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Until the End of the World

Entry updated 26 February 2021. Tagged: Film.

Film (1991; director's cut 2015). Argos Films, Road Movies Filmproduktion, Village Roadshow Picture, Warner Bros, Wim Wenders Stiftung. Directed by Wim Wenders. Written by Peter Carey, Solveig Dommartin and Wenders. Cast (both versions) includes Lois Chiles, Ernie Dingo, Solveig Dommartin, Eddie Mitchell, Jeanne Moreau, William Hurt, Kuniko Miyake, Sam Neill, Chishū Ryū, Rüdiger Vogler and Max Von Sydow. 1991 version 158 minutes; 2015 version 287 minutes. Colour.

The 1991 theatre-release version of Until the End of the World, a road movie set in 1999 at what may be the End of the World, is a savagely truncated version of the full film to be described here; the cuts, which were made by Wim Wenders himself to meet legal obligations to the producers of the film, left a jagged narratively-incoherent torso that duly tanked on release. Wenders had however at his own cost created an interpositive (a form of film stock partway between negative and releasable print), which was used to generate that short version, while retaining the full work print and camera negative, which he used to generate the five-hour cut. Versions of this were shown in private venues from about 1993. The final edit – which used no new footage, kept though sometimes repositioned the music composed by various singer-songwriters and bands for the original, and did not retrofit any hindsight into the narrative voiceover – was released in 2015: as Until the End of the World is an sf film offering predictions of the world to come, it is significant that this 2015 version was restored but not remade. That understood, it almost goes without saying that – like other famous films initially released in garbled form, a list which includes Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926) and Seven Samurai (1954) directed by Akira Kurasawa (1910-1998) – Until the End of the World should only be seen in that restored version.

The unwinding of the long tale can be broken into three very distinct parts: a string to trace, a knot of epiphany, a fraying to see the world by. Until the End begins as a long loose episodic narrative string, a Fantastic-Voyage road movie that shifts from city to city across the world, which is to say from Archipelago to archipelago, though almost entirely missing the America of Wenders's earlier Paris, Texas (1984). After three hours or so of nostalgia-haunted travel (road movies don't invent roads: they find them), the string is knotted into a tight dramaturgic merry-go-round within a tight community or Polder, deep inside the Australian outback; it is the Shangri-La everyone en route has been trying to reach. After epiphanies and comeuppances, this knotting together of the folk into a kind of prelapsarian family is betrayed, and the knot severed, and the companions dispersed into a long Entropic fraying [for Polder and Shangri-la see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. This three-act structure, though normally found in Western Cinema, is untypical of road movies in general; and much of the complexity of the telling of Until the End inherently derives from a need to manage (if only in hindsight) the complex transitions required to honour all three modes or "movements": the string that makes us homesick long before it tangles, the knot we attempt to inhabit as communicants in a world, and the fraying next time.

Until the End is riven and enriched by numerous visual quotes and flashes from previous films, by moments when we glimpse great artworks of the Western World transformed into tableaux vivants, by snap! icons from previous road movies; but the film is in fact kept on its narrative tramlines through the ear, via two intertwining acoustic enforcers of the tale. (1) We are shepherded from the beginning by a voiceover which we soon learn is being delivered by the aspirational Secret Master of the meaning of Until the End, the novelist Eugene Fitzpatrick (Neil): sometimes he intones to us in a hindsight voice from beyond the future the film anticipates; sometimes he seems simply to be repeating aloud passages from the novel he is writing, in sight of the camera, about events as they happen; sometimes his narrative works as an instructional prolepsis that tells us all –protagonists and viewers alike – what is about to occur. (2) The music for the film – songs composed by several singer-songwriters and bands including Nick Cave, Lou Reed and U2 – sometimes serves as extradiegetic soundtrack (which is to say the usual directorial omniscience from behind); sometimes it is sunk into the action through futuristic radios and retro jukeboxes, becoming part of the present tense of the telling; and sometimes it is actually sung by members of the cast, as though they were making up their own lives. But voiceover and soundtrack never quite seem to agree about what's happening or about to come, as though they were vying over control of the story. It is hard – perhaps intentionally impossible – to say which (or who) wins: words or song. Perhaps, as in the opera Capriccio: A Conversation Piece for Music (1942) by Richard Strauss (1864-1949), it ends in a tie.

So. It is 1999. We begin. Over a tracking shot in which planet Earth is neared from space, the voice of the yet-unidentified Eugene tells us immediately, in a tone of transparently dissimulated tranquil hindsight, that "1999 was the year the Indian nuclear satellite went out of control ... like a lethal bird of prey. The whole world was alarmed, only Claire couldn't care less". As he speaks, almost consolingly, the camera gradually descends – an effect possibly remembered in the opening shots of Bacurau (2019) – until we are gazing down upon vast cerebellum-like ridges of landscape that seem almost to ripple, like the dreamworld incanted by native Australians later in the film; but this outback landscape is at the same time somehow isomorphic with the Inner Space of Claire's dreams, an interplay central to the film: we now meet her.

Claire Tourneur (Dommartin) is awakening slowly in Venice; she drifts through scenes of dejectedly glossed-over Felliniesque decadence until she finds her car, a Rover whose right-hand-drive is partially responsible for the car accident she will soon be involved in; she drives into France where clogged highways – evocative of Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend (1968) – tell us that the out of control satellite has caused some panic. Claire, indifferently, takes a back route (her futuristic GPS now goes out of commission), where her Rover is driven off the road by Chico Rémy (Ortega) and Raymond Monnet (Mitchell), who are transporting stolen money into safety; amiably, they cut Claire into a laundering operation (though they bug the suitcase she carries the money in), and she continues northwards, encountering en route, in a gear-infested futuristic mall, a man with bad eyes whose real name we eventually discover is Sam Farber (Hurt) and who hitches a ride with her to Paris, stealing some of her money en passant. He is being trailed by Burt (Dingo), a comically inept investigator, seemingly working for an Australian agency. Claire arrives on Eugene's Parisian doorstep, and we recognize that he is the voice – which now dips intermittently into diegesis – of the storyteller we've been listening to. Eugene and Claire are former lovers, and he remains possessive of her story, which he follows and dictates as the terrible new century nears; his novel will be called The Dance Around the Planet. It is in a sense with his sanction that she begins obsessively to track Sam Farber from Paris to Berlin and then to Lisbon, where Philip Winter (Vogler), a detective she has hired to locate Sam through his futuristic search engine but who has abandoned his commission, traps them both, handcuffing them together – a direct quote from Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935) – though here in 1999, after they dodge their captor, they take the opportunity to strip off while cuffed and make love. Meanwhile, it turns out that not only Winter but Chico and Burt have strung along.

Sam Farber's itinerary and mission now begin to come clear; he is travelling around the world in order to photograph members of his mother's family with a complex camera-like device, using which half-blinds him, for reasons not clear until Australia: but this will not turn out to be a McGuffin. From Paris the string of chasers and chased takes in Moscow, then Beijing, then Tokyo, where Claire rescues Sam from total blindness. Having got him aboard a train chosen at random, she has them disembark at a remote inn overlooking a dreamlike vista of an ecstatically belated rural Japan, where they meet two elderly innkeepers, the Moris, played by actors – Chishū Ryū (1904-1993) and Kuniko Miyaki (1916-1992) – whose performances had been famously central to several films of deep still-waters intensity by Yasujio Ozu (1903-1953). Mr Mori (Ryū), sage and physician/pharmacist, saves Sam's eyesight, allowing him to glimpse for an elated instance the ontological drenchedness of the real world beyond the interminable road and the camera which eviscerates reality in order to capture it. Claire now understands that Sam is engaged in a profound family romance, which will come to climax in Australia when he returns with the camera to his father, whose Invention it is. She and Sam make their way to San Francisco, where they take a cargo freighter to Australia. They travel into the deep outback towards his parents in a two-seater plane which Sam pilots; but while they are in the air, the American government unilaterally shoots down the Indian satellite, wiping out all unshielded electronics worldwide, and the plane crashes. They make their way on foot to a road and are picked up by a truck powered by an ancient non-electronic diesel. It should be noted that, mostly out of sight, Chico and Winter and Eugene have continued to string along.

But from this point there will be no more road music – no more soundtrack, diegetic or otherwise – for almost an hour, and fewer transfixed gazings upon Claire's occasionally rather wooden countenance in lieu of genuine dramaturgy: this monotonal reverence is replaced now by a dance-like centripetal interplay of figure and ground, of speaking and listening, a change in the tonus of the film likely due to the input of the Australian Peter Carey. After more than three hours, Until the End begins. The occupants of the truck are on their way to the enclave-cum-laboratory run by the Farbers, which houses an intimate quasi-family of native Australians, and other folk. The entire cast now foregathers, including the Merry Crew of subaltern questers after the grail of the road and/or whatever it is Sam has brought home. Geiger counters ensure that all are momentarily safe from the End of the World. Children fill Shangri-La laughing. Everyone is fed. Life goes on. The original Australians, intimately conjoined into the extended family, continue to sing the dreamtime of the world so that the world cannot end for it is being sung.

We are now told what has been going on. Several years earlier, Sam's quasi-Mad-Scientist father Henry Farber (von Sydow) had absconded from America, which had funded his expensive search, with a partially completed prototype of an interactive device designed to translate Computer-massaged camera scans directly into a subject's brain, enabling that person to "see" what the camera has seen; significantly, what that person "sees" will also show on a monitor. The experiment requires a joining of camera image to the brain patterns of the photographer, and seems to founder on Sam's inability – he has been injured in the hegira – to focus his own memories. But Claire, who had also intermittently used the camera, is able to substitute. The Oedipal discord between Sam and his father is not resolved by this supplanting, but when Edith is finally able to "see" her family and talk with them, the discords of family and disintegrating world beyond seem to resolve in harmonies, some of them literal. We have learned and heard that almost everyone is able to play some sort of instrument or other. Singing can be heard outdoors. Over the course of several hours or days, as the experiment reaches its climax, a tentative coming together of song turns into an extended, blessedly amateur jam. What human beings share can be sung. "The purpose of our journey", Eugene tells us in voiceover, "had been so that this music might bloom here."

31 December 1999. The radio announces that the American intervention has not in fact ended civilization, which is beginning to come back on line. At this point Edith, who has now seen everything her life had asked her to see, dies. As the first dawn of 2000 breaks, intense community mourning begins. We are on still the cusp of continuing. But there is an elephant in the kitchen of Eden. Henry Farber abruptly breaks off his mourning to return to the project he had been hired to bring to a successful conclusion. He reverse-engineers the gift he had given his wife, which was to see the world, recalibrating his device so that it now records the actual dreams of anyone plugged into it, with the ultimate goal of establishing digital control over entire populations: for you cannot make trouble if your dreams are owned. Within a very short time, Henry's extended Australian family abandons the enclave, as the notion that dreamtime could be extracted for profit seems utterly obscene. Exploitation for profit of the beingness of the great globe itself may be what whites do: it is not, in this film, what natives of the world do. American specialist operatives in helicopters now hijack Henry and his machine, which is now fit to the needs of their government, and disappear into the soiled aether.

Meanwhile, in tune with an abruptly restored extradiegetic soundtrack, the family romance and compact continues to fray. Chico and Winter depart. Eugene sticks around, mainly to monitor the savage psychic deterioration of Claire and Sam, who have become addicted to their own dreams, which they read on what look like large cellphones, each of them a "human soul singing to itself, to its own god". It may seem over-obvious to clock a startling similarity between their immolation in scans of themselves snared in despondent no-exit dreams, and the cellphone-selfie world three decades later; but Wenders cannot be accused of making a cheap shot. It may even be an intended effect – not simply 1990s fashion – that the digital presentations of Claire and Sam's dreams are so extraordinarily and unsurreally drab: incarcerated mug-shots on speed: figures moving like molasses into the dégringolade to come. The tale, in any case, has shrivelled to a halt, though there are saving moments: Claire and Sam's withdrawal panic when their cellphone batteries run down is as hilarious then as it is three decades later. There is as well a redemptive moment: by forcing her to read his completed novel, in which she re-learns who she is, Eugene cons Claire into regaining a chastened agency. But Sam, his own rabbity neurasthenia now triumphant, has gone by now. Eugene departs. The film ends, however, in a scene of camp Sci-Fi uplift. Claire is now an astronaut for GreenSpace, monitoring the cerebellum of the planet from an orbiting satellite. It is her thirtieth birthday. Via monitors from Earth, her old friends (but not Sam) sing happy birthday to her. It is rather like Alfred Hitchcock stepping on stage at the end of an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962) to "reassure" us that bad things don't really happen, and that the police have stepped in to restore reality.

But Until the End of the World, which is told through an abiding ashen hindsight, is not really about the Consolations of Claire; it is about the end of the road of the world. [JC]


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