“And, exhuming their youth with every sentence, they said to each other: ‘Do you remember?’”
Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education
During Summer 2015, a mural appeared on the side of a building in Hackney Wick. The painting of two morose-looking figures with guitars, a little suggestive of Mat Groening meeting Keith Haring by way of Dick Bruna, is signed NOIR. Reputedly the first graffiti artist to paint murals on the Berlin Wall, Thierry Noir is briefly seen in Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire, in the sequence immediately after Bruno Ganz’s angel, Damiel, becomes mortal. Damiel asks a passerby the colour of blood on his hand, a result of his angel’s armour falling from the sky and striking his head. A decade earlier, Bruno Ganz, as Jonathan in The American Friend, cuts open his head in the Paris Metro as he attempts to undertake his first task as an unlikely hitman, another descent, but in this film an ethical, or moral, rather than a celestial one. The angels in Wings of Desire are shot in black and white, and the inference from this sequence is that they apparently perceive the world in black and white too: the change in film stock not just a demarcation of the subjectivity that the viewer is party to, which stylistically echoes the same division in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death. Damiel follows this by asking the names of the colours in the figures in the graffiti on the Berlin Wall behind them, then mentions coffee, a reference to Peter Falk’s earlier soliloquy about the sensory pleasures of the everyday, coffee, cigarettes, rubbing one’s hands together in the cold. As Damiel walks off with the armour under his arm, the camera pans around to show the Wall receding into the distance, and a figure on a ladder - Noir - is painting (or more specifically has just finished painting, as he takes a couple of steps down). Damiel shouts out “Schön!” at him as he goes past.

Some years before I first visited Berlin, before I had seen Wings of Desire, I‚'d seen Thierry Noir's artwork on the hand-painted Trabant cars used in conjunction with the cover art, music videos and, notably, the television advert for U2's album, Achtung Baby. The advert was screened on UK commercial television channels in late 1991, and the line "Achtung Baby. We Japanese learn a thing or two studying East German car," had stuck in my mind since. Having not seen this for twenty-five years, I was able to refresh my memory online: there it was, again, almost exactly as I remembered (over the years I'd mentally replaced the word "studying" with "about" since this was on television). The line is spoken by Burt Kwouk reprising his role from a Volkswagen advert of the 1970s, in which a car is dropped to the ground having been suspended out of shot. In the U2 advert, the car is a Trabant covered in graffiti: the panels, doors and radiator grill fall off with the impact (in the Volkswagen advert, the 'accidental' dropping of a second car after a first is lowered to the ground is done to show how solidly built it is). Kwouk gets in the wrecked car, there's an edit to a hand turning on a car stereo, and with a cut back to the the Trabant with Burt Kwouk sitting inside, a snippet of the video of 'Mysterious Ways' plays for a few seconds, blue-screened into the background, before cutting to an image of the album cover and Kwouk's voiceover with the opening guitar riff from 'The Fly': "Achtung Baby: the new U2 album."

Burt Kwouk was not, of course, Japanese, but played Japanese characters in a number of British film and television productions at a time when such specifics were deemed to matter less; the Achtung Baby advert revisits Kwouk’s 1970s roles in parodic form, the use of parody being indicative of a change in U2’s positioning or attitude with the new album. In 1991, I wasn't aware of the earlier Volkswagen adverts that this referred back to, and was too young to have seen Tenko, but might have known of the Pink Panther films without having seen them. Now these adverts are accessible on the internet: every snippet of the moving image being destined to end up on YouTube as a repository of collective memory. I was trying to write about this, making use of my time on a train journey to Ipswich the very day that Kwouk's death was announced; if this was a film by Wim Wenders, there'd be shot with a newspaper revealing the actor’s portrait and a headline: "Burt Kwouk, Cato from Pink Panther, dies age 85". The Trabant isn't explicitly named in the television advert; this elicits speculation as to how aware might the British public be of the East German car (in)famously made from plastic with a two stroke engine.

Credited merely with thanks in the liner notes in the Achtung Baby CD booklet, on the cover of ‘The Fly’ it’s explicitly stated: "car painted by Thierry Noir (Berlin)". The first single from the album has the least identifiable, most ambiguous image, the photographs of the graffiti on front and back appear as if floating, contextless: there’s no actual indication of what this car is that’s being referred to (later singles do not give this credit at all). The covers of four singles from the album combine together to make an image of a Trabant with the members of the band inside, photographed by Anton Corbijn, ’The Fly’ cover being the car door (released in the middle of this series, the single for ‘One’ doesn’t fit this scheme, taking as its cover image a work by David Wojnarowicz). The extensive use of the Trabant in relation to the album’s promotion was apparently Corbijn’s idea from U2’s initial recording sessions in Berlin in late 1990 at the time of German reunification.

That Achtung Baby was recorded in Berlin I knew from the album’s ‘liner notes’ (amongst other locations of course, but the studios used in Dublin lacked a certain associative quality, while the name of Hansa would only grow in resonance over the years). In ‘Writing and Music: Album Liner Notes’, Dean L. Biron describes “the interaction of multiple aesthetics with the prima facie sound-based artefact of the record album” as evoking a ‘polytextuality’ - a polytextuality disappearing from music in the age of the MP3 and the live stream where audio recordings are divorced from a physical carrier (yet residually present in some form with the continued popularity of the promotional music video and its distribution online). The long-playing record made use of the cardboard sleeve and the inner liner as spaces with which to present the music contained within through words and images in a way that 78rpm discs never did (most 78s came in a generic card or paper sleeve, which could be comfortably discarded if collected into a bound volume or album with sheaves for many records). By the age of the compact disc, generally the information compiled on the LP’s liner notes had become a booklet, and a many-paged booklet seemed to represent a certain care and attention over the packaging of the music. With the CD format being around ten years old at the time, Achtung Baby came with a 28-page booklet with details of all personnel involved in the recording, the locations, and song lyrics, with photographs by Anton Corbijn. As a teenager, I experienced Biron’s polytextuality, formed in creating a space of contemplation: I would frequently listen to music as an activity in and of itself, not as the background to another activity, and the packaging which came with the music expanded that aesthetic experience. Although it would have been possible to access more information about this music from the music press (which I didn’t read until a few years later), those liner notes were a primary document (I imagine that much external information came through listening to the radio - and the television, hence the impression made by the advert with Burt Kwouk). I bought the CD of Achtung Baby with money from my seventeenth birthday a few months after it had come out; much of my previous interest in music had filtered through my older brother’s record and tape collection, although there were a few albums and singles on tape, CD and vinyl that had begun to identify my own personal taste as distinct from this influence. The liner notes to Achtung Baby are the site or text where I was first introduced to Wim Wenders.

The danger in writing about U2 in relation to Wim Wenders is that the group are so divisive that expanding on this relationship introduces the possibility for some, indeed for many reading, a sense of disqualification: U2 - and especially Bono, who's become the epitome of the pompous self-important well-meaning celebrity, a standalone punchline - are simply anathema to many. Nevertheless during the 1990s, U2 did provide Wenders with the title tracks to two of his films, as well as music for others, and Wenders also directed The Million Dollar Hotel, which Bono co-wrote. Despite having misgivings about making this attempt, to ignore or pretend this cultural transmission was not the case, given that this project has been in part an investigation into autobiography, would be fundamentally dishonest.

In the CD booklet of Achtung Baby, the song lyrics to ‘Until The End of The World’ are appended "(For Wim Wenders)". I had no way of knowing who Wim Wenders was at the time, nor that the title of the song was also the title of one of Wenders’ films. The only other song with a similar addition is ‘Trying to throw your arms around the world’ which has "(Thanks to the flaming colossus)". This was apparently a bar the band frequented in LA during the Rattle and Hum sessions, and is also thanked in that album's notes. As Wim Wenders is also mentioned in the general 'thanks' list, to the ignorant fan this could have been just another name of someone the band had worked with. Popular music has often been a conduit of cultural ideas: it's not too fanciful to suggest that at the beginning of the nineties U2 introduced me to postmodernism, appropriation, the death of the author and hyperreality, before I entered art school and encountered Lyotard, Virilio, Baudrillard and Barthes. Although slight, the route into Wim Wenders, however convoluted, was there, though I cannot identify exactly when I would have first seen any of his films, although this was at art school. As I wrote in Abroad,
“…when researching the films of Wim Wenders for a cultural studies essay, I watched Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire, the two films that the library had, on VHS. Searching the library database returned three articles on Wim Wenders, including one from Sight and Sound from 1984, by John Pym, titled the ‘The Road From Wuppertal’. Although I did not reference this article in my essay, its description of Alice In The Cities, and then reading about Wenders’ working methods for his film in The Logic Of Images left an impression that would have to wait a decade to be realised. Oddly, perhaps, it was this very frustration (and the intensity of youth) that lent a force to these impressions then.”
For the young Wenders, rock and roll music was part of the cultural imperialism he embraced to fill the vacuum of identity in post war West Germany (“Wenders seems to have taken to rock music because it was apparently uncorrupted by the cultural discourse damaged by the legacy of fascism.” Kolker and Beicken, The Films of Wim Wenders: Cinema as Vision and Desire). At the beginning of his career, Wenders was responding to the music of the late sixties in a number of early films such as Alabama: 2000 Light Years, 3 American LPs, Summer in the City; becoming more successful as a filmmaker, from this position of being responsive, Wenders was able to shift through the seventies and eighties to being more active in how the soundtracks to his films were made, Ry Cooder’s music for Paris, Texas being the best example. For Until The End Of The World, Wenders was able to command a whole roster of artists to contribute original songs for the film, directed to make the music that they might imagine playing in 1999 - a challenge met to the extent that the soundtrack album became more successful, at least critically, than the global road movie sci-fi folly of the film itself.
"Later on I asked Bono what he thinks the connection is between U2 and Wenders, aside from the fact that the band keeps writing title songs for his movies. Bono says that in the 1980s U2 and Wenders were the two European artists devoted to getting a handle on America [...] 'Until the End of the World is ostensibly about perception, vision, how we see. Blindness is the metaphor of that movie, as it is of 'Love Is Blindness.' Wim said a very important thing. He said he had lost his faith in pictures. It's an amazing statement for a filmmaker. In the end, Zoo TV is an image bonfire. Zoo TV is finally about the end of the idea of the Image and the wake of the imagination. Wim is plugged into that. That's where he's at and that's where we're at, so we're in synch.'"
Bill Flanagan, U2 At The End Of The World
In contrast to their directions in the 1980s, by the turn of the 90s both director and group faced a return to a more vital, rapidly changing Europe - U2 had come unstuck with their Rattle and Hum film and album, needing to "dream it all up again", and Wenders was coming down from orbiting the earth in Until The End of The World to deal with the reunification of Germany and the new Europe in Faraway. So Close! (also notable is Lisbon Story's opening sequence travelling across the now-borderless continent; by the end of the decade both had begun a shift back across the Atlantic once more). As a statement of intent, Achtung Baby begins with the track 'Zoo Station'. This derives its name (and the repeated refrain) from the Zoologischer Garten station in Berlin, chosen no doubt for its richly associative qualities of the station's reputation, Christiane F., David Bowie and the coincident U2 U-Bahn line, shown in a detail of the map inside the Achtung Baby CD booklet - though at the time the U2 didn't go to Zoologischer Garten, but to the next station south, to Wittenbergplatz, close enough graphically. In turn this was picked up for the name of the tour which followed, Zoo TV, conflated with the 'zoo' radio and television format becoming popular then, and to the album recorded in breaks on the tour: Zooropa. Descriptions of Achtung Baby often cite dance music as an influence for U2's new direction, but in some respects the album represents just a stage in a broader transition which is more fully formed with Zooropa. The artwork for the two albums is indicative of this process: despite the fragmenting of Achtung Baby’s mosaic design, and Anton Corbijn's more experimental photography within it (cross-processing, painting with light), it is still rooted within an approach of traditional, indexical representation - the polytextuality is pushed far from U2's image that Corbijn helped create in the 1980s, but it’s still recognisably linked. Breaking that, Zooropa embraces new technology: layers of digital treatments derived from the Zoo TV tour footage, with the stars of the EU flag surrounding a rendering of the Achtung 'Baby' graffito from the previous album, the baby's face redrawn inside a schematic astronaut's helmet, inspired by the story of the last Soviet cosmonaut stuck in orbit while the USSR disintegrated miles below.

In July 1993 I bought Zooropa the day it came out. In the morning I had been putting up my A-level art show, having signed out of school just over a week before, after finishing all my exams. Working through lunch, I got a lift home before going to buy the CD. I don't know how I was aware of its release, through promotion on the radio, perhaps, or in-store advertising at the local branch of Our Price. Wim Wenders reappears in Zooropa's CD booklet with the song 'Stay (Faraway So Close!)': "title courtesy of Road Music Wim Wenders Musikverlag, EMI Electrola GmBH".
"Edge and Larry go off to make some tour rulings and Bono returns his attention to the track-in-progress. A TV monitor has been rolled in and he switches on a sequence from Wim Wenders's film-in-progress, a sequel to Wings of Desire to be called Far Away, So Close! The scene is of an angel high above Berlin, looking down and contemplating earth. The angel leaps from his perch, trading divinity for mortality. As we watch, Flood [one of the album's producers] plays back 'Sinatra,' a moody instrumental track. Bono starts singing along: 'Green light, 7-eleven/You stop in for a pack of cigarettes/You don't smoke, don't even want 'em/Check your change.' [...] Bono keeps putting down tracks, changing the lyrics slightly each time. He tells Flood to change the listed title of the song to "Stay," from "Sinatra." Although, he considers, he ought to try to get some reference to Wim's film in there. He decides to call it 'Stay (Faraway, So Close!).'"
Bill Flanagan, U2 At The End Of The World
The only single with a worldwide release from the album in traditional format ('Numb' was a video single on VHS tape and 'Lemon' had a limited release in some countries), with a certain synchronicity, 'Stay (Faraway So Close!)' had as its B side the Frank Sinatra and Bono ‘virtual’ duet 'I've Got You Under My Skin' from Sintatra’s 1993 album Duets. The promotional video was directed by Wim Wenders. Filmed in black and white and colour, it positions the band members in the roles of the angels from the film, complete with the iconic imagery of the Siegesäule statue - with the face of the statue appearing on the cover of the single as well. I remember seeing the posters for the film of Faraway, So Close! with Otto Sander standing on the shoulder of the Siegesäule, on the London Underground at the end of my first year at college, a full twelve months after the release of Zooropa. Although I don’t recall doing so, I must have made the connection then between the song and the film and its director - without seeing the film.

Brian Eno, who worked as producer on several U2 albums, describes a track called ‘Lantern Marsh’ on Ambient IV in a way that feels apposite:
”…my experience of it derives not from having visited it (although I most certainly did) but from having subsequently seen it on a map and imagining where and what it might be. We feel affinities not only with the past, but also with futures that didn’t materialise, and with the other variations of the present that we suspect run parallel to the one we have agreed to live in.”
Brian Eno,  Ambient IV: On Land, 1982, quoted in Dean L Biron, Writing and Music: Album Liner Notes
Those affinities, the parallel variations of the present, and the past that once was the present, are in some way bound up with the desire I’ve had to research and revisit locations used by Wenders, experienced imaginatively through his films, first by reading about them, and second, only later when seeing the films. Again, in Abroad, I wrote about “…tracing the culture that made me want to be in Europe, identifying it primarily through European cinema, through films that I saw twenty years ago: notable cases being Kieslowski's Three Colours trilogy, Edgar Reitz's Die Zweite Heimat, and particularly Wim Wenders' films. However, it was the knowledge or idea of the films that I could not see then - especially Alice In The Cities, Kings Of The Road and The American Friend - that inspired the feeling best expressed through the German word Sehnsucht that I’d learned from Edgar Reitz.” Not mentioned at the time, along with the idea of Wim Wenders films, perhaps were also the photographs of Berlin by Anton Corbijn. Visiting Berlin for the first time many years later, I found myself in the same location where fifteen years earlier Corbijn had photographed the group inside a Trabant in front of a partly-demolished building with a whole facade missing. Struck by the visual memory, vertiginously realising myself inside a picture from my youth, this was however at the time I cared least about making this connection; by the time U2’s album Pop was released, around the time I was leaving art school after four years, I felt like I’d left the band behind, or perhaps they had left me, the postmodernism of Pop feeling forced, rather than revitalising. For years afterwards, as I moved into my thirties, this music was so pierced with nostalgia, it almost felt simply a painful reminder of all the failures of my youth.
"... I sort of took the overview position of saying, 'What do you want? You don't want a stage show where everything fits neatly into place and it's all nicely organized and people know exactly where the center of attention is at all moments.' That isn't what the music is about now, and it certainly isn't what this concept of a new Europe is about, so how can we make a stage show that has some of the feeling of defensiveness and chaos and information overload...?"
Brian Eno, quoted in Jim DeRogatis, Milk It!
Eno had been initially reluctant to work with U2 in the 1980s when first approached to produce The Unforgettable Fire, fearing the band's whole ethos being inimical to his more elliptical methods; under the aegis of Eno, U2 would reinvent themselves more than once. Although the comparison might appear tenuous, U2's trajectory at the end of the 1980s into the 90s mirrors Bowie's path through the mid-seventies, albeit with less drugs. The parallels to Bowie are clear: being initially seduced by America, glutted with success, needing the sober purgative of Berlin and the new electronic sounds of Germany replacing the plastic soul of Young Americans, with Brian Eno appearing as a creative foil to push Bowie's more experimental tendencies to greater extremes. In U2's case, as well as falling foul of the critics for their attempts to assimilate the roots of rock and roll in America, it was also being constrained by their own earnestness, and perceived self-importance, which was something they could not entirely shake off, for all the talk around irony and post-modernism that came out of the Achtung Baby sessions, working with Eno again, in Berlin, hoping something of the atmosphere from Low and “Heroes” remained. (Following Zooropa, U2 and Eno worked together on Original Soundtracks 1, the record that wore Eno’s influence so heavily, a genuine collaboration of equals, that it couldn’t be called a U2 album, and was released under the ad hoc group name Passengers. Inspired in part by the U2's experiences on the Zoo TV tour, especially that of Japan where the tour ended, from the European-looking preceding albums, this took their expanded worldview further - back to America, but also to Italy, Japan, South Africa, to Sarajevo and beyond, even if much of that was in the fictional guise of music for films that did not exist - but those that did, are indicative of U2’s journey through the first half of the decade: Ghost in the Shell, Bill Carter's Miss Sarajevo, and Beyond The Clouds, the Antonioni project that Wim Wenders was drafted in as a security to help steer the ailing Italian director.)

Earlier this year, acting as an artist's assistant, I found myself taking photographs with a toy Trabant, noting an irony in the fact its body was die cast metal. The car is now a firm symbol of Ostalgie, Eastern Bloc tourist kitsch along with East Berlin's Ampelmann and, to a degree, the repainted and restored graffiti on retained or reconstructed sections of the Berlin Wall. Anton Corbijn and U2 were clearly onto something in their adoption of the Trabant. On the Zoo TV tour a fleet of the cars were used in the lighting rig, as a mirror ball, a DJ booth; the Trabant was seen as a symbol of what was wrong with the command economy and its instant obsolescence with the end of East Germany (rather than Thierry Noir, Catherine Owens was the artist in charge of the decoration of the cars for the tour). The quote at the top of this piece is from Gustave Flaubert's Sentimental Education, one of the two books that Wilhelm's mother gives him before he undertakes his journey in Wim Wenders' Wrong Move, which seemed appropriate to this attempt of exhuming my youth, disinterring something from my past that felt important then. Then, Zoo TV and Zooropa tapped into the nervous optimism about the new Europe, after the reunification of Germany, the collapse of communism, post-Maastricht, a world united under a network of satellite television, united under the free market, 'the end of history’, which now seems retrospectively naive in the wake of recent events, but it’s hard to disentangle nostalgia from that.

"Herzog lost his alter ego when Kinski died in 1991 and he drifted into documentaries, and Wenders, victim of rock and roll's salvation, did the Transatlantic shuffle to diminishing effect."
Chris Petit, 'Germany'
Wenders' successes took him away from his roots in West Germany, arguably a defining factor in the director's best work of the 1970s (as is pertinent to Petit’s quote, Wenders too became a successful documentary director - Buena Vista Social Club doing much to revive his reputation at the end of the 1990s, while Pina allowed him to return to Wuppertal and make his first film in 3D). Part of what appears problematic with Wim Wenders' films in the 1990s was that, thanks to Paris, Texas and then Wings of Desire, he began to move increasingly from the festival circuit into circles of celebrity with, for many critics, an attentive diminution in the quality of his films. From having Peter Falk as himself and Nick Cave in Wings of Desire, by the time Wenders made his sequel, he could call on Lou Reed and Mikhail Gorbachev (appropriately enough, around the same time Lou Reed also featured in U2’s Zoo TV tour as a ghostly apparition on the video screens joining the band in singing ‘Satellite of Love’). Working with U2 was itself symptomatic of this period: Wenders directed the promotional video for 'Stay (Faraway, So Close!)', casting the four members of U2 as the angels in his filmic universe. Although this is congruent with the adopting of stage persona which came with U2's reinvention on the Zoo TV tour, rather than just being an apt conceit for the title track to the film, it's problematic: if the band had wanted to sabotage their own earnest self-image with Achtung Baby by creating masks of irony and insincerity, appearing as angels in a Wenders-directed, black and white video was not the way to do it (Chris Petit, quoting an unnamed "cynical friend" on Wings of Desire writes, "Wenders never would have dared 'pull that stunt with the angels had Fassbinder been alive'.")

At the same time as being portrayed as angels by Wenders, Bono was conducting the end of the Zooropa shows as Mr MacPhisto - the devil as decrepit music hall entertainer, the Anti-Elvis to The Fly's perverted vision of '68 comeback-era leather-clad Elvis (as The Fly, a parodic version of a rock star, Bono felt free to embrace rock and roll cliches as part of the spectacle of the tour, but the veneer of irony at times appeared to be paper-thin). Developed for a European audience when the tour came back from its US stadium leg where Bono had cast himself as Mirrorball Man, a TV-evangelist huckster with an exaggerated drawl that wasn't felt to have sufficient resonance in Europe, the character of MacPhisto was inspired by seeing a production of Robert Wilson's The Black Rider, and drew references and allusions all the way from from Faust and the Screwtape Letters, through Archie Rice doing Joel Grey, with elements of Quentin Crisp and a touch of Oscar Wilde. Bono's turn as MacPhisto made sufficient impact to be noticed by Hollywood producers, inviting a reprisal of the role for the Batman and Robin film - which would have been a terrible idea. The character of MacPhisto was the ultimate development of the position of visual and verbal irony on the Zoo TV tour which allowed U2 to address a stubbornly resistant, darker side to the new Europe (and the post-communist world) that was emerging during the course of nearly two years spent on the road with the Zoo TV tour: the continual returns of far right politics, narrow nationalisms, the war in the former Yugoslavia and especially the siege of Sarajevo. MacPhisto took over the nightly telephone calls live on stage to politicians and other public figures, including John Major, Helmut Kohl, Alessandra Mussolini amongst others, which generally went unanswered. For the last show of the ‘Zoomerang’ leg of the tour in Sydney, filmed for release on video, Bono as MacPhisto makes a phone call for a taxi to take him home. The overriding theme of information overload that U2's Zoo TV tour turned into spectacle, the bombardment of contradictory messages, the connectivity of the satellite links, the video confessions, the levelling down of all content, has become only all the more apparent. Now, thanks to the new, glutted, streaming image world of the internet, Burt Kwouk is somewhere, always, sitting in the wrecked Trabant, forever.


Jim DeRogatis, Milk It! 2003
Tom Doyle, '10 Years Of Turmoil Inside U2', Q magazine, October 10, 2002, retrieved 27/06/16
Bill Flanagan, U2 At The End Of The World
Katri Hannula, Zooropa! My Zooropa! U2’s Critique of Europe in the 1990s, 2011,
Robert Phillip Kolker and Peter Beicken, The Films of Wim Wenders: Cinema as Vision and Desire, Cambridge University Press 1993
Bert Kwouk obituary 
Chris Petit, ‘Germany’, in Granta 86 Film Summer 2004
see also 'King of the Road'
‘Graffiti in the death strip: the Berlin wall's first street artist tells his story’
Dean L. Biron, Writing and Music: Album Liner Notes,

See also general bibliography

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