(01/03/07) – "1999 was the year the Indian nuclear satellite went out of control. . ." Until the End of the World is an end of the millennium odyssey from director Wim Wenders, developed and created over a decade, filmed on four continents, script jointly written with Peter Carey, and given a huge budget (for an ‘art film’) of 23 million dollars. Among others, Jeanne Moreau and William Hurt put in performances and the soundtrack features many specially written songs by the big and the credible – Lou Reed, R.E.M., Talking Heads and so on (the soundtrack album considered something of a classic in itself) – and Portuguese ‘Queen of the Fado’, Amália Rodrigues appears as an on-screen extra! Then the money ran out and Wenders was obliged to reduce his eight-hour film down to 158 minutes for a 1991 theatrical release which was badly received by critics and ignored by audiences.
However, Wenders kept the original elements and has now released a three-part 280 minute version (Bis ans Ende der Welt), available on DVD in Germany from Kinowelt (the film is in English), but the edition under review here, available in the UK from Metrodome, presents the original 158-minute theatrical release. Is there any point to it, when the full-length region 2 German DVD can be ordered from Amazon? Well, with the longer version so completely re-edited, the two versions are effectively different films. This short version does have dramatic moments of mystery which are lost in the extended cut, though what it gains in elliptical speed it then loses in a disastrous blanking out of resonance once everything slows down for the third movement. As with Apocalypse Now, it’s pretty interesting to double the mirror and see both shorter and longer versions.
What at first appears to be an ultra-cool road movie – the central character Claire wakes up after a party, she stumbles out while a laconic narrator tells us, "In the fall of 1999 Claire Tourneur woke up in some strange places. . ." – soon shifts into a gliding, spinning tour across the world as the characters chase after each other in pursuit of the restoration of sight, video footage, true love and secret government technology. A novelist, a private bounty detective (who comes to rely on a computerised bear who "searches here and searches there"), government agents, a drifting party girl – these people are cut loose by the satellite of death which is hanging over the world, and the strands of their journeying form a bright foreground – immaculate compositions and elaborate camera movements – while the background (death and the millennium) is beyond images and is simply felt in its effects at various points in the plot (electrical circuits crash while Claire is flying in a plane).
With the soundtrack kicking in and segueing between songs, much of the time Until The End of the World seems like the greatest, most mysterious music video you’ve seen: highly coloured, switching locations and focus to suit mood, a beautiful woman in a wig and designer clothes. As the characters reach a final point of meeting, the third portion of the film slows down, focusing on the restoration of sight to the blind mother of a renegade scientist – and the technology also gives the ability to see projections of your own dreams: the long and potentially lethal homecoming of simulacra to Ithaca, here a hidden scientific community and lab complex somewhere in the Australian outback. I must say that this shorter version – "the Readers’ Digest version" Wenders has reportedly called it – is in the end much less compelling than the longer director’s cut. The DVD image is almost pristine (very occasional white spots) but the extras are sparse: the trailer, and an essay by Jason Wood which is an overview of Wenders’ career in general and this film in particular.
Until The End of the World marks a middle point in Wenders’ career. The road trip in which physical movement translates human emotion into a screen of places; the apparently simple fairy tale plot (which often slide forward on unsolvable atmospheres of mystery); the spiritual humanism set against imitations of life: these all culminate and extend themselves into a film of a damaged but hopeful earth, continually consuming its own mirage-images, expelling or purging them as they arise. The film seems to exist in a technological flowering – and poisoning – of the near future, criss-crossed by every method of transport. "You are leaving the Map Zone database. You are on your own, Claire."
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