King of the road-movie, Wim Wenders’ classic 1975 epic about a journey across Germany has been restored in its black and white glory to drive back into your consciousness and Blu-ray collection. A welcome trip back in time.
Bruno Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) travels in his truck from town to town repairing cinema projectors. His life on the road is changed when depressed Robert Lander (Hanns Zischler) careers his Volkswagen into the River Elbe, sinking his car but deciding to save himself, sodden and still distraught following his break-up with his wife. Bruno helps Robert dry off and he joins the repair man as they drive off to various picture-house destinations. The two form a friendship of sorts during their travels but their lives are tied to their respective pasts and their journey is as much towards resolution and understanding of their own destinies as well as their perceived destinations.
If ever there was an existential film about film then Kings of the Road is certainly up there amongst the best. From its very start, commentary about film and the cinematic medium is pursued in a way that might be unexpected but is, in many ways, the film’s enduring strength. Even decades since its release its commentary on film viewing and distribution in an age which, at the time, was still approaching mainstream video at home and many decades away from international on-line streaming still feels relevant. So we are informed in the pre-credit title cards the precise cinematic ratio and that the film is in black and white(schwarz/weiß) together with the length of the shoot and that it was filmed on the East/West German border. This linking of the old with the new occurs not just with the cinematic but also comments on the print medium when Robert visits his estranged father, the proprietor of a local newspaper. The evolution of the media is fundamental to the film’s style and narrative. We are introduced to protagonist Bruno in the process of a repair job, conversing with the owner about times past, the arrival of talkies taking away the music from silent films and the current state of picture houses and their audiences: “There used to be cinemas everywhere. Now they’re going.” This scene is bookended towards the end with a similar discussion with an old woman.
As the film’s original title Im Lauf der Zeit (In the Course of Time/ As Time Goes By) suggests this is about the past, its relationship to the present and the forward direction that the road-trip should take them. The film also includes much humour, notably in the scene when the two are asked to repair the speakers in a cinema that is due to show a film to a class of schoolchildren. Their toil transforms into a silhouette slapstick that emphasises silent film comedy which the children clearly enjoy and it marks the strange relationship that has developed between the pair as their lives become revealed to each other. This is a slow process for them as it is a long way into their friendship – and the film – before they even get to the point of telling each other their names and eventually their professions as Robert’s constant interest and encounters with children (at a petrol station where he fails to get fuel for his VW and a paper-boat making encounter before the comedy performance to the schoolchildren) reveal his occupation as a paediatrician.
Music, as always with Wenders’ films, plays a vital role with its relation to the characters and the culture but here the relationship is more varied than much of the director’s other work, defining the contemporary sounds and emphasising the deliberately cinematic elements. The soundtrack specifically centres on themes and events in the way that orchestral soundtracks normally work, here though provided by Improved Sound Limited and Axel Lindstädt in a distinctive prog style. As usual diegetic songs play through the film as well, notably when the leads sing along to records in the cab played with jukebox 7” singles on a portable player; Just Like Eddie by Heinz is their film duet. The referential aspect to the writer /director is perhaps most amusingly played out when Bruno is asked, “Where did you get your jukebox?” The reply, “I swapped it for a projector.”
Kings of the Road is a quintessential road movie which links that genre with cinema and male emotional ambiguity. Clear of its own premise in covering everything from despair to hope, indeterminate pursuit to humour it is undeniably a film about film. The transfer from the original negative is tight and crisp and accurate to the film’s own love of film as film in that even shots with “hair in gate” have the aforementioned follicle retained on the image rather than digitally removed. This even links to a moment in the three hour epic when asked, “How long does this go on for?” The answer is, “Three more reels.” Narrative becomes reality for the viewer as well as the characters! There are a number of extras included on the Blu-Ray including an introduction, a documentary and out-takes from the film (always nice for films from a pre-digital age). As with all of the recently restored Wenders reissues the accompanying booklet is a welcome addition. Drive to your nearest blu-ray shop and get yourself a copy.
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