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PLOT: A disillusioned young woman follows a mysterious stranger across the globe, only to become transfixed by a device which allows the user to record and replay their own dreams.
COMMENTS: Usually the term “Director’s Cut” suggests that a film was extended by 10 minutes, or even an hour, from its initial form by restoring footage left on the cutting floor due to studio pressure. But in the case of Until the End of the World, it meant doubling the film’s original running time from two and a half hours to almost five. With this film, German auteur Wim Wenders intended to make “the ultimate road movie,” building on a career of road movies such as Kings of the Road and Paris, Texas. In other words, he set out to make his magnum opus. Now, thanks to the Criterion Collection, his vision can finally be seen as originally intended.
So how does it hold up? Well, it’s an improvement on the original truncated version, which felt rushed and confusing, but it might not be the masterpiece that Wenders intended. Where the original version was two incomplete films haphazardly cobbled together, the five-hour version is essentially two films in one. The film no longer feels incomplete, but it remains uneven. The first half is a breakneck journey through eight countries. This is the ostensible “road movie” portion of the film, although it feels a bit rushed even stretched out to two hours instead of one.
In this section, we follow a beautiful woman named Claire (Solveig Dommartin) who becomes obsessed with an elusive man (William Hurt) and chases him from one country to another. There are a lot of side characters, most notably Claire’s writer husband Eugene (Sam Neill) and Mr. Winter (Rüdiger Vogler), an inept but poetically inclined private detective who Claire meets in Berlin. In the five-hour version, we get to know the characters a lot better. Eugene’s pensive narration gives the viewer considerable insight into Claire’s psychological state, illuminating the reasons behind her tireless search for a man that she doesn’t know anything about.
But while the character development may be improved in the long version, Until the End of the World still doesn’t feel like much of a road movie. The characters seem to beam from one place to another. There are brief scenes on airplanes, trains and boats, but very little driving—the thing that defined Wenders’ classic road movies from earlier in his career. Very little seems to happen between destinations; almost all of the characters’ crucial conversations and revelations happen when their paths align for a brief moment in a fixed location.
However, the characters’ journeys do lead to a particular final destination which brings them all together: Central Australia. Just like’s character in Paris, Texas, Sam Farber (Hurt) is reunited with an estranged loved one at the end of his journey—in this case, his father, the mercurial scientist Henry Farber (Max von Sydow). Almost half of the film takes place in and around the Farber laboratory in Central Australia, where the “road movie” portion of the film ends and things finally start to get weird.
Over the course of his travels, Sam had been tracking down family friends and relatives to film with a special camera that his father designed in order to help his blind mother (Jeanne Moreau) see, almost blinding himself in the process. After Sam’s mother dies, his father Henry embarks into forbidden territory, using the technology that powered his camera to record dreams, which can be played back on handheld devices that drive their users into isolation and addiction. These dreams are manifested as distorted visual nightmares; precious to the person who dreamed them, but unintelligible and meaningless to anyone else. Wenders manipulated many of his own home movies from his childhood in order to give these sequences their uniquely uncanny aura.
Today the obsession with personal handheld devices plays like a commentary on the smartphone era, but at the time it was made, Wim Wenders was actually looking towards the near future, setting his film in 1999. The near future is the most challenging subject of all for a filmmaker, with the only changes being subtleties that are impossible to predict. Nevertheless, in a time when the words “digital” and “the Internet” were obscure technological jargon, Wenders made a lot of astounding predictions in Until the End of the World. Maybe that’s part of the reason why, watching it today, it feels less like a strange science-fiction film and more like an alternate vision of our world as it is today.
Of course, this being the Criterion Collection, there is much more than just the five-hour director’s cut to be seen in their deluxe Blu-ray edition. There are a number of interviews with Wim Wenders regarding his influences and the arduous shooting process, a Japanese documentary about the groundbreaking HD digital dream sequences created at the NFK offices in Tokyo, and a number of extras focusing on the film’s soundtrack—which ended up being the most popular aspect of the film. Even now, the range of music created for the film (including contributions from U2, Nick Cave and Julee Cruise) is one of Until the End of the World’s greatest attributes.
In a way, Until the End of the World is like a long, rambling music video. Its length makes it difficult for anyone to watch in a single viewing, but it’s easy to drop in and out at any point, taking in the beautiful cinematography, the location changes and the vaguely apocalyptic dystopian atmosphere accompanying the music. Despite a story that tries so hard to be profound and sweeping, it’s the music that really ends up hitting the mark. With so many great visuals, cool original songs, and the potential to expand even more on Claire’s adventures (the original rough cut was 12 hours long), this could have made a good Netflix original miniseries. It’s too bad Wim Wenders wasn’t able to see that far ahead.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“At almost [five] hours, on video End of the World loses in scope and gains in manageability. Wenders’ weird and wired view of the near future tempts replay as often as the sensational soundtrack (U2, Talking Heads, Patti Smith).”–Lawrence O’Toole, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)