Bis ans Ende der Welt (1991), also known as Until The End Of The World in english, represents the culmination of filmmaker Wim Wenders’ career up until that point. The fully restored director’s cut of Bis ans Ende der Welt was intended by Wenders to be the ultimate road movie. Wenders and his crew circled the globe for almost a year shooting Bis ans Ende der Welt. The film follows its protagonist Claire Tourneur (Solveig Dommartin) from Venice to Paris to Berlin to Moscow to Shanghai to Tokyo to San Francisco to central Australia and then finally into orbit around the earth.
Although Wenders and the publicity surrounding Bis ans Ende der Welt stress the fact that the film is a road movie, only half of the film actually fits that genre criteria. This first half, the road movie portion of Bis ans Ende der Welt, bridges the gap between Im Lauf der Zeit (1976) and the more contemplative and existential film Wenders made with Michelangelo Antonioni, Al di là delle nuvole (1995). In Bis ans Ende der Welt WIm Wenders follows every lead that the road movie has to offer, satisfying an appetite that, until then, had not been satisfied. But the real weight of Bis ans Ende der Welt comes from its second half, the dominantly science fiction portion of the film, that is derived from Wenders’ documentary film Aufzeichnungen zu Kleidern und Städten (1989).
Ostensibly a documentary portrait of Yohji Yamamoto, Aufzeichnungen zu Kleidern und Städten contains in it portions that read more as an essay film in which Wenders ponders the possibilities and long term ramifications of video. In Aufzeichnungen zu Kleidern und Städten Wenders suggests that video technology, as both a means of production and exhibition, will take the cinema from the private sphere of television and into the intimate sphere of small hand held monitors. This notion becomes the thesis of the science fiction element of Bis ans Ende der Welt. However, with Bis ans Ende der Welt, Wenders takes the concept one step further than in Aufzeichnungen zu Kleidern und Städten by imagining a device that can record the bio-chemical reaction in the brain associated with seeing, remembering and dreaming.
Wenders follows the repercussions of this “dream photography” technology to its logical conclusion. If video technology ingrains itself deeply enough in the human psyche then those video images would become subjective to the point of having no meaning beyond an individual context. What Claire Tourneur and Sam Farber (William Hurt) experience is exactly this form of social detachment once they have become “addicted” to their own dream images. Wenders mines the world of science fiction, possibly drawing on William Shatner’s 1989 novel Tek War, and comes up with the concept that the conscious mind, via a technological stimulant (such as the cinema), could become addicted to the sub-conscious mind. It this were to really happen then that would be the end of cinema and the civilization it was invented to record.
So the apocalypse in Bis ans Ende der Welt doesn’t come from the fallen nuclear satellite, it comes from the possibility of a world of images without words to give those images meaning. The Sam Neill character Eugene Fitzpatrick is the narrator of the film and by occupation a novelist. Wenders uses this narration to fill narrative gaps and provide further context for his images. Without Fitzpatrick’s voice over Bis ans Ende der Welt would fall apart. Wenders isn’t just content with that reflexively allegorical reading, he complicates matters by equating the idea of a meaningless image with blindness via the Jeanne Moreau character. Like Jean-Luc Godard, Wenders believes that when images lose their concrete symbolism they cease to be a part of the cinematographic langue. The end of the world isn’t a physical death in Bis ans Ende der Welt, it’s a philosophical one. A death whereby the cinema moves so far into our intimate spheres of existence that all images and words become unrecognizable to the human mind.
It is around this nightmarish concept that Wenders arranges a cavalcade of some of his favorite cinematographic fetishes from diegetic music and musical performance to private investigators and love triangles. Bis ans Ende der Welt finds Wenders behaving as a maximalist; throwing everything he loves about the cinema into one epic film. Beyond the casting of Ozu regulars Chishū Ryū and Kuniko Miyake, one need only consider the Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) character who feels lifted from an early Nicolas Ray film while Wenders own use of non-diegetic pop music reveals his deep admiration and indebtedness to Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969). Bis ans Ende der Welt could just as easily be called the greatest portrait of Wim Wenders ever made as it could be the greatest road movie ever made.
Yet what followed Bis ans Ende der Welt seems to be a myriad of projects determined to repackage the fundamental concepts contained within Bis ans Ende der Welt. When Bis ans Ende der Welt was released in its much shorter version it was a critical and commercial catastrophe that likely motivated Wenders to try and salvage the film through other projects. The End Of Violence (1997) in particular attempts to rearrange and remake much of Bis ans Ende der Welt. These projects from the mid-nineties all seem to fail in this respect because they were all rather inhibited by budget and run time restrictions. The only way Wenders knew how to convey the concepts of symbolism and himself was in the grand scale of what Bis ans Ende der Welt was always intended to be.