Mark Cooper
5 / 2 / 05

Until the End of the World: Film Information

Until the End of the World

USA Theatrical Cut: 158 Minutes
USA Domestic Gross: $752,856

Directed by
            Wim Wenders
Written by
            Wim Wenders
            Peter Carey
            Michael Almereyda
            Solveig Dommartin                        as Claire Tourneur
            William Hurt                                    as Sam Farber
            Sam Neill                                    as Eugene Fitzpatrick
            Max von Sydow                        as Henry Farber
            Jeanne Moreau                                    as Edith Farber
            Rudiger Vogler                                    as Phillip Winter
            Chick Ortega                                    as Chico Remy
            Eddy Mitchell                                    as Raymond Monnet
            Ernie Dingo                                    as Burt
            Chishu Ryu                                    as Mr. Mori
            Kuniko Miyake                        as Mr.s Mori
            Allen Garfield                                    as Bernie
            David Gulpilil                                    as David
            Charlie McMahon                        as Buzzer
            Justine Saunders                        as Maisie
            Kylie Belling                                    as Lydia
            Bart Willoughby                        as Ned
            Paul Livingston                                    as Karl
            Susan Leith                                    as Nora Oliveira
Produced by
            Ulrich Felsberg
            Jonathan T. Taplin
Executive Producer
            Paulo Branco
Music by
            Graeme Revell
Cinematography by
            Robby Muller
Film Editing by
            Peter Przygodda
Production Design by
            Sally Campbell
            Thierry Flamand
Art Direction by
            Steve Burns
            Claudio Carrer
            Ian Gracie
            Jan Schluback
Costume Design by
            Montserrat Casanova
Special Effects by
            Frank Schlegel

Featuring the Music of
            Talking Heads
            Patti Smith
            Neneh Cherry
            Elvis Costello
            T-Bone Burnett
            Lou Reed
            Nick Cave
            Peter Gabriel
            Depeche Mode
            …and others


Critical Reviews:

Brown, Joe. “Review: Until the End of the World.” Washington Post, 17 / 1 / 1992.

Canby, Vincent. “New Hat for Wenders: Daffy and Lighthearted.” New York Times, 25 / 12 /             1991.

Ebert, Roger. “Review: Until the End of the World.” 17 / 1 / 1992.

Hinson, Hal. “Review: Until the End of the World.” Washington Post, 17 / 1 / 1992.

Web Literature:

Strictly Film School. “Until the End of the World.“    2004.

Harris, Archie. “Welcome to the End of the World: Until the End of the World Fan Page.”    2000.

Johnson, Gary. “Wim Wenders Biography.”    1996.

Perrine, Toni. “The Disease of Images: Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World.”     Undated.

Tacon, Dave. “Senses of Cinema: Wim Wenders.”    April 2003.

DVD Savant. “The Strange Case of Until the End of the World.”    1999.


Until the End of the World
            Until the End of the World is a sprawling, complex, and challenging film, at times a road movie, a heist film, a romance, a film-noir detective story, a philosophical art film, and a futuristic, apocalyptic science fiction tale. It is a hugely ambitious film which, in its original version, falls far short of its lofty aspirations. However, in reaching for art and meaning it can be said to be a far more important work, even in its failings, than other, conventional films which make no such attempts at deeper impressions.
            German director Wim Wenders had attempted to film Until the End of the World (UTEOTW) for over a decade, but it was not until his 1987 film Wings of Desire became a major critical success that he was able to raise the $23 million he needed to make UTEOTW. The script, which Wenders coauthored with Australian author Peter Carey, is set in the (then) future world of 1999, when a rogue nuclear satellite is about to crash into Earth and, possibly, bring about a nuclear holocaust. This ‘future’ world blends science fiction technology with a sort of film-noir sentimentality. Characters wear trench coats and fedora hats, and some characters, such as Winter, the philosophical detective, seem to have been lifted out of classic film-noir archetypes. The films vision of future technology comes across today in different ways both too advanced and not advanced enough, but overall it is a passable look into an alternate 1999, given the budget restrictions Wenders faced in creating a future world.
            Against its futuristic backdrop the film follows the globetrotting adventures of Claire Tourneur (Solveig Dommartin) as she pursues a mysterious stranger named Sam Farber (William Hurt) and is followed by her ex-lover and the film’s narrator, novelist Eugene Fitzpatrick (Sam Neill). Sam has a price on his head and is hunted by an Australian bounty hunter (Ernie Dingo), a detective (Rudiger Vogler), and American government agents. The at first seemingly random journey leads the characters across Europe, Asia, and America, ending finally in the Australian outback.
            The outback section is by far the film’s longest, and it is here that the purpose of Sam’s journey becomes apparent and the film enters into more philosophical territory. Sam has been collecting images with a special camera that records not only what someone sees, but their emotional response to the images. He returns these images to the outback where his father, Henry, (Max von Sydow) is hiding in a hidden laboratory, planning to use the machine to give vision to Sam’s blind mother, Edith (Jeanne Moreau). The machine works, but has an unexpected result: the ability to record a person’s dreams. With this discovery the characters begin to retreat into themselves, out of contact with the world and obsessively studying their own dreams, not knowing if anyone else is left alive by the nuclear satellite exploding in the atmosphere and shorting out all of the Earth’s electronics (except, curiously, the computers in the lab). “Such were the passions of the Farber family that the experiment seemed more important than the end of time itself,” says Eugene.
            For a film set in the ‘future’ and involving the end of the world, in which the characters cross the globe, UTEOTW often feels aimless and even boring. There are few continuous narrative threads for the first two thirds of the film, and a number of subplots are built up and then abandoned with no resolution. The film often feels as though it were written as filming went along, without clear direction from the beginning. For the first two thirds of the film there is little connection with the characters or real understanding of their motives. Claire travels around the world in search of Sam, but there is never a clear understanding of where her fascination with him comes from and, once the lovers are together, no chemistry whatsoever between the actors. Even less clear is why Eugene follows her, except perhaps the dubious explanation of searching for material for his novel.
            Despite being over two and a half hours long in its original version, many scenes feel truncated and the film frequently seems to jump too rapidly from place to place. It is not until the final Australian outback section that the film settles down and begins to find its voice. The extended time spent in the location allows the film to finally gain a consistent visual style, and the outback photography is beautiful and startling after the lights and motion of the succession of cities. There are wonderful moments of beauty in this section, especially the moment the nuclear detonation destroys the world’s electronics. Sam and Claire are flying a small plane over the outback when the planes electronics suddenly shut off, leaving the plane gliding to a crash landing. The moment has a great intimacy that the rest of the film unfortunately lacks; the end of the world is told not in epic scenes of destruction but frightening silence and the reactions of two characters who know the implications of what has happened but do not speak of it. It is the best scene of the film, and establishes the more subdued tone of the film’s philosophical concluding section.
            It is in the philosophical musings which come to the forefront in the final act that UTEOTW has its greatest impact. The recorded dreamscapes are displayed as surreal images, with splashes of color dissolving and changing into shapes, figures becoming apparent and then disappearing in a whirlwind of color. The “biochemical images” were created for the film through experimental video techniques and are strangely striking even today, when digital art has become commonplace. The characters watch the images at first in fear and awe, wondering if they should even have the right to pull these images out of the human mind. When Claire calls the images beautiful, Henry responds, “Beautiful? Wallpaper is beautiful. You are now looking at the human soul singing to itself, to its own God.” Claire, Sam, and Henry begin to obsessively watch their dreams, becoming addicted to the paintings of their own minds. Eugene narrates, “They lived to see their dreams, and when they slept they dreamed about their dreams. They had arrived at the island of dreams together, but in a short time they were oceans apart, drowning in their nocturnal imagery.” The characters move through stunning natural scenery in the outback, but have lost the ability to see it, their eyes are only on the video screens relaying them their dreams.
            Each character is freed from their image addiction in a different way. The US government finally finds Henry and searches for Sam, but he has fled into the outback. Eugene says of their search, “It is impossible to find a man lost in the labyrinth of his own soul.” Sam is taken by an aboriginal, David (David Gulpilil), to commune with aboriginal elders. David tells Sam, “You will sleep between them. They will take your dreams.” He awakes with his addiction cured. Eugene rescues Claire, separating her from her dreams and forcing her to go through a painful ‘detox.’ It is reading Eugene’s novel based on their lives that finally frees her. Eugene narrates, “I didn’t know the cure for the disease of images. All I knew was how to write. But I believed in the magic and healing power of words, of stories.”
            Sam and Claire are cured through returning to traditional methods of connection and communication between people. They abandon their reliance on technology which had come to completely rule their thoughts and dreams. For Wenders, their addiction mirrors the plight of the modern world, where a reliance on images and technology has replaced true interaction between people. The film depicts that we must not allow technology to rule our thoughts and our dreams, that we must return to more traditional methods of connection between people and with our own, spiritual self.
            Choosing the film to end in Australia is crucially important for the themes Wenders develops. The outback scenery not only provides beautiful natural imagery to contrast against the cityscapes, but the mythology of the outback instantly brings to mind a somewhat mystical place of dreams and dreamings. The aboriginals working in Farber’s lab immediately recognize the danger of Henry’s experiments. One aboriginal is so close to Henry that they call each other brother, but when he hears of Henry’s plans he is infuriated. He says, “Imagine what you could hang on your walls instead of our paintings. You could exhibit the insides of our heads, our dreamings, and all our whole people secret knowledge… You think we want you wandering through our dreaming with your fancy cameras?” The aboriginals abandon the experiment out of protest.
            The film ends as an impassioned protest against the image saturation of modern culture, the pervasive and empty imagery which bombards us through media and technology and disconnects us from one another. Ending the film in Australia, in nature, in a place not yet dominated by the images of technology, allows Wenders to demonstrate that spiritual values captured through traditional storytelling are what is missing from the rest of the world, and it is only through remaining in touch with our fundamental, spiritual natures that we can resist the ‘disease of images’ of the modern, technologically based world.
            UTEOTW endswith a depiction of technology used for the betterment of mankind. Claire, cured of her dream addiction, has joined ‘Greenspace’ and now orbits the Earth in a space station, watching the oceans for pollution crimes. The final image of the Earth from space, still alive for a new millennium, strikes a hopeful chord, that even in what seems to be an increasingly disconnected world, where interaction with technology has replaced connections with both others and oneself, there is still a chance for connection and a true globalized community.
            Perhaps as interesting as the plot of UTEOTW itself is the story of its creation and subsequent variations. The film was shot on location in fifteen cities in seven countries, among them Berlin, Paris, Lisbon, Moscow, Tokyo, and San Francisco. A small core crew traveled with Wenders and his actors, and local crews were picked up at each location. This ‘on-the-run’ style of shooting can probably explain many of the inconsistencies in the plot and style - it is difficult to maintain a visual tone when shooting in very different cities with different crews. Wenders shot a huge amount of footage for the film; there are rumors that his first cut was eight hours long. Contractually obligated for the US release to be under 3 hours, the film’s original release was a 158 minute version. In subsequent years other versions have appeared in different countries; the Japanese laser disc version is 179 minutes. A ’final’ 280 minute version of UTEOTW, subtitled The Trilogy, has been screened for audiences several times by Wenders at film festivals since 1996. This complete version was released on DVD in Italy in 2004, with a new, high quality image transfer, but its release for the rest of the world is still pending.
            The Trilogy version divides the film into three parts and includes a great deal of footage which, from reports of those who have seen it, adds a great deal more coherence to the plot and fleshes out many sequences and characters. The many songs created for the film by bands such as U2, The Talking Heads, Nick Cave, Peter Gabriel, REM, and Lou Reed, which are heard in part in the original version, are all played in their entirety in the complete film. All the sections of the film are greatly expanded, especially the outback sequence where more than an hour of footage is added. Like any film which is surrounded by stories and myths of rare, longer cuts and lost footage, UTEOTW is much talked about in the literature of the Web. Sites track screenings of The Trilogy version, compile lists of the differences between versions, and help readers find sites from which they can import the Italian DVD. 
            UTEOTW received a very mixed critical reaction from critics in the time of its release. Some hailed it as a masterpiece and a work of art, while others were bored and apathetic to the film’s artistic aspirations. Wenders had become something of a critical darling through his earlier films, especially Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire. Many critics seemed to feel that, freed from the much tighter budgetary restraints of his earlier films, he had less to reign in his talents and tried to fill his epic with too much; many critics point out that there is more than enough in UTEOTW for three films, a fact which Wenders himself even seemed to recognize when he divided the film into three parts for The Trilogy version.
            UTEOTW is now seen by many as the beginning of a string of missteps and failures for Wenders after such a promising earlier career. His later films, such as The End of Violence and Million Dollar Hotel , are almost all nearly unanimous critical failures. He did, however, find success in documentary format with his film on the Cuban music scene, Buena Vista Social Club, which was both a financial and critical success and sparked renewed interest in that style of music.
            Until the End of the World is a challenging and complex film, one which often seems boring and aimless but will reward close study of the themes and ideas which it presents. While not a great film, it is a very ambitious attempt at art, and a fascinating film to study critically. It is greatly disadvantaged by its shorter run time and the full screen video and poor quality transfer of VHS. A high quality, complete DVD cut will be a completely different viewing experience, and one that would be worth seeking out for aficionados of artistic, thought-provoking cinema.