The Unbound Promise Of The Full Five-Hour Masterwork Until The End Of The World

by Henry Cherry

Until the End of the World is a film, like the best of them, that stands outside of genre. Part sci-fi epoch, part love story, part road movie, it begins and ends with an image of the Earth’s curvature. Made by director Wim Wenders, it is the culmination of his most successful period as a filmmaker, a truth made all the more striking in that at its initial release, Until the End of the World was a failure.

Now that the world has gone womblike, it’s a perfect time to revisit Wim Wenders’s 1991 film. A globe-trotting epoch part chase, part philosophical debate, part technological recrimination. Wenders called it his “ultimate road movie.” At its time of release, critics savaged the theatrical cut and audiences stayed away.

Wenders sensed trouble with producers and cut the 4 hour and 47 minute-long version on an entirely separate negative that he paid for himself. Criterion brought out that unexpurgated director’s cut in December, coincidentally the dawn of Covid-19. It is this behemoth which brings forth the idea Wenders originally conceived of in 1977: a chase across the earth while an out of control nuclear satellite threatens to crash into the planet.

After building several successes across the 80s, Wings of Desire among them, Wenders finally had access to the kind of money he’d need to film UTEOTW. “The film was the most ambitious thing I ever did, and also probably the most expensive independent-auteur film ever, at least at the time. It was an epic adventure, and we shot for one year. In the editing process, it became obvious that I could never deliver the two and a half hours that I had promised.” It is precisely because of this that the release UTEOTW didn’t fare well. It arrived in America on Christmas Day, 1991, but only played in four theaters. By the end of its run, it had expanded to a grand total of 22 screens. The theatrical release ran eight minutes over the contracted 2½ hour length, and was twenty minutes longer than either of its better attended Christmas Day openers, Prince of Tides, with Nick Nolte and Barbara Streisand, and Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon. Made for $23 million, Until the End of the World’s global box office couldn’t break the $900,000 mark.

Due to the nature of its truncated length, Wenders refers to the film’s theatrical release as the Reader’s Digest cut. There is some marvel to be found within that version of the film. Wenders was at the height of his prowess and a photographic poet. Though scenes are choppy and the story is obtuse, the film is an incredible photographic tale to witness. Restored to 4 hours and 47 minutes, its problems dissolve, and majesty swings back into focus. But, again, it arrives at a length no moviegoer would embrace. Sitting in one’s own living room as Covid-19 rampages sphinxlike beyond our sheltering walls, the extended release is an easier commitment.

One obvious piece of inspiration, archaic as it might seem, is the match-cut in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey that goes from air borne bone to orbiting satellite. While it goes unnoted in that film’s theatrical release, the satellite in 2001 is also nuclear powered, a detail brought to the narrative fore in an earlier draft. Yet the notion is there, if you focus. And the notions is this: humanity has always beckoned the next age with its weaponry outstretched. One step forward, two steps back.

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Solveig Dommartin in Wim Wenders Until the End of the World (1991)

Wenders set his sci-fi epoch at nearly the same time as 2001, using a similar nuclear satellite to power more ethereal concepts of technological advancement. Of all sci-fi movies, Kubrick’s film dealt with the most philosophical questions posed both by outer space and humanity’s sweeping technological progression. Wenders gazed into Kubrick’s profound futurism and used the same time frame but imagined a defiantly earthbound perspective. While Wenders has previously shown this long cut, and it has circulated in other regions, Criterion’s December 2019 release is the first widespread push of Wenders’ unexpurgated vision of the film. Available on DVDand streaming on Criterion’s app, the film could not have arrived at a more perfect moment. Sitting in isolation before a tv screen has never felt less isolationist, never been more humanistic. From this protracted version, Wenders unspools a complicated vision of the intersection of humanity and technology that is as peculiar to our now as it was upon initial release.

Across the arc of the eighties, Hollywood began to fold more commodities into releases. Musical segments featured songs they already owned rather than music written for the moment. Product placement went supernova. Big movies started to make soundtracks a requirement to augment budgets as much as to garner more publicity. MTV was a lush marketing ground and it served as a training ground for director wannabes. Big studio pictures constrained by smaller financials like Mannequin and Footloose benefited from this advent, while colossally budgeted movies like Top Gun and Back to the Future enjoyed even wider successes because their soundtracks were playlisted on practically every station with a call sign. Nothing is more ubiquitous within the pantheon of 80s entertainment than movie soundtracks. Everyone knew somebody who had the soundtrack for Flashdance or Pretty in Pink or Dirty Dancing on a cassette tape bouncing around their station wagon. Whether the movie was inscrutable or just plain stupid didn’t matter if the kids could dance to the music.

Already a legend back home in Germany, Wenders had also been weaving popular music into the fabric of his films, but from a more organic concept. He was fresh off two big victories at Cannes, having winning the Palme d’Or for Paris, Texas and best director for Wings of Desire. Both films saw the filmmaker shrewdly harnessing the emotional engines of his sequential visuals to poignant music that fit the films rather than their marketing strategies. It wasn’t a simple matter of taking the high road. His budgets were cash strapped affairs. Wenders couldn’t afford chart toppers and hit makers. Because of their philosophical notions, because they were photographed with the poetry of aperture, because his narratives were expansive stories framed in wide, wide angles, you might get lost inside one of his scenes if the music wasn’t there to remind you that this was but a part of a larger chronicle, that there was more to come. That was his point. Each part of each scene of each act was created with the same devotion to his whole.

At the time of the Cannes victories, Wenders was navigating a cresting popularity among his fellow German New Wave of filmmakers. Like Werner Herzog, he was already making English language movies. Like Rainer Fassbinder, he was dedicated to remaining intellectual. With films featuring American actors like Dennis Hopper as Patricia Highsmith’s amoral criminal con Tom Ripley in The American Friend and Peter Falk as an ex-angel coaxing another toward a human descent in Wings of Desire, Wenders took advantage of the burgeoning American indie film industry. He also relied on musically eloquent songs that would solve narrative riddles inherent in the filmmaking process. His soundtracks began to find success in release, not with high chart positions, but among the cognoscenti because they featured music that made the listener reflective. With Paris, Texas, Wenders found that mood in the languid sounds of Ry Cooder’s slide guitar. The combination worked so well for both men, they returned to work with each other two more times.

Hollywood’s soundtrack operations operated then and now on decidedly more callous balance sheet, seeding music into films strictly for profit. Mannequin, a movie the Washington Post’s critic said was, “made by, for, and about dummies,” came to have a life of its own because of a treacly pop throwaway called “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” recorded by Starship, itself a bastardization of former 60s acid rockers Jefferson Airplane. “NGSUN” was the exact kind of fizz-less pop Hollywood had relied on for years- written by committee, pumped through radio consultantship connections, and pushed onto airwaves by dollars not demand. No one involved with the film expected a sequel. But sure enough, Mannequin 2: On the Move, eventually arrived in theaters, powered almost entirely by the first film’s enhanced soundtrack performance. It was like Gordon Gekko had stepped off of Wall Street and into a Hollywood boardroom.

The terrain that is shared by Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas and The American Friend is a contemplative one. These smaller films rely on performances by character actors like Peter Falk, Harry Dean Stanton, and Hopper (before his career revival) to tackle the intangible or diaphanous concepts of love and morality that broaden at their films conclusion rather than resolving. With Until the end of the World, Wenders didn’t alter that blue print.

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Solveig Dommartin, nestled with radio in riverbeds of rock

Written with a host of adaptors, Wenders’s original story for Until the End of the World was drafted into a script by then girlfriend Solveig Dommartin, who would also star in the completed film. A more pronounced draft was written by Michael Almereyda, though according to an essay he wrote for the Criterion release, “My 160-page screenplay survives in a decidedly ghostly form — a basic structural underpinning, a few stray lines of dialogue, a retained surname here and there.” Almereyda concluded with several questions posed by the film, his script and the final draft created by Wenders himself along with Australian novelist Peter Carey, “What if all the promises of technology and of the road — indeed, of cinema itself — came true, and all the doors of perception were opened, and at the end of it all, in finding ourselves, we found nothing but paralysis and despair? What if the arrival turned out to be more perilous than the journey? What if the end of the road was the end of our dreams?” That is an essential part of the film’s ceaseless journeying, but it is also part of a trio of questions that are conceptually strewn throughout the Wenders cinematic universe.

What dreams might bring?
What dreams might come?
What dreams might end?

Nowhere else in his filmography are those three questions expressed so intimately and across such a densely woven tapestry of images, story and character. Wenders might have made better, more cohesive films, but they never vanquish their structural challenges as supremely as does his five-hour version of Until the End of the World.

Early in post-production, Wenders realized he would need more time for the film. He shot enough footage for two films, possibly a third. He went to the producers and asked to expand it. They were not amused and pointed out that the contract Wenders had signed required film that ran at a maximum of 2 hours and 30 minutes. At the end of production, Wenders and his longtime editor, Peter Przygodda, had a work cut that was 20 hours long. Whittling 2½ hours out of that was next to impossible. You can no longer see the film at one tenth of its size, you only have glimmers. So Wenders once again returned to the producers, begging them to let him release two films. Again, the producers rebuffed him. The film’s theatrical length was carved into the stone of legalese.

Wenders and Przygodda did a remarkable job editing the original release. It’s not as poetic or commanding, but I clung to its idiosyncrasies for decades, until the close of the 2010s allowed me to witness the full stop grandeur of the five-hour version. And it is a grand movie. It’s humorous, well-paced in parts and lagging in others but that never matters. It is also a very dark film in its second half. It predicts a host of questionable technological advancements and cultural shifts. Most of all, it is beautifully acted and filmed. The Director’s cut is a bounty of cinematic distinction. Luxuriant footage of the Australian outback, Parisian streets, and Siberian train rides marks each location with distinct individuality, while connecting them all together in an associated realm. Robby Müller’s cinematography is as exhilarating as Przygodda’s editing is cunning.

Because his film was set in the near future, Wenders asked for new music from popular musicians of the late 80s to fortify the soundtrack. He had the budget to get bonafide stars like Peter Gabriel and Talking Heads and U2, at the time each one a chart topping hit maker. The Reader’s Digest release had such a total lack of box office, it was the soundtrack that found an audience. While still in development, Wenders approached each musician and asked them to create music appropriate for the millennium exchange a decade in the future. U2’s offering gave the film its title and was part of the band’s rebirth bonanza recording, Achtung Baby. They were the biggest band going at the time and their inclusion powered the soundtrack, as producers and Wenders had bet, wrongly it turned out, that it would also power the film.

Of all the contextual devices cohabitating inside of Until the End of the World, and there are many — futurized navigation systems, video phones, digital tracking systems, digital video recorders — the most profound innovation of the movie is its ongoing discussion about what it means to be human. Wenders turned his lens toward the very kernel of humanity — how we adapt to everything and how that adaptability so often leads us astray. The film deals frankly with climate change and digital addiction long before those subjects were conversational topics. UTEOTW also deals openly with misogyny and racism. While William Hurt receives top billing and both he and Sam Neill do much of the heavy lifting, the film is told from Solveig Dommartin’s perspective, and briefly, from Jeanne Moreau’s. The women give the film its depth, while the men operate on binary dimensions, pulling and pushing the film along its global track.

As it begins, Dommartin’s Claire has cloaked herself in a world of Venetian debauchery. At film’s close, she hovers above the Earth in a space station tracking pollution on the planet down below. It is a hopeful arc that again links to Kubrick. But where Kubrick explained how weaponry pollutes us, Wenders displays how people brought to their knees can then to stand again.

Following the film from location to location is a contextual mess. You just have to dive in and stop asking questions. The whirlwind intensity is mostly harnessed by the cast. Hurt is outstanding, playing coy one minute, manipulative the next. Dommartin is a pouty actor, but she takes on her role with a surprising ambition. Whether she flees from Sam Neill’s character — her former lover — or is chasing after Hurt — her heart’s next desire — this is her story and she does not surrender the reins.

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Sam Neill and Rüdiger Vogler

Like any good road movie, Until the End of the World has a ranging assortment of vehicles to travel by. There are a variety of cars, a pink Cadillac, a dashing but dilapidated Rover driven by Claire in the beginning, as well as the futuristic approximations of cars that the film created. But there are also gondolas, trains, jets and propeller planes, even ships and space craft. The film travels across four continents, to Russia, to China, to France, to Portugal, to San Francisco, and finally, to a radical scientific outpost hidden inside a network of prehistoric sandstone caves in Australia’s Northern Territory.

Max von Sydow and Jeanne Moreau play Hurt’s parents, Henry and Edith Farber. Their charismatic imprint upon the final film is too large to quantify. Moreau’s performance is mostly left on the cutting table in the Reader’s Digest take. In the restored version, she is a marvel, and, a complement to Claire. Think of Moreau’s Edith as kin to the Greek Goddess Hera and Dommartin’s Claire a stand in for Aphrodite.

Von Sydow and Moreau bring to the second act a gravitas that allows the coming bleakness a luminosity so that it does not weigh down what has come before it. As father and son, von Sydow and Hurt have followed their paths, separately and together, because of Edith, their matriarch — the smartest and loveliest member of their family. To celebrate her importance, Henry Farber has created a device to record visions for his blind wife to see. Hurt has taken the device and recorded Edith’s family so she can see them at last. The entirety of the film’s first act pivots on that device. Making sense of the hijinks that brings everyone to Australia is part of the fun of watching this full take unfurl.

The first act is raucous, infused with love, and desire, and sometimes a combination of both. What badness comes arrives without little long-term destruction. The chase is peopled with a bevy of characters in Russia, Japan, China, Europe and America. Each one gives the frantic circumnavigation a bit of identity and establishes more of the plot, while Hurt’s character records footage for his mother and, in the process, damages his own body. A Japanese herbal doctor revives his weakened eye sight. A Russian P.I. locates him for Claire. These interludes are always enigmatic and buoyant at the film’s full length, but were neutered in the theatrical release.

Wenders is a lover of the wide-open spaces. He first displayed his affinity for that vastness in Paris, Texas. He’s found a similar photographic reward here and UTEOTW crashes into the Australian outback for its second act because of that. The journey turns inward in the most spectacular out of doors setting.

William Hurt and Solveig Dommartin

Flying in the sky over Australia, Hurt, with Dommartin in tow, pilots a two-seater plane toward the laboratory his parents run as the nuclear satellite is exploded above the earth by a missile, an action that happens off screen. The nuclear explosion unleashes a pulse of electromagnetic radiation that blankets the earth, disrupting mechanical operations of almost every kind, the plane’s engine among them. As Claire and Hurt’s Sam Farber coast back to the empty desert below, the camera captures the plane’s shadow as it grows larger and the ground comes closer. It is just one of the potent, modernized mythical allusions seeded throughout the movie.

Following that mythological expanse, the very technology that the movie is built around, allowing Edith to see despite her blindness, is also physically exhausting to her. It saps her strength and suddenly she dies. To combat the depression that comes for von Sydow, he modifies the application of the device and its technology. Now, Henry Farber proposes that they use it to record and review their dreams. They have swerved away from their original intent which leaves the lot of them pointed toward darkness.

It’s an immediate downturn. Everyone ibecomes addicted to the narcissistic process straight away. Everyone that is, but the indigenous people who have worked in the lab since it was first established, and Eugene Fitzpatrick, Neill’s character and the film’s narrator. While it can be debated how clear that the technological harbinger is to the native people, they will not engage with it. Instead, the indigenous people band together and walk away from their western brethren. Their action underscores a thread that runs throughout the film- morality should not be shaded by technological improvements. It is one of the most dramatic moments of the film, and what was stymied by the Reader’s Digest cut comes brilliantly to life here. Weighing race against perceived notions of primitiveness is one of the deeper accomplishments of the film.

Everything falls apart after the walkout. But as it does so, the images, decayed pixelated painting of imagined dreams come to life and they are the visual soul of the film. It’s believable that the mystery presented by these infrared videos could entrance anyone, they’re that good. Every movement a new mystery to become fodder for personal inquiry, and each pixel a divine puzzle unlocked. “They suffered, finally, from a complete loss of reality,” the narration explains. At the exact time of that loss, the people who have funded this science have come calling, and both Farbers disappear, Henry into custody, Sam into the labyrinth of caves. Neill’s character manages to sequester Claire on an empty farm and literally pens her in, separating her at last from the dreams she’s lost herself to. She begs him to recharge her monitor’s battery but he leaves her stranded with the useless device. To relieve the pressure Claire’s agony shrouds him with, he turns to writing, documenting the entire affair while Claire goes cold turkey. And in the vastness of Australia’s outback, at they free each other of their neurotic dependence on whim.

At film’s end, Wenders has cast a web of cautious hope. Perhaps that’s because he’s an astute filmmaker well aware that a 287-minute long film requires a carrot at its close and not a stick. After completing a 4K restoration on the film, Wenders said of the film, “it turned into some sort of an ‘interior journey’ into the souls of our central characters. And those journeys into the mind are definitely more dangerous and revealing today.” Maybe it is because of this that he ends Until the End of the World with a recovered Claire hovering above the earth in a satellite, policing pollution down below as several characters video conference in to sing her happy birthday. Wenders has reversed his dark equation by putting Claire up above us all and letting her, for the first time, invigorate her reality instead of chasing after unknowable dreams. But it also shows one more thing. Where men have continued to fail, a woman succeeds. For all of the men that people this story and help it along its way, it is Claire alone who takes the road into space, and once there, goes about protecting the earth. In Kubrick’s film, he had to turn Dave Bowman into a Starchild to protect the earth. Wenders sends a woman to get the job done.

RIOT MATERIAL is LA’s premier literary-cultural magazine with an eye on art, word, and forward-aiming thought. Check out our gallery on IG: @ riotmaterial.

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