A screenshot from Wings of Desire
Wim Wenders Stiftung A screenshot from Wings of Desire

I’ve always had an eye for buildings. Growing up, I loved gazing out the car window at the refinery sites along the New Jersey Turnpike. As a teenager, I was fascinated by the way the W.R. Grace building on Manhattan’s 42nd Street swooped down to meet the pavement. And in Seattle, where I lived after college, I was intrigued by the gravity-defying Rainier Bank Tower, which looked like a stylized pencil, its point buried in the pavement.

But I never thought all that deeply about design. I’d never heard of Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the bank tower, or Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the firm behind the W.R. Grace building. Then one day in 1978, I saw a movie that changed my life. At the time, the German director Wim Wenders wasn’t famous. Probably the only reason I selected his 1977 adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel, Ripley’s Game, from a long list of Seattle Film Festival screenings was that it starred Dennis Hopper. But once I’d seen The American Friend, I couldn’t unsee it.

Wenders and Dennis Hopper during filming of The American Friend
Wim Wenders Stiftung Wenders and Dennis Hopper during filming of The American Friend

Just a few weeks ago, I watched The American Friend on a big screen for only the second time. It was a fresh print, digitally remastered for the Museum of Modern Art’s March retrospective of Wenders’ work. The director himself was there. He told stories after the screening about how Hopper, who’d come to Hamburg directly from the Philippines, where he’d been shooting Apocalypse Now, and Bruno Ganz, a German theater actor in his first film role, got along. In short: very badly. Ganz had the script perfectly memorized, but Hopper preferred to improvise. This led to a fistfight between the actors, followed by a night of heavy drinking, followed by them becoming fast friends. 

A great story.

But none of Wenders’ anecdotes touched on what I really wanted to know: How his camera makes everything in the built environment, from major works of architecture to the detritus of urban life, look so glorious. And how he consistently makes the real world, with its abundant flaws, look so much better than the art-directed one.

Hopper in The American Friend
Wim Wenders Stiftung Hopper in The American Friend

The plot of The American Friend is actually pretty thin. Ganz plays a humble frame shop owner, Jonathan Zimmerman, who lives near the Hamburg waterfront with his wife and young son. Zimmerman has a fatal disease, possibly leukemia. Hopper plays Tom Ripley, a murderous sociopath and anti-hero (Matt Damon memorably portrayed him in The Talented Mr. Ripley). Ripley deals in forged artworks, often framed by Zimmerman. When one of Ripley’s gangster friends needs to hire a hit man, someone completely unknown to the authorities and the underworld, the gangster somehow decides that the dying frame shop owner, who presumably has nothing to lose, is perfect for the job. Offered money for his family’s future well-being and appointments with some of Europe’s finest physicians, Zimmerman reluctantly begins a brief, frighteningly incompetent, life of crime.

The plot, to me, is largely irrelevant. Rather, it’s the way the movie looks, the way that Wenders lingers on the man-made oddities of New York, Hamburg, and Paris, that stayed with me, that changed me. I can remember some scenes in exact detail. In one, Ripley is in New York, where his art forger lives. There he strides along the abandoned West Side Highway, the World Trade Center looming in the distance. Some gangsters are watching Ripley from a nearby window. One of them is holding a neon pink plastic toy, a whirly tube, designed to make noise when you spin it. The coil of neon plastic, for a split second, frames the view of Hopper on the highway.That scene and all the things in it—the brand new Twin Towers, the abandoned highway, Hopper with his cowboy hat, and the plastic toy—are permanently layered in my mind. The visual composition captures everything that one could say about how the monumental and the trivial are always intertwined in the urban landscape.

Another scene: Zimmerman is on a gangster-funded junket to Paris for an appointment with a specialist at the American Hospital—his first stint as a hired gun. There’s a shot of Ganz moving on escalators through a series of transparent tubes, which seemingly float in the air. It’s a vision both wondrous and slightly frightening. When I first saw the film, I’d never been to Europe; the scene was as abstract as a passage from Baudrillard or Foucault. It was a comment on the future, how it was rapidly becoming the present, at once tantalizing and inexplicable.

At the MoMA screening in March, I instantly recognized the tubes, located in Charles De Gaulle Airport’s Terminal 1. I’ve now ridden on those escalators myself. Designed by architect Paul Andreu, the airport opened in 1974, two years before The American Friend was released. When Wenders shot the movie, Andreu’s vision of the future was fresh and disconcerting, not just to the fatally-ill-framer-cum-hit-man, but to almost everyone.

The Polaroid-infatuated protagonist of Alice in the Cities 
(c) Wim Wenders Stiftung The Polaroid-infatuated protagonist of Alice in the Cities 

Over the years, I’ve seen most of Wenders’ output. Many of his films possess the qualities that moved me in The American Friend, a way of looking that is really a way of life. In Alice in the Cities (1974), a German journalist on assignment to explain the American landscape to his countrymen winds up doing nothing but shooting Polaroids. Kings of the Road (1976), which I first saw in the late 1970s and caught for the second time at MoMA, takes an extended ramble through the forgotten territory that was then the border zone between West and East Germany, with an emphasis on small-town movie theaters and the sort of agricultural structures that so captivated the photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher.

And, of course, there’s Wings of Desire (1987), in which a couple of angels hang around Berlin monuments like the Brandenburg Gate, the Victory Column, and the daylight-flooded interior of the Hans Scharoun–designed Berlin State Library. (Oddly, Wings of Desire does a much better job of exploring the inner life of a Scharoun building than Wenders’ 2014 documentary on the architect’s Berlin Philharmonic, in which a female narrator purports to be the building’s consciousness.)

Shot from Silver City Revisited
Wim Wenders Stiftung Shot from Silver City Revisited

At the MoMA retrospective, I tried to uncover hints about Wenders’ view of architecture and urban design by watching his earliest films, a series of shorts made in the late 1960s, when he barely knew how to operate his Bolex 16mm camera. These films hadn’t been shown in public, he said, in 45 years. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Wenders cautioned the audience prior to the screening.

The five early movies, all digitally restored, are uniformly awful, the sort of long, shapeless, conceptual messes common to film students. To me, Silver City Revisited (1968) is the most revealing one; Wenders aims his 16mm camera out the windows of various apartments in Munich and takes extended shots of mundane streetscapes. Taillights pass. Traffic lights blossom into flowers. He just keeps staring hard at the raw postwar landscape around him, probing it, much as John Ruskin probed the components of the Gothic cathedral. Wenders, like Ruskin, was fashioning an almost mystical approach toward a deeper understanding of the built environment.

By the time the MoMA retrospective ended, I decided that, apart from The American Friend, which remains the foundation of my personal aesthetic canon, there are a couple of other Wenders movies that perfectly embody his way of looking. There’s the documentary Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989), commissioned by the Centre Georges Pompidou. Wenders, asked to make a film about the connection between fashion and film, chose to focus on the work of designer Yohji Yamamoto. My favorite bits, the ones I recall from my original viewing, come toward the beginning of the movie. Wenders ruminates about the effects that digital imagery will have on the world—no negatives, no positives, and no originals. “Everything is a copy,” he says, as we watch a Tokyo highway go by from the window of a moving car. In 1989, this was still something of a revelation.

Yohji Yamamoto in Notebook on Cities and Clothes
Wim Wenders Stiftung Yohji Yamamoto in Notebook on Cities and Clothes
The most powerful moment in the film has nothing to do with fashion. It’s a series of shots of an elevated highway interchange, intertwined ribbons of red steel and concrete, viewed from somewhere below. Wenders treats the structure with reverence, as if it were the most significant work of architecture in the world. Then, as he leaves the highway behind, he says: “Filmmaking should just remain a way of life sometimes, like taking a walk … or shooting this film here, from day to day, carried along by nothing but curiosity.”

I’m jolted when I hear him say that, because here is the answer to the questions that I really wanted to ask him but hadn’t. And I suddenly realize just how similar his approach is to the way that I’ve come to see the built environment. Nothing is more revealing than looking at architecture in context. Understanding buildings, I always tell my students, involves walking the streets of a city and looking at your surroundings with the same curiosity with which you’d study artifacts in a museum. Did I somehow absorb this lesson from Wenders in a dark movie theater a quarter century ago?

A scene from Pina
© Donata Wenders A scene from Pina

Recently, I’ve acquired a new favorite Wenders film: Pina (2011), a portrait of the dance company founded by the late Pina Bausch in the German city of Wuppertal. In the film, Wenders makes heroic use of the small city, staging dances in, around, and under Wuppertal’s strangely futuristic suspension railway, which opened in 1901. In one scene the performers are in a busy intersection, doing a romantic pas de deux as the train floats by overhead. So lovely is this scene that even the mundane concrete parking garage in the background becomes an object of beauty.

Watching Pina for the second time on Netflix, happily replaying the railway dances over and over, I begin thinking about something that curator Peter Eleey (now at MoMA PS1 in Queens) once told me. He said that public art is doing its job if it confuses the issue of what’s art and what’s not art. The end result, he argued, is that you wind up looking harder at everything. That’s what Wenders does: He mixes non-architecture with architecture in a way that forces you to admire both.

What Wenders taught me in 1978 was that the things that I found compelling—industrial sites, skyscrapers, cities—were worthy of meticulous study. And that the act of patient looking could reveal unexpected truths. It wasn’t some formalist ideology that compelled me to write about the urban landscape. It was a simple idea that I picked up at the movies.

A still from Wrong Move
Wim Wenders Stiftung A still from Wrong Move