Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Kings of the Road

“The Yanks have colonized our subconscious"

Bruno (Rudiger Vogler) is a Cinema projector repair man who travels from town to town along the West and East German border repairing old cinema projectors. One day while shaving by the side of a road, a man drives his car at high speed into a lake, gets out and walks over to Bruno. Bruno, not knowing what else to do laughs at the man and offers him some clean clothes. The man, Robert (Hanns Zischler) hitchhikes with Bruno from town to town beginning a strange and often uneasy friendship.

The film has several themes which jump out at you and are present throughout. The first is a love of cinema and anger at what has become of the small German cinema. Most of the cinemas that Bruno visits are either badly run, have been turned into porn theatres or are closed altogether. This is director Wim Wenders way of showing viewers what is happening to small cinemas. It is a problem which over thirty years later is still present in my own country. Occasionally Bruno will come across a small, old theatre run by an ex Nazi that is run with care and dedication. A place where old, noisy machines are used by artisan projectionists to show the great classics of the 50s and 60s but generally he deals with people who have no interest in film or it’s proper projection. This film is very much a love letter to film.

A second theme is that of loneliness. Both men are incredibly lonely. Robert’s half hearted suicide attempt and constant depression is due to his loneliness after his wife has left him while Bruno spends his life on the road, in an old van, with no time for any love or affection from a woman. For large swathes of the film nothing is said but much is learned through glances and slight comments. It isn’t until over an hour in that we discover what the characters names are and it is about two days after travelling together that the two men actually reveal their names. Both are used to silent existences. In one telling scene, Robert confronts his father about never being allowed to speak and we gain insight into why he is so silent.

The third and final central theme is the Americanisation of Germany. This is a theme of the entire second half of the twentieth century but obviously something that affected West Germany in a large way. When talking about American music Bruno states that “The Yanks have colonized our subconscious”. Although filmed and set in the mid 1970s it is still obvious that the Second World War is in the back of everyone’s minds. Bruno lost his father to it, the elderly people were party members and the Americans still have a say in the daily lives of Germans who like Bruno and Robert were possibly not even born in 1945. There is a sense that the men and Germany as a whole have been castrated by American ‘imperialism’ and that is one of the factors in their introverted and non communicative personalities.

A visual metaphor that Wenders uses is a railway. For much of the film, the men are seen to drive parallel to railways as though to indicate that they are remaining with the status quo and nothing is changing in their lives. In one telling scene, Robert has to cross the line to confront his father and in another he stands very close to it as a train passes, almost as if he is desperate to cross but can’t quite manage it. It is as if the line is a barrier between their current selves and what they could be. This is confirmed in the closing scene in which the two men part company.

Shot in black and white the film has the kind of hyper realism of Martin Scorsese's contemporary films. Wim Wenders goes a step further though and is not afraid to show the audience every part of a person’s life. In one early scene Bruno is seen parking his van/home near a beach, walking on to the beach, squatting and defecating. The faeces are actually visible leaving his body. The scene is unexpected and shocking but makes you realise that you are seeing every part of this person’s life and that nothing is being left out. In later scenes a cinema projectionist is seen to be masturbating, again showing the entire act and Robert is filmed urinating, once again hiding nothing. This hyper realism was unexpected and is responsible for the film’s ‘18’ Certificate in the UK. Was it necessary? No. But it let the audience know that nothing was being hidden from them.

The plot itself is very slow and nothing much happens for a long time. It is the lack of communication that drives the tension rather than car chases or explosions etc. You almost want to reach into the film and start a conversation. The film also feels older than it is in part due to the black and white but also because the rural Germany in which the protagonists are driving through feels unchanged from before the war. The landscape of the towns reminded me of rural Slovakia, a country which today feels somewhat more ‘backward’ and less developed than Germany.   

The acting is very realistic and the script also adds to the realism. Wenders’ shooting technique is visually arresting but the film is nearly three hours long and feels longer. It’s a film that I’m glad I watched and would recommend to hardcore cineaste but a lot of people will find the film boring. I thought it was excellent but I could have done with an hour less of it.    


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