Modern Suburbs

"After the industrialist's suicide, whose presence stimulated me, we lost direction. The journey through Germany, which I felt was a kind of adventure and work, was called off and we moved in an idiotic panic. Bernhard disappeared without explanation from a motorway cafe. We others stuck together, but seemed to be moving apart."

The movement in Wim Wenders’ Falsche Bewegung (Wrong Move) takes a number of forms. Primarily, it is Wilhelm’s physical movement across West Germany, from Glückstadt in the North to the Zugspitze in the South, from the Elbe to the Rhine and the Main. This also allows for thematic movement, from ‘heimat’ to modernity, with the small town of Glückstadt located in a seemingly timeless deep Germany, through the streets of the provincial post-war capital of Bonn, to the anonymous modernity of a high rise apartment building in a suburb of Frankfurt (“this most American of German cities”); this is paralleled by a movement from the open, spatially, but also metaphorically, to closed: from the wide open panorama over the Elbe that begins the film, through the moving panoramas of the film’s railway journeys, creating the conditions for reverie, for imaginative space, to the interrupted journey by car from Bonn to Frankfurt, cramped, claustrophobic, with night closing in, no expansive views of the open road’s vanishing point framed by the windscreen, ending in a small, barely furnished apartment with unplastered walls and the characters sleeping on the floor. In the middle of the film is its masterful set piece, a long sequence in which the characters walk through vineyards on the slopes above the Rhine, the mobility of which allows the characters to form groups around Wilhelm which split and recombine as they talk, a moving symposium in the open air. This breaks up with a sudden sense of foreboding as the characters appear to react against the distant sound of shots, or perhaps more accurately, at the recognition of the sound itself, returning to find the industrialist dead. After this long sequence, the editing in the remaining minutes of the film feels fragmented, a series of brief scenes in and around Therese’s apartment–Bernhard leaving them at the side of the road; the view from the apartment looking out on other high rise buildings topped with illuminated signs of different companies, looking inward at the television (first with static, then playing Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet’s Die Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach); Laertes and Mignon begging at a railway station; Therese learning her lines while ironing; Wilhelm threatening to throw Laertes from the car ferry; the remaining three characters at a drive-in cinema, a form of spectatorship in which the collective audience is separated from each other, enclosed in the spaces of private vehicles; then Wilhelm leaving Therese and Mignon outside a supermarket; then a final cut to Wilhelm  alone at the top of Germany’s tallest mountain, the Zugspitze. 

The last entry here under ‘Marginalia’ ('Mystical Barbaric Bored') came from a trip to Gdańsk in 2019, before the global pandemic; the last trip allowing me to research locations from Wim Wenders’ 1970s road movies was five years ago, in 2017, to Bonn, returning, by train, from Documenta 14 in Kassel. At the time of writing, Documenta 15 is now open. Almost exactly seven years since that first trip across Europe via Wuppertal and Hamburg which was the reason for this blog, I had the opportunity to stop at Frankfurt on my way to Dresden, to fill in one more part of Wilhelm’s journey from Wrong Move; in 2019 I reflected on my experiences since I’d made that first trip, and that I had been in Gdańsk just two weeks before the UK had been initially scheduled to formally leave the EU. This has now happened, with the transition period ending in the middle of the current and ongoing global pandemic; restrictions had eased enough for me to travel to Germany in the Spring of 2022. 

A few weeks previously, war had returned to Europe, and railway journeys abroad were marked by the requirement to wear a medical grade face mask on board trains and seeing volunteers in the colours of the Ukrainian flag at major railway stations–and, at one point, being sat next to a refugee on one of these trains. Not inappropriate for thinking about Wrong Move, the discourse ‘not since 1945…’ conveniently ignores Russia’s unilateral annexation of Crimea in 2014, and of course the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s: at a remove, and encountered mainly through newspaper reports and the evening news on television, these did make an impression on me at the time, notably the Srebrenica massacre, and particularly the siege of Sarajevo, around the formative years briefly touched upon in ‘Abroad’ where this whole project started, looking back at Die Zweite Heimat, and Wenders’ films that I could see on VHS tapes at art school, and reading about the films then which I could not see–Wrong Move being one of those. 

“Handke's contentious challenges to literary conventions, coupled with his nearly total rejection of Germany itself (he lives in self-imposed "exile" in Paris) would appear to make him an unlikely candidate to revive a German classic for the screen. It was precisely for this reason that Wenders approached him for the project. Wenders never intended to recreate nostalgically the wanderings of an eighteenth-century bourgeois. Instead, he hoped to concentrate on the tension that would inevitably arise from Handke's modernization of the Meister theme. Although Handke faithfully retains the central characters, the geographical milieu, and the pattern of travel of Goethe's novel, his new version throws into question two of Goethe's underlying assumptions: Goethe's optimistic vision of Germany, and his faith in the process of Bildung (that untranslatable German word that embraces notions of cultivating oneself and structuring a suitable direction for one's life).”
Shelley Frisch, ‘The Disenchanted Image–From Goethe's ‘Wilhelm Meister’ to Wenders’ ‘Wrong Movement’’

Wrong Move has a very different feel from the two films either side of it–Alice in the Cities and Kings of the Road–which together comprise the loose road movies trilogy, thanks to the script by Peter Handke, and its genesis as a response to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship–and one made in the context of the post-1968 political atmosphere–it has an allusive richness absent from those other films. It’s a film that enacts the impossibility of being a film ‘about’ the Germany of Goethe, Eichendorf, Bach, and Caspar David Friedrich: for Wenders, Handke, and the characters of Wilhelm's generation, there is a suspicion of, and a seemingly unbridgeable chasm alienating them from these symbols of German culture.  Goethe’s novel itself has its own referential layers, notably Hamlet (and Homer nestled within that; Shelley Frisch also notes allusions to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain in Wrong Move); in the film, Wilhelm’s inability to act on Laertes’ revelation of his past echoes Hamlet (Frisch: “Goethe's Wilhelm is fascinated by the profundity of the Hamlet character, and he discourses at length on the raptures of reading Shakespeare. But Wenders' Wilhelm actually lives out Hamlet's flaw: he cannot bring himself to act in the cause of morality. Wilhelm cannot kill in order to avenge the murder of Rosenthal by the musician, just as Hamlet agonized over the killing of his uncle.”). 

The locations chosen in Wrong Move have their symbolic resonances, as do the different modes of travel which convey Wilhelm from one place to the next, and, of course, the characters themselves: in a contemporary review, John L. Fell notes how "Each major character parodies a figure in Wilhelm Meister. Mignon, for example, was drawn by Goethe as a lyric, free spirit: dancing, versifying, singing and playing a cither. Wilhelm’s tedious reflections on art’s Epiphanies now become complaints about the incapacities of fiction, theater, and poetry either to sustain or to reflect a modern sensibility." Mignon becomes mute in Wenders’ film, standing in “for Germany's youth, silenced by the atrocities committed by their fathers, while the old man with whom she is traveling, Laertes, represents Germany's past.” (Edward Plater, ‘Taking Another Look at Wim Wenders’ Wrong Move’) Moreover, Laertes manifests a parasitical relationship to Mignon, collecting change from the crowd after she performs tricks in the street in Bonn, pretending to be blind, begging on the train platform with her in Schwalbach (he also gets Wilhelm to pay for their train tickets to Bonn, and presumably the hotel there too). The immediate post war generation represented by Wilhelm, Therese, and the poet Bernhard, all grapple with issues of engagement or involvement, played out in the figure of Wilhelm and his hesitation in acting on anything. However, Therese is contrasted with Wilhelm when she first appears on screen: 

“The actress Therese is first introduced at the Hamburg-Altona train station, where she and Wilhelm exchange glances through the window of his compartment before she boards a different train. It is significant that while he has just taken the Taugenichts out of his pocket to resume reading, she is looking at a copy of Stern, a magazine that covers politics, the economy, sports, culture, scandals . . . everything that is newsworthy in contemporary life. This difference in reading material suggests that while Wilhelm, like the first-person narrator of Eichendorff's Romantic tale, sees the world subjectively…”
Edward Plater, ‘Taking Another Look at Wim Wenders’ Wrong Move’ 

In between Laertes and Wilhelm’s generation stands the industrialist–met by misidentification in the film after the death of his wife–and one intuits that he may have attempted to fill the post war cultural vacuum with material success, thanks to the Wirtschaftswunder, the West German economic miracle, and is symbolically identified as such: he has no name and is referred to simply as ‘the industrialist’ in Wilhelm’s voiceover, met in his large house high up, overlooking the Rhine (the Wirtschaftswunder may implicitly be behind the ultimate funding of Wilhelm’s journey: his mother is “selling out” to a supermarket in Glückstadt). The creation of West Germany itself as a buffer against the communist east and its necessary economic miracle in the immediate post-war years allowed for a suppression of deeper, more fundamental questions: the film, with all its allusive references, “is an attempt to explore this cultural (and political) legacy…” (Richard W. McCormick, ‘The Writer in Film: Wrong Move’; see also Peter Alt and Max Schneider, ‘West Germany's "Economic Miracle”’, Science & Society, Winter, 1962, Vol. 26, No. 1.)

“Inarticulate messages to inarticulated figures; fathers dead in the war perhaps, or relations best left in the dark; ghosts that walk the ramparts without ever giving up their secrets. Wenders, too young to have played any part in Hitler's Master Plan, can apparently neither assign nor assume this floating inherited guilt—except, of course, for the guilt of noninvolvement. Hence the odd displacements, the makeshift reconstructions by which one restores someone else to a family that can never be one's own.”
Ronnie Scheib, ‘Angst for the Memories’

As I’d experienced with other locations from the films, using resources online to try to pinpoint the location of Terese’s apartment before travelling was not easy, partly frustrated by the lack of StreetView to act as a confirmation at ground level when compared to maps and satellite views. In the English subtitles for Wilhelm’s voiceover, it’s simply referred to as being in Taunus, the name of the mountain range bordering Frankfurt. There are many apartment blocks in the suburbs ringing the city which look almost indistinguishable from above; in the sequence where Wilhelm goes to the railway station to see Laertes and Mignon begging, he passes a very distinct spiral ramp to an underground car park. There were a few contenders for this when scanning satellite imagery online, but I kept finding ones which seemed to turn in the wrong direction. I did consider the possibility that over the last forty-odd years the whole area where this had been filmed might have been comprehensively redeveloped, but with a close rewatching of this, one can discern just enough of a name for the station (for which I had to digitally brighten a frame for the film to increase its legibility), partly obscured by a pair of background figures: SCHWAL–. This can only be Schwalbach am Taunus, appearing on route maps as simply Schwalbach (there is also a Schwalbach Nord); the station itself bears the abbreviated name Schwalbach a. Ts. (Limes), a single track two stops from the northern end of the S3 line out of Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof; looking at satellite photographs, the spiral ramp outside the station does turn in the direction as seen in Wrong Move, confirming this as the right location.

“Wilhelm does stay on a while with Therese in her apartment near Frankfurt and, apparently, even sleeps with her; and we do see him wandering around in the ‘zubetonierten Landschaft,’ the countryside covered over in concrete, on the outskirts of this most American of German cities, noting visual and aural observations that point to the cold, inhospitable environment of the Federal Republic and the lonely, alienated people that make up its citizenry. Yet in the end he puts off both personal and political involvement to an indefinite "later," leaving for the solitude of the highest mountain in Germany, the ‘Zugspitze,’ so that he can be alone and undisturbed in his vacuous apathy, his ‘Stumpfsinn’.”
Edward Plater, ‘Taking another look at Wim Wenders's Wrong Move

Wilhelm’s ‘visual and aural observations’ are delivered in voiceover; as originally planned, and filmed,  Wrong Move did not have this first-person voiceover narration–another feature which separates it from the other films in the road movies trilogy–Wenders has stated that “After the filming was over, when we were looking at the film during editing, we added a voiceover that hadn’t originally been planned.” In Handke’s script, Wilhelm’s writing was to be shown, legibly, or even appearing overlaid on the screen–making the act of writing explicitly visual. According to Richard W. McCormick, the voiceover instead creates a distance between Wilhelm’s “inner perspective” and “the external, visual world.” Through the voiceover, we also learn of things that we do not see on the screen: Wilhelm mentions faeces in the lobby, “genital symbols” scrawled in the lift. As he traverses the ‘zubetonierten Landschaft’ or concrete landscape of Schwalbach, his voiceover intones: “Instead of becoming more desperate, I got more stupid./So I just looked stupidly at really desperate people./In spite of this, I moved like a hero bearing the world’s cares.” Wilhelm enters the station, where incidental dialogue of children breaks into the voiceover, which returns as he takes the escalator to the platform level (“I couldn't understand how all these people in the supermarkets,/on playgrounds, behind the windows of the high rises/in this country - not only in this country - /put up with life.”), where he spies Laertes and Mignon. 

There is an echo with the very beginning of film here, in the scene in which Wilhelm observes Laertes pretending to be blind, playing the mouth organ, begging while Mignon juggles, rather inexpertly; she makes eye contact while Laertes remains oblivious. At the start of Wrong Move, Wilhelm puts his fists through the glass of the window of his room in Glückstadt, and two figures crossing the square below turn towards this: one of these is blind, with a yellow armband with three black dots; Laertes wears the same yellow armband. The return of the blind figure as false, deceptive, in the form of Laertes is part of the thematic movement in the film, symbolically linking the beginning of Wilhelm’s journey with its end, coming full circle, back to where he began, not having learned anything: despite Wilhelm professing to possess an “erotisches Blick”, blindness, the inability to see recurs through the film. It may also be worth noting that in this brief scene, the three characters are on a station platform going nowhere.

I arrived in Schwalbach am Taunus one morning in early April and found the view immediately outside the S-Bahn station hardly changed from when Wrong Move was filmed. The station itself has been remodelled, a lift installed where once there had been a closed-in wall, now glass, with a car park seen beyond; the seating on the platform where Mignon and Laertes are seen by Wilhelm begging is now enclosed within a glass box. Outside, the vantage point of the panning shot following Wilhelm across the concrete landscape was taken from a raised deck above the station itself: this leads onto to a small pedestrianised shopping precinct behind. The brief static shot intercut into this sequence showing a dog tied to a lamp post outside is taken a little further back from this level above this station. 

I was hoping to find Therese’s apartment despite not having identified it beforehand: too many of the high rise blocks look largely indistinguishable when seen from above. I thought that the disparate frames of the ‘zubetonierten Landschaft’ might reveal their spatial relations once there, on the ground, from an assumption of proximity, and of the way Wilhelm enters the frame from the right, logically placing the apartment beyond it; I walked around the block from the S-Bahn station, the shopping precinct, out to the ring road that encircles this development, from the Ostring to Westring, but I could see nothing there that would match up with Therese’s apartment and its views in the film. Unlike my earlier visits to Glückstadt, in particular, but also to Bonn, making the journey to Schwalbach felt as though it did not reveal anything significant about the conditions around the production of Wrong Move; perhaps this was influenced by anticipating my onward journey to Dresden, where I knew a disappointment awaited me. Pressed for time again, with a connection to make back in Frankfurt, I returned to wait for the S-Bahn train on the platform. Here, on the single track, the S3 operates as a shuttle service, and I considered taking the train which arrived going in the other direction, to the end of the line, assuming it would then return in the direction of Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, but, uncertain that this might actually be the case, I simply waited and took more photographs of the station, the escalator which Wilhelm sits on, the platform, self-service machines, illuminated timetables and the railway clock. 

The evening before my trip to Schwalbach am Taunus, in the centre of Frankfurt, we stumbled across Goethe’s birthplace by chance, just as it was beginning to get dark, just at the end of a roll of film in my camera, closed for the day; at the other end of the street across the road on the corner of Kleiner Kirschgraben there was a pre-cast concrete section of the Berlin Wall, installed relatively recently, perhaps suggesting a better accommodation with the past in the years since reunification, since Wrong Move. This, coincidentally, has its own allusive reference back to the films of Wim Wenders: the graffiti on this segment is painted by Thierry Noir–as seen in Wings of Desire.


Peter Alt and Max Schneider, ‘West Germany's "Economic Miracle”’, Science & Society, Winter, 1962, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Winter, 1962), pp. 46-57
John L. Fell, ‘The Wrong Movement’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Winter, 1978-1979), pp. 49-50
Shelley Frisch, ‘The Disenchanted Image–From Goethe's ‘Wilhelm Meister’ to Wenders’ ‘Wrong Movement’’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 1979, Vol. 7, No. 3, Special Issue: New German Cinema (1979), pp. 208-214
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre, translated by Thomas Carlyle, 1795
Edward Plater, ‘Taking another look at Wim Wenders's Wrong Move’, Literature/Film Quarterly 30.1, 2002
Richard W. McCormick, ‘The Writer in Film: Wrong Move’, in The Cinema of Wim Wenders: Image, Narrative and the Post Modern Condition, Roger F. Cook and Gerd Gemünden (editors), Wayne State University Press, 1997
Ronnie Scheib, ‘Angst for the Memories’, Film Comment, Vol. 26, No. 4 (July-August 1990), pp. 9-12, 14-17, Film Society of Lincoln Center
Wim Wenders, Emotion Pictures, and The Logic Of Images; Essays and Conversations, Faber and Faber, London 1991 

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