I wrote the pair of articles here in 1998 after seeing the long ‘Die Trilogie’ version of Until the End of the World at the Harmony Gold Preview Theater on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood. The articles contain plenty of Spoilers, so beware. A new 2019 disc release is reviewed at CineSavant.
The Strange Case of
Until the End of the World:
Two articles originally published at MGM Video Savant in 1998.
Note: these were written in 1998, after seeing the long version of the film just once, and obtaining a copy of a Japanese laserdisc of a shorter version. Most of what is said is accurate … and a big spoiler.
The Strange Case of
UNTIL the END
of the WORLD,
— a colossal but intimate epic: one movie or three? Or a miniseries?
I was charmed by Wim Wenders’ 1991 film, Until the End of the World from the moment I saw it. It had possibly been planned as a multipart television show for German television (Note: no)., and had premiered in Paris at a length somewhat longer than its American release.
Initial reviews and reaction to Until were not particularly strong and its success did not equal that of Wenders’ previous international hit Wings of Desire. Much of the negative reaction may have stemmed from its atypical structure. Until begins as an oddball thriller. A a semi-romantic couple pursues one another across Europe, Siberia, to the Far East, to San Francisco and finally to the Australian Outback. The plot never really decides whether its main focus is a runaway party girl, a bank robbery, or a nuclear crisis. All three themes are backgrounded when the movie concentrates for its final third on a bizarre invention whose technical and philosophical complications bring the action almost to a halt.
Couple this nonstandard structure with a Wenders-like refusal to give Until a Hollywood pace or to dumb it down even for a moment, and you have a film typical audiences hate. Audiences must work a bit to ‘get’ it. Any expectations coming in are foiled because the film is almost completely unpredictable.
Claire and the Visual Miracle.
Love it or not, Until the End of the World is truly unique. It boasts a charming and convincing glimse of a near-future. There are cars that talk, VidFax machines, and an hilarious detective computer program called ‘The Bounty Bear’ (“I search them here, I search them there”) that runs on those ‘superior Vietnamese chips.’ Beautiful imagery across five continents is accompanied by truly well-chosen alternative rock music.
If a synopsis must do, Savant suggests you visit the Official Until the End of the World website (Note: which is still up). The page has more discussion about such nice tangents as Rudiger Vogler’s Phillip Winter character, who recurs in several Wenders’ films. What the creators of that site need to catch up on, and Savant can provide, is a thorough rundown on the alternate five-hour version of the film that director Wenders screened here and there for museums and film societies in 1996. I caught the American Cinematheque show at the Harmony Gold Preview House on October 12 of that year – a screening I’ll never forget.
Wisely retaining control of his film elements, Mr. Wenders cut and mixed what might be his fourth version of Until. I’m not sure if the multipart miniseries was actually made, but I have the 158-minute Warners laserdisc and now the longer 181 minute Japanese laserdisc. Wenders finished his original uncut Until the End of the World as three movies, but could not screen it for paid admission: as Warners has the rights to the short 1991 version, parallel distribution of a version ‘the same, only different,’ would violate that agreement.
Any filmmaker set on a course of personal expression so compelling that he feels it necessary to make a film with so little conventional chance of being released, let alone be ‘successful’, will get Savant’s attention any day.
This Is The Way The World Ends: Twistin’ to Chubby Checker.
Wenders spoke after his marathon Harmony Gold screening, and his rapt audience learned the following facts:
– The filming was done with a core group of talent that picked up crews and production personnel in new locations as they travelled around the world. Hence the endless credits at the end, with enough production personnel for four movies.
– The money just ran out (or was permission denied? I forget) to shoot in China, so actress Solveig Dommartin and one cameraperson surreptitiously shot the Chinese scenes (seen on VideoFax in Paris by Eugene Fitzpatrick / Sam Neill) on their own.
– Most plot elements were known ahead of time but in accordance with Wenders’ working methods many details were improvised as filming progressed. Amazing then that the film seems so beautifully cohesive. Until’s scenes are impressively directed (never just ‘covered’) and his camera always has that uncanny ‘exactly the right place’ feeling.
– Wenders wrote to his favorite musicians asking for original compositions for the film. He received so much good music, he decided not to choose a winner but to use all of it. He admitted without a hint of regret that this decision locked his picture into an epic duration.
– Wenders also confessed that his producers were forced to pull the plug to end the filming, for his own good. He wanted to take the film to a conclusion in the African Congo. There, the Pygmy ‘dream music’ would have brought his characters and themes full circle, ending with an epic statement about ‘the community of humanity.’ As it is he hit every continent except Africa and South America.
– Wenders cut the various versions of Until the End of the World from internegative copies instead of allowing his original negative to be conformed to any particular version. He never surrendered control of his original negative. Knowing it might take years for the film to find its final form, he completely avoided the kind of disaster that occurs when the original film elements fall into hostile editorial hands — witness Greed, The Magnificent Ambersons, etc.
Claire dares peek at 2 MORE HOURS of epic science fiction.
THE ADDED CONTENT OF THE UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD TRILOGY:
(Now that the full-length film can be seen, I have OMITTED this section. No full spoilers.)
With many film restoration jobs, the anxiety is that the necessary elements may be found to have been poorly stored, or destroyed outright in some vault ‘cleanup.’ Thanks to Wim Wenders’ shrewd forethought Until the End of the World seems fairly safe from such a fate, even though there as yet may be no video transfer of this 3-film version. (There is none in the Warner Bros. computer system at present). Had the original been a popular success, no doubt this gigantic expansion would be a natural for some kind of video release (DVD! DVD!), especially with the successful precedent of Columbia’s Das Boot, another film from a German director with a history of multiple multi-length versions. If any cult film could take off from a position of relative obscurity and shine again, Until the End of the World might be just the one.
In Part Two of
The Strange Case of UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD,
Video Savant explores the relationship between this film
and another science fiction drama so
similar that they seem to be bizarre doppelgangers!
Eugene and Phillip, the Tokyo connection.
The Strange Case of
UNTIL the END
of the WORLD,
Reminder: written in 1998.
— dedicated artists, clone concepts, and another Savant mystery to ponder.
In Part one of this article I detailed Wim Wenders’ fascinating appearance at the 1996 American Cinematheque screening of his expanded three-movie presentation of Until the End of the World. During his speech Mr. Wenders said the concept of his unique film was the result of ideas discussed and developed with director Bertrand Tavernier back in the late 1970s. Wenders’ final concept was so expensive, Until only became practical after the international success of his Wings of Desire in 1988.
Savant doesn’t keep up with all the major film criticism that’s printed, so please forgive me if what I think I’ve uncovered here is common knowledge among scholars of contemporary film. But it fascinates me and I think it’s worth sharing, so I’m going to risk it.
Harvey Keitel as Roddy.
Based on Wenders’ statement and the evidence of the films themselves, it would seem that there is a relationship between Until the End of the World and Bertrand Tavernier’s 1980 film La mort en direct, known by its English title, Death Watch. I remember it playing briefly at an art house in Los Angeles and then heard little more of it until reading its review in Variety’s Complete Science Fiction Reviews. Based on the book The Continuous Katherine Mortonhoe (U.S. title: The Unsleeping Eye) by David Compton, Death Watch is a visionary critique of the expanding Media Society. It postulates a near-future in which death by illness has been all but eradicated. ‘Dying the old way’ carries an enormous morbid fascination for the public. Television entertainment is dominated by a commercial hit, Death Watch. It voyeuristically shows the slow deaths of those rare individuals struck down by disease. But TV mogul Vincent Ferriman (Harry Dean Stanton) has trouble securing a taping contract from the terminally diagnosed Katherine Mortonhoe (a radiant Romy Schneider). To get around Katherine’s privacy objections Vincent employs a new technological wrinkle: Roddy (Harvey Keitel) has voluntarily had his eyes replaced with undetectable video cameras. These ‘unsleeping eyes’ transmit everything Roddy sees and hears back to the Death Watch TV studio, allowing recording without the giveaway presence of a camera. If Roddy can get close to the now-fugitive Katherine, the Death Watch show will make documentary history: a Cinema truly Verite.
Roddy and Vincent evaluate their prey.
Savant doesn’t normally go in for spoilers, so be warned that what follows reveals a lot about both films. But Death Watch‘s television screenings are infrequent and finding a copy at Blockbuster is unlikely — both the video and laserdisc versions are pretty old and you might have to do a little searching for a rental depending where you live. If you are already an Until the End of the World aficionado, finding Death Watch is compulsory… do so, now!
The obvious similarities are that both Death Watch and Until are science fiction films by continental directors dealing with future societies only slightly removed from our own, concerning ‘vision-oriented’ inventions. The following discussion starts with the ‘dead-ringer’ issues first and then (yes, Savant can’t help himself) compares the divergent but complimentary themes of these doppelganger dramas.
Death Watch → Until the End of the World
Katherine Mortonhoe of Death Watch flees the cameras of a relentless media corporation without a known destination (except death itself), ultimately heading for a former home to the West, in a place called ‘Land’s End.’
In Until Claire flees her entire life in an illogical pursuit of Sam Farber, ultimately heading to ‘the end of the earth,’ an incredibly remote part of Australia.
The spectre of certain death hangs over Katherine, changing her values (she first refuses Ferriman, then steals his money) and motivating her to the extreme of fleeing her home life for a vagabond existence.
In Until the spectre of death is a potentially Earth-destroying nuclear satellite. As the whole world trembles, Claire reacts with a series of value-bending, illogical actions: becoming an accomplice in a robbery (stealing money) and abandoning her lover for a vagabond existence pursuing wanted criminal Sam Farber.
Katherine’s life as a writer of ‘computer books’ is disrupted by the intrusion of Ferriman’s TV network.
Eugene Fitzpatrick’s (Sam Neill) laptop computer novel is erased by the EMP effect of a nuclear detonation in outer space, and he must begin again.
Lady in a Wig: Romy Schneider
In her flight from the gaze of Death Watch’s camera snoops, Katherine disguises herself by wearing a full black wig.
To alter her identity (erase herself?) and fool a bounty hunter (Ernie Dingo) Claire sometimes employs a quite similar wig. Both heroines make a show of doffing their wigs with a headshake to reveal their natural, lighter hair underneath.
Lady in a Wig: Solveig Dommartin
There seems to be a relationship between both movies and the 1943 noir horror drama The Seventh Victim. Both Katherine and Claire’s wigs are heavily reminiscent of the hairstyle of Jacqueline Gibson (Jean Brooks) in that older film. Jacqueline is an irrational, depressed and suicidal woman who seems to be ‘racing to her own death.’
Death Watch’s Katherine also threatens suicide, and at one point pretends to have a fatal seizure.
In Until, Sam Farber’s blind mother Edith (Jeanne Moreau), depressed by the visual world afforded her by her husband’s startling invention, becomes suicide-obsessed and desires to will herself to death.
The Mother of All Wigs: Jean Brooks
Still more: Death Watch is dedicated onscreen to director Jacques Tourneur, the prime directing talent associated with The Seventh Victim’s famous producer, Val Lewton. In Until, Claire’s last name is Tourneur.
During their flight together, Roddy and Katherine share an odd discussion about pygmies in Africa. A question which the pygmies put to the first explorers to reach them was, “Do you dream? We pygmies thought that only we dreamed.”
In Until, Sam enchants Claire with his anthropologist mother’s recordings of African pygmies singing ‘dream songs.’ Sam himself is later cured of the ‘disease of images’ by sleeping between two Aborigines, who ‘take his bad dreams away.’ Director Wenders intimated that his unfilmed ending to Until was intended to bring the film full-circle back to the singing pygmies in Africa, and that the pygmies’ harmonious communal culture represented a Utopian possibility.
All roads lead to von Sydow: Death Watch.
Katherine’s unconscious goal in her flight is to reunite briefly with her ex-husband Gerald (Max Von Sydow) in his remote cottage at ‘Land’s End.’ Here the helicopter-borne televison magnate Ferriman finally corners Katherine, only to lose his prey.
Claire finds that the goal of her flight with Sam Farber is actually to reunite Sam with his scientist father Henry (also played by Max Von Sydow) in his hidden cave laboratory in one of the most remote places on Earth. There the helicopter-borne American military intelligence agents finally corner the rogue scientist, only to lose the disputed invention they covet.
All roads lead to von Sydow: Until the End of the World.
In Death Watch, the ‘visionary’ invention is an undetectable camera that can bring a heightened reality to televised reality shows. The mass audience prefers the images of televison to seeing with their own eyes, prefers in fact living a manufactured television reality to living their own, real lives. The profit-oriented Death Watch show is only too happy to oblige them. The horror is that the media society demeans human values in the process, turning individuals into passive consumer-voyeurs in a zombie-like life where ‘everything is interesting, but nothing matters.’ Respect for personal privacy is negated. Katherine flees the pitiless scrutiny of Death Watch because she understands she must do so to preserve her soul.
In Until the End of the World the ‘visionary’ invention is a camera that records ‘the act of seeing’ so that one person’s vision can be transmitted directly into the brain of another — allowing even a blind person to see, if only vicariously. The horror element in Until has three manifestations. First, the blind already have their own sightless way of perceiving the world, a delicate psychic construction. A blessing becomes a curse when this secure personal reality is replaced with the reality sighted people take for granted. For the gift of a few miracle visions Edith Farber ‘loses her soul.’
Secondly, because Farber’s camera retrieves ‘remembered’ vision directly from the brain it can also be used to retrieve and display unconscious memories and dreams uninterpreted, uncensored by our conscious minds. When a person views the contents of their own ‘soul’ the fascination becomes an all-enveloping morbid obsession. Like an addictive drug it displaces all other concerns. This is the ‘disease of images’: the addict eventually becomes a zombie incapable of relating to anything save the enigmatic visions.
The final horror is only alluded to: American Military Intelligence wishes to use the invention to penetrate human minds in ways that could previously only be accomplished with crude brainwashing and torture. The invention promises limitless access to mental content regardless of the will of the individual. Because it can implant images in the brain, the invention might also be adapted to manipulate, deceive and torture with awful efficiency.
Katherine’s instinctive demand to retain the privacy she considers her personal posession is shunted aside by a Media World dismissive of the validity of such considerations.
In Until the Aborigines’ instinctive reaction to retain the privacy and sanctity of the human psyche (our dreams) is dismissed as superstition by Dr. Farber.
In Death Watch, Roddy’s implanted video eyes fail and threaten a permanent loss of vision, the fear of which causes him much anguish and pain.
In Until, Claire’s ‘disease of images’ causes her similar anguish and suffering when she’s threatened with even a momentary loss of visual access to her personal ‘dream images.’
Both Death Watch and Until the End of the World marvel at the possibilities of advanced technology while showing in a plausible way how it threatens basic human values. With today’s disproportionate emphasis on movie special effects, fans forget that revelatory concepts are what really distinguish the science fiction they most treasure. One of the reasons sci-fi is so wonderful is that it is the perfect vessel to convey visionary messages. Until and Death Watch develop and elaborate themes visited before in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, These are the Damned, Forbidden Planet, 1984, A Clockwork Orange and other films in which viewers have found fantastic (but truthful) visions. It is indicative of Wenders’ and Tavernier’s awareness of these visions that Vincent Ferriman’s office walls are decorated with posters from The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Masque of the Red Death, and, most appropriately, “X” (The Man With X-Ray Eyes).
Harry Dean Stanton and the telltale posters.
The unique relationship between Until the End of the World and Death Watch gives us an opportunity to see how two completely different but complimentary-themed science fiction fantasies can evolve from a common stem. Focusing on such commercially minor films will seem an esoteric exercise to many; Savant hopes that some who ponder the meaning of the movies they watch will be motivated to give these wonderful pictures a good, long look.
Text © Copyright 1998 Glenn Erickson.
Articles Renewed: November 20, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson