you see.’ (‘Ich filme die Strasse, das siehst du doch.’)”In Theory of Film, Siegfried Kracauer frequently returns to the street as epitomising strands of his ‘inherent affinities’: “The affinity of film for haphazard contingencies is most strikingly demonstrated by its unwavering susceptibility to the ‘street’.” Kracauer expands the street as a “…a term designed to cover not only the street, particularly the city street, in the literal sense, but also its various extension, such as railway stations, dance and assembly halls, bars, hotel lobbies, airports, etc.”. Kracauer identifies ‘the cinematic’ with its basis in photographic technology, and that technology’s ability to record the external world, in all its indeterminate, unstaged fortuitousness, setting up an opposition of the realistic or documentary tendencies against the literary and theatrical impulses evident in the earliest cinema. It is also notable that an intersection is explicitly mentioned: this conjures up not just the contingencies of the street, but the possibility that here differing trajectories cross, providing for the greater likelihood of chance encounters. Set against the idea of the street, the implicit arrangement of this scene as described, with Wenders filming from an upper window (hence the street being “below”), behind the camera, from an interior, may be purely practical, but its conditions of spectatorship, as a separate, disengaged viewer, is reminiscent of the experience of being in the cinema itself: the window as screen fulfils the (future and imagined) relationship of watching the film that Wenders is making. This childhood anecdote also introduces a conflict with the figure of the father; a common theme through Wenders’ early films is how his generations’ fathers were experienced through a lack or distance, or an uncomprehending of how the tragedy of National Socialism was allowed to happen.
Kolker and Beicken, The Films of Wim Wenders
Kolker and Beicken continue with their origin story by recounting Wenders’ experience as a film student: “…when he made his first short film (Schauplätze, 1966-7) in 16mm, he repeated exactly the exercise he had done as a boy. He trained the camera from the sixth-floor window of a building onto the street below, filming an “intersection without moving the camera until the reel was empty.” (Alexander Graf, in The Cinema of Wim Wenders: the celluloid highway, also repeats this: “…in his first film, Schauplätze, Wenders filmed a road junction without moving the camera or switching it off until the reel was empty.”)
In their conflation of Wender’s no-longer-extant Schauplätze with his first use of a film camera, we are returned to an interior looking out onto the street, and indeed, onto an intersection again, and here, specifically, are given the contingent conditions of the length of shot produced being formed by the fact of the length of film inside the camera. In all the various published filmographies, Schauplätze is specified as being shot on 16mm film. Assuming that, as a student, Wenders would have being using reels of 100ft, this would provide 3 minutes duration for one continuous shot (also assuming a ’normal’ frame rate). If this was indeed “…the exercise he had done as a boy,” it would have been possible to film for a similar duration to this: a standard reel of 8mm film (25 feet) would represent the same amount of time. There are, however, complicating factors.
What was the nature of the exercise that he had done as a boy? The 'exactly' in Kolker and Beicken’s description is open to question (also, notably, their use of the word exercise is freighted with meaning: exercise as a working out of or through an idea or concept; an experience preparing one for some future need). In the 1950s, when Wenders filmed from his window as a boy, it was extremely rare for 8mm cameras to transport film by anything other than a spring motor, which required winding by hand and was not able to shoot a whole reel of film continuously (the most powerful motors on 8mm film cameras would be able to shoot half a roll of film on a single wind). In addition, 8mm film cameras used 16mm film, with extra perforations, exposing frames to only half of the film area, before being removed from the camera, flipped over, and the other half exposed in a second pass through the camera. If Wenders, as a boy, had shot a whole reel of film from the window of the family home looking out onto the street, in all likelihood, this filming would have by necessity have been broken into four separate shots at the very least, two shots per side of film, with the motor wound in between, and the film being reloaded half way through its use. Rather than shooting until the reel was empty, if indeed this was what Wenders did as a child, at each of these points I would speculate that it is more likely he would have sought out a new framing, even if this was still the same street. Ten years later, shooting 16mm film as a student, it’s likely that Wenders would have been using a camera with a clockwork motor again.
The later success that Wenders found leads one to look back to attempt to see the film maker in embryo through these early ventures into the medium, thus subjecting them to more scrutiny than they might stand. With my own early work, I would be quite happy if none of it was ever seen again - so much of what I made at art school simply reflected my own naivety, the gaucheness of youth and inexperience; although I didn’t study film as a subject, amongst the paintings, prints and photography, I did make some short pieces in which I digitised video at very low resolutions and frame rates, and painstaking applied transitions and overlays of text, frame by frame, fetishising and aestheticising those very limitations, or so I thought. Seduced by the technique, my own student films demonstrated a startling lack of ideas, even when limiting the realm of ideas to purely formal approaches (teaching students now, twenty years later, so many of them appear much more visually sophisticated than I ever was). I did shoot a single roll of super 8 film as a student, and taped this of the projection screen onto VHS, from which I digitised portions to incorporate into the video work I was making; twenty years later, the original 8mm film has far more resonance as a document of its time and place than what it ended up being.
In filmographies, Schauplätze, is dated to 1966-7, and is listed as being 10 minutes long, 16mm, black and white, with music from the Rolling Stones (the specific songs are not named). The ten-minute running time suggests the film to be comprised of four separate shots at least, working on the assumption that each shot was filmed “until the reel was empty” and then spliced together these four reels to create the finished film. The filmographies in published monographs on Wim Wenders are generally consistent, from Kolker and Beicken, Cook and Gemundsen, and Graf all providing the same information, suggesting that these are being copied from one source to another - which does not preclude that there may be omissions where the student films are concerned (the website IMDB lists two student films which do not appear in the filmographies just listed, named as Victor I and Klappenfilm, and Wenders describes making an unnamed film about the rock group Ten Years After in ‘Impossible Stories’, which features in none of these; these films may no longer exist, but neither does Schauplätze). On an initial reading, this appeared to be a methodology that I could follow: to make a film based on the contingent restrictions of Wim Wenders’ first, lost film. There would be four separate locations, the duration of each shot being determined by shooting until the camera's motor ran down, and at the moment when the motor stops, reframe the shot, each taken from the upper floor windows of the house where I live, looking out onto the street. As a model for the composition of the first shot, a still from Wenders’ third film, Silver City would serve. This shows a view framed by an open window, with a set of railway lines running across the image, with a road behind and a car, and scaffolding bounding the far side of the street.
Schauplätze was shot on reversal stock, meaning that there was no negative, the original film being developed as a positive for projection. However, two shots from the film appear at the beginning of Same Player Shoots Again, the physical film material itself recombined into this, Wenders’ second film. The frequently reproduced still from Same Player Shoots Again isn’t one of these shots. Instead, this shows the lower half of a figure carrying a machine gun, walking, sideways on to the camera (not always shown in the same direction). Unlike Schauplätze, Same Player Shoots Again still exists, and with it the possibility of encountering the two extant shots of Schauplätze.
Hito Steyerl, writing ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’, describes a new form of value defined against the fetishisation of the “brilliant … more mimetic” “high-resolution image”, based on an image’s ability to resist control, to be disseminated, tracing its passage from clandestine, physical distributions of video tapes, through to the current digital, online platforms: “The condition of the images speaks not only of countless transfers and reformattings, but also of the countless people who cared enough about them to convert them over and over again, to add subtitles, reedit, or upload them. […] Apart from resolution and exchange value, one might imagine another form of value defined by velocity, intensity, and spread.”
Away from the frequently reproduced still from Same Player Shoots Again, I first encountered this as a moving image through an upload to the Russian social media website, VKontakte (last year's reissue of the Criterion DVD/Blu-Ray collection of the road movies trilogy features Same Player Shoots Again as an extra; prior to this, the short film was previously commercially unavailable). Same Player Shoots Again is described as being in black and white, but tinted, the sequence of the figure with the gun walking is repeated in different colours, but the version I have seen posted online is all in black and white and clearly shows signs of having originated as a VHS copy before being digitised. The two shots at the beginning of Same Player Shoots Again that were derived from Schauplätze are unlike the description of Wim Wenders’ “…exercise he had done as a boy” - the first shot is of an interior with a slow camera movement from a fairly low view point, where a chair can be seen next to an upturned lamp on the floor, upwards to take in a television, which is on, showing a close up of hands shuffling cards (the first of numerous television sets that would appear in Wenders films), and across to a table with a number of empty bottles; the second shot, separated by a hand-drawn title card, shows a telephone box on a street, the door shown just closing, as a partially seen figure leaves to the left of the screen. The first shot is notably an interior, the second shot is from street level, not from a window looking down onto the street. These may be short edits from longer shots, these putative three-minute long shots of an entire reel of 16mm film that made up Wenders’ first film - if these were three minutes long, in their unedited versions, it raises questions about the form these once took: did the first shot pan further and reveal more of the room? And did the second shot show the figure entering the telephone box, making a call and then leaving? These two shots complicated the idea of my exercise to make a new Schauplätze: no longer purely an imaginary exercise, based on written descriptions: the idea of remaking an entirely lost film is somewhat more appealing than having these vestigial visual clues to constrain one.
In ‘Why do you make films?’ Wenders continues from the story of shooting 8mm film as a child: “Ten or twelve years later, I was making my first short film on 16mm. A reel of film lasted three minutes. I filmed a crossroads from the sixth floor, without moving the camera until the reel was finished. It didn’t occur to me to pull away or stop shooting any earlier. With hindsight, I suppose it would have seemed like sacrilege to me.” Kolker and Beicken have clearly paraphrased Wenders’ own words for their description, but notably in ‘Why do you make films?’ Wenders does not name his “first short film”. Five years earlier, in 'Impossible Stories', Wenders clearly names Silver City as his first film: "My very first film, Silver City, consisted of ten shots, each three minutes long-that was the length of a 16mm reel used for daylight shooting. Each shot was of a cityscape. The camera remained in one place, nothing happened. Basically, these shots were like the watercolor paintings I had been doing before, only this time they were recorded on film.” (In conversation with Peter W. Jansen, speaking in 1989, Wenders again asserts this: "My first film was called Silver City...") This description is remarkably similar to that from ‘Why do you make films?’ except that in the later piece, Wenders does not explicitly name this ‘first’ film, leading Kolker and Beicken, and Graf, to assign this working method to Schauplätze - thanks to its fixed position as Wenders’ first film in all the published filmographies, despite Wenders’ own designation of Silver City as the first. One reason for doing so might be that, thematically, this suits Kolker and Beicken’s desire to place the origin of Wenders’ filmmaking in a realist, documentary tradition:
“The German word Schauplätze means “locations,” referring to the generic place where events occur and can be observed. The more technical term for cinematic location - the pro-filmic space where events take place for the camera - is Drehort. From the start, then, Wenders looks at all the world as a theatrum mundi, as a location for the camera’s gaze. There is no notion of a special place marked off for cinema, but rather the desire to make cinema out of the world as it is, to reveal cinema to the world, as both Kracauer and Andre Bazin had suggested.”In essence this is the overt strategy for the making of Silver City, as defined in Wenders’ own words, his next film as a student after Same Player Shoots Again, - but not necessarily “from the start”. Wenders theorised elements of this approach prior to making Silver City in his review of an experimental film festival, Exprmntl 4: “The bad films of this kind clearly showed that it was no longer experimental to make films that rattled along like machine-gun fire. The fact that you get to see nothing, or hardly anything, no longer amounts to a criterion for an experimental film. The alternative would be a film consisting of only one shot.” ('No 'exprmnts'' in Emotion Pictures). Instead, there is a leap from the first 8mm film as a boy to the third student film; in between, two short films which exhibit more of the formative rather than the realist tendency, hence why the two shots of Schauplätze could be incorporated into Same Player Shoots Again. In this second film, there are two new shots, one being the repeated motif of the walking figure already described, then at the end a brief panning shot inside a car showing an apparently dead or dying man in the back seat, with blood theatrically coming from one corner of his mouth, before the camera moves away to observe the passing landscape from the car window. These two shots are both scenes where, in essence, the action has already happened - as are the shots of the interior and the telephone box. Set against Kolker and Beicken’s interpretation, the most that can be said about Schauplätze is that it appears to be about locations that have become defined as such retrospectively, because something has (or is presented as if it had) happened. A not unreasonable assumption would be to project from these remnants that the other, lost, shots that must have comprised Schauplätze’s ten minute running time would have had the same sense of mise-en-scene.
Kolker and Beicken, The Films of Wim Wenders
Tellingly, the formal strategy of using a whole reel of film stock, unedited, for each shot and constructing a film around this, that made Silver City, is used as Wenders to demonstrate how a contingent moment forced a narrative into this otherwise contemplative structure. Composing his shots like the paintings he had been making, Wenders describes that one was of “an empty landscape with railway tracks” (‘Impossible Stories’, The Logic of Images); knowing the schedule of the trains, Wenders began filming two minutes before a train was due, to catch the appearance of the train towards the end of the reel of film. However, “…two minutes later someone ran into shot from the right, jumped over the tracks just a couple of yards in front of the camera, and ran out of the left edge of the frame. The moment he disappeared, even more surprisingly, the train thundered into the picture […] This tiny ‘action’ - man crosses tracks ahead of train - signals the beginning of a ‘story’.” Although this is framed as the inevitability of how stories or a narrative force their way in to images, the clearly formative impulse seen in the earlier Schauplätze and Same Player Shoots Again shows that narrative was already present in Wenders’ student films (Thomas Elsaesser describes the student films as being “…conceived as narrative after narrative.”). The exercise of Silver City may have been an attempt to circumvent these approaches in a more formal and ambitious experiment, so much so that Wenders on a number of occasions declares this to be the start of his film making, and (perhaps tellingly) linking this to painting, unlike the previous two films, with their suggestions of noir or the gangster genre (and the pinball machine) derived not from ‘the street’, but from the cinema itself.
From my initial conception of making a film based on the descriptions of Schauplätze, and combining these descriptions with the limitations of the technology then available, the exercise to simply film from a window out onto the street until the camera’s motor stopped became compromised through the discovery of Same Player Shoots Again. The rationale for using film rather than digital was that it would impose these constraints, and force contingencies such as the length of shot - and the possibility that something may happen during it (like Wenders’ man running across the railway tracks) - and, as a whole, being constrained by the amount of film on the reel inside the camera, by the length of time the motor can run once wound. With digital video there are still constraints, but those of duration are greatly expanded. I began by framing the first shot based on the composition of the frequently-reproduced still from Silver City; originally, the 8mm camera that I used would have exposed one side of an 8mm reel of film in two full windings of the clockwork motor, according to claims made in the camera’s manual. In practice, this was not quite the case: with a newly loaded reel of film, the first shot ran for just over one minute, while the second was forty seconds. Most likely, this was due to the fact that as more exposed film was wound onto the take up spool inside the camera, the greater resistance there was to this turning freely, bearing in mind that the camera and its clockwork motor are over fifty years old. This forced a third, short shot at the end of the reel before turning it over for its second run through the camera. This new, unexpected limitation made for a film with six separate shots in total rather than four, two per side. On the second side of the reel of film, I emulated the two extant shots of Schauplätze incorporated into Same Player Shoots Again, the interior, followed by the shot of the telephone box, the first constrained to the time of the shot in Same Player Shoots Again, the second, of the telephone box, on the street, shot until the motor ran down. This left a few feet right at the end of the reel for a brief, final shot from a different window to complete the film. These two brief shots at both ends of the sides of the film leave a formal or structural unevenness to the whole, whereas a film composed of four shots of equal duration has a certain symmetry to it. Rather than television, the image within the image of cards being shuffled I replayed on a laptop screen, but the second shot from Same Player Shoots Again was recreated with a telephone box, still very much part of the street, representing the slow technological change of most of the built environment encountered in an old city such as London. The construction of my own film Locations thus became a confusion of using the technology of Wenders’ earliest filmic exercise as a boy, the mistaken descriptions of a film that no longer exists, and the evidence of the “poor image” surviving remnants in another film, recast as a false start by the designation of yet another film as the first, too much being misread, willingly, in order to foretell the later career of a director.
See 'Locations' online here.
Thomas Elsaesser. ’Spectators of Life’, in Cook, Roger F, and Gemünden, Gerd, The Cinema of Wim Wenders: Image Narrative and the Postmodern Condition, Wayne State University Press, Detroit 1997
Robert Phillip Kolker, and Peter U. Beicken, The Films of Wim Wenders: Cinema as Vision and Desire, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1993
Siegfried Kracauer, Nature of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Dobson Books, London, 1960
Alexander, Graf, The Cinema of Wim Wenders: the celluloid highway, Wallflower Press, London 2002
Hito Steyerl, ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’, in The Wretched of the Screen, Sternberg Press, Berlin 2012
Wim Wenders, Emotion Pictures, Faber and Faber, London 1991
-The Logic Of Images; Essays and Conversations, Faber and Faber, London 1991
-The Art of Seeing; Essays and Conversations, Faber and Faber, London 1997