Tourism, Un-knowing, and Wim Wenders’ ‘Im Lauf der Zeit’ (1976)

The BBC recently ran an article about a Wim Wenders’ photography exhibition, showcasing roadside architectures and desolate landscapes. [1] The images, snapshots taken at various points on an itinerary known only to the photographer that took them, reminded me of a film (by the same author): Wim Wenders’ Im Lauf der Zeit (1976). Wenders himself has given interviews and written widely on the theme of film as architecture.[2] Wenders’ visual obsession with cities and their peripheries is therefore well documented. But for the purposes of this blog entry I am not interested in the cities themselves, but in the hyphens that run between them: roads, and the modes of transport that create trajectories between them. I take a look at these hyphens, to explore tourism and travel in Im Lauf der Zeit. It seems fitting that the look (this blog entry) should be, like the act of tourism itself, a short, sharp glance, a snapshot taken from a car window, a moment captured on a journey.
As Bruno Winter travels along the border between the then West and East Germany, moving from picture house to picture house, repairing projectors, he takes us with him, through a fluid architecture, the gradually unfolding expanses of small towns and cities. The camera visits and explores abandoned places and in-between spaces: petrol stations, out-posts, train stations, public toilets and disused quarries. There is always the awareness of a border, of inhabiting the spaces in between. The title itself, ‘In the course of time’ suggests being caught up in a flow, a current.
Visual journeys are frequently metaphors for journeys of the soul. The natural expectation that comes with a genre like the road movie is one of change, growth brought about by cumulative experience. The fact that Bruno travels in a removal van, labelled ‘Umzüge’[3], is further suggestive of change and development. The film invites us to draw parallels between the travelling duo Bruno and Lander, and the way-faring apprentices of the German Lyric tradition. This is a tradition Wenders had referenced earlier in his adaptation of Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahr, his film Falsche Bewegung (1975). We recall Goethe and the German literary tradition of the Bildungsroman (roughly translatable as a coming-of-age story). The reference to literature is heightened by the use of shots in which roads and tracks crisscross the screen. We are invited to read the film, to scan the roads by following the vehicles that traverse them, like fluid sentences, punctuated by toilet breaks, food stops, and pauses for refuelling.
But these expectations are only evoked to be subverted. The final scene of the film invites the audience to view this inverted, almost perverse Bildungsroman as an unlearning. When Bruno’s travelling companion Lander befriends a young boy who is writing in his notebook, the return to a naïve kind of looking is made explicit. Film Studies scholar Daniela Berghahn, referencing this particular scene, calls this kind of looking the ‘unverstellte “Kinderblick”’. ‘Unverstellt’ has the meaning here of being straightforward, undisguised, open. The term ‘Kinderblick’, means child’s gaze. [4] The focus is on the moment rather than the future and the outward image of things rather than their hidden meanings; the literal versus the lateral.
In this attempt at a return to childhood, Im Lauf der Zeit can be read as a cinematic Bildungsroman in reverse – in which we move into a state of un-knowing. A state in which signifiers – images – become just that: images. Life has no overarching meaning. The film takes us on a journey of un-discovery. To borrow from the work of the architects and theorists writing in The Unknown City: Contesting Architecture and Social Space, Wenders is making the world ‘strangely familiar,’[5] or, perhaps more accurately, he is making the familiar strange. Travel becomes an apparatus, a passage through which the viewer can pass and reach the other side: un-knowing. Tourism can achieve this because there are no habitual actions any more, no habitual activities in places that are familiar to us. The only habit is leaving. The traveller in her car, train, motorcycle or boat (and all these modes of transport are used by the protagonists of the film), behaves like a perpetually moving cinematic lens – zooming in and, before focusing, zooming out again.

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[1]The article and a selection of exhibition photographs can be found here:
[2] For collected writings and interviews, see Wim Wenders: On Film. Essays and Conversations (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), especially ”Find myself a city to live in – conversation with Hans Kollhoff,” 394-402.
[3]‘Umzüge’ can be translated as ‘removals’ or ‘relocations’.
[4](Translation mine). The discussion is fascinating and can be found here: Berghahn, Daniela, ‘“Leben…ein Blick genügt doch”: Der utopische Augenblick in Wim Wenders ‘road movies’”, Monatshefte vol. 91 no. 1 (Spring 1999), accessed 22 September 2015.
[5] Iain Borden, Joe Kerr, Jane Rendell and Alicia Pivaro, The Unknown City: Contesting Architecture and Social Space (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), x.

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