A movie star is sitting on an old couch in the middle of the street in Butte, Montana. His name is Howard Spence, and he has run away from the set of his latest film. Something has drawn him to Butte, where he once fell in love with a beautiful waitress.
There's a sense that, in spite of Howard's successes and self-indulgences, he's beginning to understand that true fulfillment may be found in love, family, commitment, and responsibility.
So here he is, sitting alone at "the scene of the crime," haunted by echoes of the past. It won't be easy to fix the relationships he's left in shambles for so long—and he's too blind to realize the journey must begin with repentance and forgiveness.
That's the premise of Don't Come Knocking, the new film by the great German director Wim Wenders, now showing in limited release.
Don't Come Knocking reunites Wenders with American actor and playwright Sam Shepard, with whom he crafted 1984's Paris, Texas, about another lost soul's spiritual journey to mend what is broken. Now, over 20 years later, they've revisited the theme, and discovered another journey, full of humor, hurt, and longing.
Shepard brings rough authenticity to both the script and his performance in the lead role, while Wenders' contribution is to reveal the invisible workings of the Spirit in these lives—through observant camerawork, meditative pacing, and an intuitive grasp of how this rugged landscape represents desolate spiritual territory.
Wenders, a Christian, has been giving attentive cinephiles "eyes to see and ears to hear" for almost three decades of filmmaking. Here's a closer look at some of his most memorable work.
When watching a film by Wenders, it's important to consider the characters' different perspectives on the world. All of his stories are about people whose views are limited, and who need to achieve a more complete understanding.
In Wings of Desire(1987), his Cannes award-winning masterpiece, Wenders follows angels on their daily beat through Berlin's troubled streets. An angel named Damiel (Bruno Ganz) listens to the thoughts of despairing citizens, marvels at the faith of wide-eyed children—and longs to know the joys of sensory experience. When he encounters a beautiful circus trapeze performer (Solveig Dommartin) who longs for communion with a kindred spirit, Damiel finds the provocation to "take the plunge" into human form and pursue her.
As her guardian angel, he comforts her with imperceptible spiritual ministry. And as his muse, she lures him to "take the plunge"—to embrace the mystery of human experience, so that even the simple joy of holding a hot cup of coffee on a cold morning inspires him to reverence and wonder, revealing the sacred in the ordinary.
By tuning our attention to the perspective of angels, viewers find renewed appreciation for the incarnational nature of creation, for the exhilaration of God's love in the highs and lows of daily life.
Wenders once wrote: "Film can reveal the invisible, but you must be willing to let it show." In a recent interview, I asked him what he meant by that.
"One of the amazing achievements of films is that they can reveal something that you can't actually see," he said. "When I started out as a painter, I strictly believed in the visible, and that the visible was it. And in the course of making movies, I realized that something I hadn't actually seen in front of my camera was then there in the movie."
Such was the case when filming Wings of Desire. Wenders, who had wandered away from his Catholic upbringing, found that filming from the perspective of imaginary angels caused him to discover, and capture on film, wondrous things he had never planned.
"I never really thought that a film could deal with anything metaphysical," he said. "When we finished it, I thought, How much help can I possibly get? It felt like I had almost made the film completely unconsciously, and that the angels that I had sort of 'called' had actually been there to help me.
"What I had taken for a metaphor had, sort of miraculously, materialized. So I came to terms with the fact that the invisible was powerfully working in movies. I don't think you can consciously evoke that. At least, I didn't."
Plenty of spiritual imagery
Similarly, Wenders offers a story of contrasting perspectives in 2004's Land of Plenty. Wenders' germ of an idea was crafted into a story by a friend, writer/director Scott Derrickson, the talented writer/director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
We can sense the strong Christian convictions of both artists in Land of Plenty, an exploration of life in post-9/11 America. But a land of plenty of what? Trouble or goodwill? Evil or grace?
A haunted Vietnam vet named Paul (John Diehl) is sent over the edge into paranoia by the events of 9/11. He appoints himself an agent for "homeland security," lurking about the backstreets of Los Angeles in search of terrorist activity. A young missionary woman, Lana (Michelle Williams), crosses Paul's path. Their eventful journey together winds up at Ground Zero in New York, where Wenders strikes chords of profound hope in the midst of haunting, horrible memories.
The two extremes represented in the film echo Wenders' personal history, growing up in a divided Germany and wandering in disillusionment from his church background until his faith was revitalized—a journey chronicled in Image journal.
Wenders sought to bring a fresh vision of vital Christianity to the screen in Land of Plenty—a vision incarnated in Lana's character.
"I was so appalled, when we made the film in 2003, at how Christian ideas had been sort of hijacked and turned into their very opposite," he told us. "Compassion and social conscience had left politics; everything I subscribe to as a Christian had been strangely perverted. So I thought if ever I was going to create a character who was a Christian, she would live it and not talk about it or make a big deal about it. She would have a sort of childlike trust and belief. She was just going to live."
In the end, that childlike faith makes a difference in more lives than her own.
Wenders says he hopes his beliefs never come across in a heavy-handed fashion, that he isn't trying to "become a missionary" through his work. To that end, he notes that Lana's faith would not be effective if she was "preaching" to others in the film. "Her faith works strictly through the way she is acting."
Not the blockbuster type
Wenders, born in Dusseldorf in 1945, is known for stories that take place on the borderlands between territories, between men and women, between worldviews, and between generations. As a Christian, he finds glimmers of hope, reconciliation, and redemption in even the darkest places.
Until the End of the World (1991), a sci-fi love story, demonstrated that even the most promising technology can, in the hands of evil men, be twisted into unhealthy tools for self-indulgence. In Faraway, So Close!, 1993's sequel to Wings of Desire, another angel becomes a human, falls in with gun runners, despairs of his sin nature, and asks, "Why can't I be good? Why can't I act like a man?"
The End of Violence (1997) follows the fall of a narrow-minded moviemaker from his Hollywood successes into an awakening about true human experience. The Million Dollar Hotel (2000) features Mel Gibson as a troubled policeman who wanders into a bizarre society of misfits, where a suicidal young man falls in love with a mischievous girl and learns that even lives of hardship are full of available grace and wonder.
Wenders' work requires a vigilant audience. His films can seem slow moving for viewers accustomed to action flicks and slick Hollywood productions. The "action" in a Wenders film is often mysterious and sometimes subjective. His movies aren't for people who want things explained to them; they're for viewers who know the rewards of getting involved in the film, of considering a character's relationship with others, the landscape, history, and faith.
"People and critics have forgotten that there is another way of receiving a movie, one that asks you actively to be a part of it," Wenders says. "The blockbusters don't want you to be part of it. They just serve it to you on a plate and then you eat it and that's it."
Art films, on the other hand, "are telling you, 'Here, this is just a suggestion, and if you let yourself be drawn into it, it'll be the greatest dream you ever had.' The blockbusters don't let us dream; they make us dream."
In that sense, Wenders' latest release, Don't Come Knocking, is a perfect summation of his strengths. The silences are as important as the conversations. The landscapes are as important as the characters in the foreground. They all contribute to questions that the viewer is encouraged to consider.
Don't Come Knocking is the antithesis of the classic Western, the one where the cowboy always wins the girl, outwits and outguns the bad guys, and then rides off into the sunset, bound to wandering and seeking adventure.
But in Wenders' latest, the cowboy is no longer quite so prone to wander—instead, he longs to rediscover his roots. During his venture back to Butte, Howard the runaway actor stops in to see his mother, who welcomes him like a prodigal son—and only mentions the fact that his father had died, suggesting that Howard's father was not a significant influence or presence in his life. Perhaps Howard's tendency to run from life and responsibility started with that example.
Then Howard discovers he has a son, Earl, from that former fling in Butte. Earl, chasing the dream of being a rock star, is on a reckless, drug-rattled trip, with a girlfriend along for the ride. The relationship doesn't look promising; it's likely Earl will leave her in his dust, the way Dad left Mom.
And Dad sees this. In the role of what Wenders calls "the prodigal father," Howard has come home to see himself in the mirror, reflected in the image of his son. This only deepens his regret. The rejection of his former flame (Jessica Lange) doesn't help, despite his appeal for reconciliation.
Is there any hope for Howard? Can he quit dreaming and thinking he can save the day, and admit that his actions have led to catastrophe? Howard is so broken, redemption will have to come from somewhere else. Perhaps grace will work through him and make something of it. He may not get what he wants, but he might find what he needs.
Prodigal fathers everywhere
There aren't any Christian characters in Don't Come Knocking as there were in Land of Plenty, nor visible angels as in Wings of Desire. But we can see evidence of the Spirit prodding these wayward souls toward redemption. It's a tale prevalent in movies today, as generations growing up fatherless are searching to fill that void, and as men who have run from family and responsibility begin to yearn for what they've missed.
Sam Shepard has admitted that this story, co-written with Wenders, reflects his own troubled relationship with his father. But Wenders hears echoes of his own past as well—a falling out with his own father in his late teens, a strained relationship for years, and then, finally, reconciliation. That reconciliation meant a great deal to the filmmaker, especially as he met more and more people who were essentially fatherless.
"The absent father became a regular cultural and social phenomenon," he said. "It almost seemed during the '90s that there were more people without a father than people with a father." As a result, Wenders was "attracted to telling the story of that absence"—and, in typical Wenders fashion, telling that story from both perspectives.
"I wanted to tell the story from both sides—the guy who missed being with his kids and being there for them, and from the perspective of these young adults who have this guy waltz in and say, 'Hi, I'm your father,' and how they feel about it."
A life story
What happens when people with different perspectives collide?
"It could be the story of my life," Wenders told us, "both as a German born after the war in a politically unreconciled country, and then as somebody who set out very much as a loner."
The young Wenders started his artistic journey wanting to be a painter, intentionally seeking "a pretty lonesome life." But when he discovered the excitement of composing images on film instead of a canvas, he was drawn into a world in which collaboration was essential.
"I think through [making] movies, I became somebody else," he said. "You'll see a lot of traces of these characters in my films: Slowly they come to terms with the world, and they have encounters, and they are longing to belong to a different context, both physically and spiritually. As I look back at my movies, that is the story of my life."
And as I look back at his movies, I see a man who gazes unflinchingly at the world in all of its beauty and ugliness. Wenders' characters are never towering heroes; they are broken people, racked with and ravaged by sin. But occasionally, when they humble themselves, grace moves through them—and the hand of an invisible God becomes apparent.
Filmmakers of Faith
, an occasional feature at Christianity Today Movies, highlights directors who adhere to the Christian faith—sometimes strongly, sometimes loosely, and sometimes somewhere in between. This series will include everyone from biblically-minded evangelicals to directors who may only have a "church background" and perhaps a lapsed faith … but their films are clearly informed by their spiritual history.
© Jeffrey Overstreet 2006, subject to licensing agreement with Christianity Today International. All rights reserved. Click for reprint information.