How a Film Flop from 1991 Explains 2020

1991 in a nutshell

This quarantine year of 2020 feels like the end of an era in the world’s history. We can locate the era’s beginnings in 1991, the year the Soviet Union dissolved and our global world truly began to take shape. Walls had crumbled and borders were lifted. A new global era beckoned, one promising peace, prosperity, and cosmopolitan comfort. To justify the multinational effort in the Gulf War, President George HW Bush promoted a positive “new world order” where the fear of destructive conflict would cease. 

As we sit in quarantine, the borders are back up, the walls are being rebuilt, and xenophobes have swept into power from India to Brazil to the United States. We use the global technology of the Internet to spread misinformation and lies about a pandemic that has touched every nation in the world. The promises of 1991 never came to be. It was all predicted by one film from that year, a work that makes for both uneasy and hopeful viewing in 2020: Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World.

Like all prophets, it was without honor in its own age. Despite a budget far bigger than anything Wenders spent before, its globe-trotting film locations and killer music, Until the End of the World flopped. It became one of those 80s and 90s films better known for its CD soundtrack than the film itself, a far hipper version of Empire Records.

One big reason was that Wenders’s original cut stretched to almost five hours, but to get the film released he had to agree to cut it to two hours and forty minutes. The shortened version is, unsurprisingly, incoherent. Among other issues, the edits cut down the songs recorded specially for the film by all kinds of renowned artists, from REM to U2 to Nick Cave to Patti Smith. 

Until the End of the World’s story could have ended there, but Wenders made sure to preserve the original cut. It was screened from time to time in an almost five hour version, which Criterion put out on DVD in 2019. Whereas the old 160 minute cut had underwhelmed me back in the 90s, the 287 minute cut blew my mind when I saw it in February in the last days of the Before Times. Under quarantine, its power has only increased.

This brief image from early in the film stopped me in my tracks

The plot is difficult to summarize, and Wenders claims that he had a 15 hour conversation relating the story with a screenwriter when he first came up with the idea. It takes place in the year 1999. News that a nuclear satellite is about to crash has the world in fear. A woman named Claire -played by the late great Solveig Dommartin, who also collaborated with Wenders on the story- travels the world. She sometimes crosses paths with her estranged boyfriend Eugene, a musician and writer living in Paris played by Sam Neill, who also narrates the film. (This element did not exist in the shortened version.) In her travels Claire comes across two French bank robbers, and agrees to hide their cash. She also meets Sam, played by William Hurt, a mysterious man she falls in love with. Sam possesses a machine that a bounty hunter named Burt is interested in getting from him for reasons we do not know. Claire, Eugene, and a German bounty hunter named Winter chase Sam across Europe to Moscow, ride the Trans-Siberian Railway to China, and end up in Japan. 

Dizzy yet? That’s just the first half. 

In Japan Claire finds Sam, who reveals that his machine made by his inventor father Henry can record brain impulses and transmit images of them directly to the brain. He is taking images on his journey to share with his mother Edith, who is blind. He hopes that she will at last be able to see through the machine. In the process of using it Sam almost goes blind himself, but is healed in a Japanese mountain inn by an elderly couple. Claire and Sam then go to the Australian outback via San Francisco (why not?) to find Sam’s parents. His father Henry -played by Max von Sydow- is living there in an aborignal community, hoping to win the Nobel prize by allowing people to record and view their dreams on his machine. While in Australia Sam and Claire are pursued by her boyfriend Eugene, the German bounty hunter Winter, the French bank robbers, and Burt.

Alright, almost there…

While they are in Australia, the US government shoots down the nuclear satellite, causing an electro-magentic pulse that shorts out all the electric systems. Henry and Sam experiment with the machines, which Henry thinks will win him a Nobel prize. Using it kills Sam’s mother Edith, played by the great Jeanne Moreau, and turns Claire into an addict incapable of doing anything but look at her screen. The spell is broken when her boyfriend Eugene presents her with the novel he wrote about her. The inventor Henry is taken by the CIA, Claire leaves both Sam and Eugene behind. The film finishes on a surreally hopeful scene of Claire as an astronaut in space, watching a video of her friends from her travels (including Eugene) singing “Happy Birthday” to her.

The plot is simultaneously far-ranging and intricate, meaning that the shortened version had no capacity whatsoever to work, and it didn’t. Wenders rightfully called his longer cut of the film the “ultimate road movie.” Like the best road movies the experience of watching it replicates the road. You really feel like you have taken a journey by the end of it, and the drawn out, meandering narrative is reminiscent of the ways that one’s mind wanders and time bends while on the road.

The number and range of its locations also make it the ultimate road movie. Before 1991 a film like this would not have been possible. Now the hard lines of the Iron Curtain were gone. The once divided Cold War battleground of Berlin and the Soviet imperial capital of Moscow are merely way stations in a limitless global journey. That in itself is something amazing to watch, considering that on-location filming in this century has declined to the point that Toronto stood in for Chicago in a movie called Chicago about Chicago. 

In Wenders’s speculative 1999, the globe has been drawn together like nothing before, and he accurately predicts some of the coming technology. Claire begins the movie in Venice, and uses satellite GPS in her car to travel back to Paris. Video conference technology, that simultaneous ally and bane of educators in the time of covid, is commonplace. Claire’s birthday message comes across a screen split into three boxes that is eerily similar to a Zoom call. There are even handheld devices, as well as video phone machines in public places. The internet, which was still something confined to specialists in 1991, plays a big role in the plot. Eugene and Winter the bounty hunter use a special graphic-interface search engine to track down Sam and Claire’s movements. 

In the future there is no escape from Zoom

The globalist future is fragile, however. Borders may be irrelevant and instantaneous video communication commonplace, but the world is drawn together most tightly by impending catastrophe. That note feels particularly prescient, since I wake up every morning looking at global statistical maps of the virus’ prevalence in the countries of the world. Every corner of the globe has been united in fear this year, even as the borders have been strengthened and the walls raised. The virus has been the coup de grace to the post-Cold War world after it was mortally wounded in the mid-2010s. Trump, Duterte, Modi, Brexit, Putin, Orban, Xi, and Bolsanaro are all signs of a new world order being born based on enthic and religious nationalism. 

The “indispensable nation” for the global order has failed its mission and Until the End of the World presciently makes the United States an agent of destruction. When the US military shoots down the nuclear satellite, the blast releases an electromagnetic wave that destroys the world’s electronics. According to a news report, the Americans went ahead with this over the objections of the United Nations. At the moment it happens, Sam and Claire are flying in an airplane and their engine cuts out (although they are able to land.) Eugene’s computer memory containing his novel gets wiped. 

The characters’ trip to the United States is notably sour. When Claire and Sam are in San Francisco looking for a car, a salesman at the dealership pulls a gun on them and steals some of their money. While there they live in a broken down, poor neighborhood full of boarded-up windows. When an American agent looking for Sam finds Claire he brutally pulls her around by her hair. Near the end of the film Sam’s father Henry is dragged off by the CIA, who want to use his invention for their own purposes. We see his grave, and are led to assume that the CIA killed him. 

The film’s other locations are gorgeous in the sumptuous cinematography, yet the United States by contrast looks cheap and broken. Considering that hundreds still die of COVID every day in America when its peer nations are getting back to normal, Wenders’s juxtaposition is entirely appropriate. The reckless shooting down of the satellite against the world community’s will sounds like something straight out of the Dubya administration. The mid-2010s may have brought the true end of the post-Cold War order, but the invasion of Iraq did a lot to get the ball rolling. 

America without makeup

Along with predicting America’s destructive role, Until the End of the World foresaw our addiction to images and electronic devices. We do not have machines to capture dreams, but we do spend hours scrolling through social media. Instagram does not alter its images to give the feeling of the brain, but its filters play with reality and make it more dreamlike in their own ways. 

Claire becomes addicted to her device once it transmits dream images of her as a child. She laments her lost innocence and is obsessed with immersing herself in the alternate world of dreams and memories on her screen. Both she and Sam start to neglect themselves and disassociate from others, unable to function as normal human beings while locked into their screens. According to Eugene, Claire has fallen into “a deep well of narcissism.” The whole time Eugene rewrites his novel after having found an old typewriter. Eventually Claire’s battery runs out, putting her into a fearsome state of withdrawal. She screams and pleads to Eugene begging him to replace the batteries, but he refuses to enable her. Instead he gives her the novel he wrote about her. Slowly Claire begins to recover. For the first time in the film, her life has purpose. She leaves both Eugene and Sam to be an astronaut working in a Greenpeace space station monitoring the oceans.

As wacky as that ending might seem, it could not be more timely. For so many of us — myself included — handing over our devices to others is anxiety-provoking. My device even tallies how much time I spend on it, reminding me each week that many hours of each waking day are spent in its grip. Wenders predicted this, even if the kinds of images we stare at are far more mundane. 

Eugene is the angry prophet denouncing this path. He acidly notes that John’s gospel starts with “in the beginning there was the word,” but that in the apocalypse “in the end there were only images.” He says that Claire has been held in thrall by “the disease of images.” He opts instead for the written word, and “the magic of storytelling.” It eventually allows both of them to regenerate their souls.

One could easily dismiss this anti-image, pro-written word perspective as retrograde and old fashioned, but our lives under the rule of the image leave much to be desired. Trump himself is a master of televisual imagery. He is completely incompetent as a leader and unable to do the bare minimum of inspiring political rhetoric, but he knows how to manipulate images. After all, he is a many-times bankrupted failed businessman who most people took to be a great success due to his media portrayals. Trump does not just feast on fear and hatred, but on the tyranny of the image.

We spend so much time on social media, and end up just as stunted and miserable as Claire with her dream images. Facebook cannot transmit our dreams, but it does transmit memories. Facebook shoots these memories at me almost every day, sometimes forcing me to brood about loved ones I have lost or places I’ve been and might never revisit. Nevertheless I still spend hours on Facebook each week, making myself angry, sad, and dejected under the illusion of connection. 

Beyond the time with my family, nothing has eased my soul more in quarantine than music and books. Those moments where I can get lost in a long novel or beautiful song, so engrossed that I never think to pick up my phone and check Twitter or respond to an email, allow me to escape like nothing else, including chemical methods of escape. 

Music plays a similar role as the word in Until the End of the World. The rag-tag group of characters who end up in central Australia find purpose and happiness in making music together. (Earlier Eugene is shown playing a piano in his Paris apartment as well as writing, a sign that he has not been seduced by the tyranny of images.) On New Year’s Eve, to ring in the new millennium they play together as Claire sings a ragged but joyful version of the Kinks’ “Days.” By this time Chico, one of the French bank robbers, has devoted himself to drumming over crime. Instead of being passive consumers of images, the characters have become creators and far more fulfilled.

It’s fitting then that the film’s soundtrack had a far bigger impact than the film itself when first released.  Wenders asked several performers to make the music they thought they’d be making in 1999. This task pushed many artists to move away from their usual styles, giving the film an otherworldly feeling when familiar voices sing music that is alien to the listener’s expectations. REM’s “Fretless,” maybe the darkest song they ever recorded, is a good example. The soundtrack thus reflects the creative seeking of the characters, and there really is nothing else out there like it. 

Claire, the biggest seeker of all the characters, is a kind of Everywoman for the world of globalized consumerism. Dommartin’s fantastic performance and her contributions to the story add a warmth and connection in a film that could easily have been too full of big ideas and too lacking in humanity. At the start of the film she has left Eugene in Paris to go from city to city, from party to party, from experience to experience. Nothing is permanent, including the way she looks. (She soon ditches the black wig she wears at the start.) It’s a precursor to the kind of life projected by Instagram “influencers,” one so many young people aspire to. In a Berlin bar when a man rants at about people going out and partying in the midst of the world’s end Claire is unruffled, telling him “if the world is ending we should go down laughing.” 

Claire in decadent mode

Her uprooted, pleasure-seeking way of life is what leads her to screen addiction. Here at last she is able to find something to hold onto, which also happens to destroy her humanity. Once Claire returns to the word with Eugene’s help, her life attains true meaning. The potentially hokey astronaut scene moves me because she has managed to escape the limited, soul-destroying confines of global consumerism as much as she has the bonds of earth. In the process she has made real human connections (evidenced by her friends on the screen) and gained a reason to live. 

Claire in space

***

The 21st century was born in fear. The potential of a “Y2K” catastrophe hung over the world as it rang in the new millenium. That nightmare didn’t happen, but 9/11 soon brought cascades of fear and hate around the globe. In the next decade, after a global economic collapse, the leaders who spoke most directly to that fear gained power. Twenty years into this century in the time of covid under the rule of the ultimate fear monger, just going to the grocery store fills one with justified apprehension. 

The global consumerist world that emerged after the Cold War, and the promises of peace and prosperity it made were never going last. Until the End of the World figured it out even as this world was just coming into being. We are stuck living in its ruins, with no caves in the Outback to run to. But this obscure film from 1991 also gives us reason to hope. There is still meaning to be found in this broken world, and we have the power to make it. 

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