Tuesday 8 September 2020

On Criterion Blu-ray - Rod Bishop welcomes the Director's cut of Wim Wenders epic road movie UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (Germany/France/Australia, 1992)

Wim Wenders (2015)

Towards the end of this near five-hour film, two of the main characters become addicted to hand-held computer devices called “video monitors”.

Glued to their screens, they wander around the Australian desert like Zombies and if they run out of battery, their primal screams are more than a match for the flock of loud cockatoos flying above them. 

It’s one of several startling and prescient moments in this almost 30-year-old fusion of apocalyptic science-fiction, gangster movie and love story; a film heavily emasculated on its initial release.

Although his final cut was four hours and forty-seven minutes, Wim Wenders was contractually obliged to hand in a two-and-a-half-hour film. He finally conceded to a 158-minute theatrical release, describing it as the “Readers Digest version”.

The German auteur had, however, hidden the original 35mm negative and the 287-minute workprint. He then paid for a duplicate positive to be made for the 1992 release and watched grimly as the film, almost half the length he intended, bombed at the box office. Budgeted at $24 million, it grossed just under $830,000 in the USA.

Hiding the original materials proved a shrewd move. One wishes Billy Wilder (among other directors and their ruined films) had the same resources on hand to save The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes(1971), a film shortened by 40% and also a box office disaster.

At the end of the first disc of this Criterion release (cover above), a tug boat sets out from San Francisco looking for a Korean freighter to take our protagonists to Australia.

At 134 minutes, we’re less than half-way through the film but Wenders has already taken us along European motorways and backroads and through Venice, Lyon, Lisbon, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing and Tokyo.

The second disc spends almost its entire 153-minute length in Central Australia with the Mbantua people of Utopia, north of Alice Springs. Some additional, if geographically misleading, footage comes from Coober Pedy in South Australia and the Bungle Bungles and Cathedral Gorge in Western Australia’s Purnululu National Park.

By the end of the film Wenders has included nine countries and four continents in what he described as his “ultimate road movie”.

Having recently watched this lovingly produced Criterion Blu-ray release, Scott Murray emailed me: “An early contender for Blu-ray of the Year. I was never a big fan, but technically it is a revelation and coherent in ways the short version was not.

The new coherency makes for a more flowing narrative structure and a soaring story arc, and from this distance, the technology can’t help but impress. Released in 1992 and set in 1999, it includes wireless technology, search engines, electronic footprints, GPS mapping, voice-activation and mobile phones with video messaging.

The central techno plot device is a camera capable of transferring images directly into the brains of the blind, creating “A Second Seeing”, and leading to the possibility of similar transference of dreams (“biochemical images”). Hearing this, the Mbantua pack up and leave. No-one is going to mess with their Dreamtime.

In this long-form, Until the End of the World shows how captivated Wenders had been with Outback landscapes and Indigenous culture. His film boasts a host of Antipodean talent from Peter Carey (co-writer) to Graeme Revell (music) and actors Sam Neill, Ernie Dingo, David Gulpilil, Justine Saunders, Rhoda Roberts and Jimmy Little who join the internationals Solveig Dommartin, William Hurt, RĂ¼diger Vogler, Jeanne Moreau and Max von Sydow.

Landing a Criterion package in this country can be an expensive undertaking, but even if you’re only mildly interested in this Wenders epic, these Blu-rays are value for money.

Sam Neill, RĂ¼diger Vogler, Until the End of the World

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