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Until the End of the World

by Glenn Erickson Nov 30, 2019

An amazing Blu-ray year is now capped by a genuine favorite, rescued by its filmmaker and set aside for almost twenty years. Wim Wenders was forced to drastically shorten what he hoped would be his greatest success, following Wings of Desire. But he cleverly saved his 4.5-hour uncut version, which is making its Blu-ray debut on December 10. Longform video is currently the rage, so perhaps the time has finally come for the uncut Bis ans Ende der Welt. The music soundtrack is nothing less than fantastic, not to be missed.


Until the End of the World
Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 1007
1991 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 158, 181, 287 min. / Bis ans Ende der Welt / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date December 10, 2019 / 39.95
Starring: Solveig Dommartin, William Hurt, Sam Neill, Rüdiger Vogler, Jeanne Moreau, Max von Sydow, Chishu Ryu, Kuniko Miyake, Allen Garfield, David Gulpilil, Ernie Dingo, Lois Chiles, Adelle Lutz, Chick Ortega, Eddy Mitchell, Elena Prudnikova, David Byrne, Tom Waits.
Cinematography: Robby Müller
Film Editor: Peter Przygodda
Original Music: Graeme Revell
Written by Peter Carey, Wim Wenders, Michael Almereyda original idea by Wim Wenders, Solveig Dommartin
Produced by Anatole Dauman, Jonathan T. Taplin
Directed by
Wim Wenders

 

The future of 1999 as seen from 1991, but now viewed in 2019.

Readers of DVD Savant and CineSavant will know that I’ve been championing Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World from at least 1996, after the director’s isolated screening of his long version at the Harmony Gold Theater. It sent my imagination into a tailspin — for quite a while, my early MGM DVD Savant article The Strange Case of Until the End of the World was one of the few places on the web with first-hand information about the show. That said, I don’t want to fall into the trap of ‘reviewer territoriality,’ as if my particular enthusiasm constitutes a form of ownership.

I certainly hope that I can find new fans for Until the End of the World, but I make no promises. When I once expressed my excitement to a fellow editor, he told me that he was at the Paris Premiere in 1991, and he claimed that the audience hated it. That of course was one of the shorter cuts that Wim Wenders refers to as ‘Reader’s Digest’ versions, that barely support a plotline, let alone get deep into the characters. But some people don’t like stories that refuse to choose one genre and stay there. Some enjoy the adventurous, continent-hopping first two acts, but lose interest when the last third arrives at an experimental lab in a remote corner of Australia.

I remember people flinching when told that the film was almost five hours long — who would want to sit through that?  Things have certainly changed in twenty years, what with the legions of viewers binge-streaming entire seasons of TV shows, ten hours at a clip. Had Erich von Stroheim’s lost ten-hour cut of Greed (1925) somehow survived, it would likely now be readily available on a Netflix menu, as a miniseries.

 

I still love you, broken ladder.

The long director’s cut of Until the End of the World is an epic experience. It begins at a party in Venice. Disillusioned playgirl Claire Tourneur (Solveig Dommartin) decides to return to Paris, to Eugene Fitzpatrick (Sam Neill), the writer who was her lover until she found him with her best friend, Makiko (Adelle Lutz). On the way home she becomes involved with a pair of bank robbers on the lam, Chico and Raymond (Chick Ortega & Eddy Mitchell), and then with another mysterious, elusive fugitive from justice, Trevor McPhee (William Hurt). Trevor lifts some of the stolen money that’s been put in her care. Eugene wants Claire back, but she instead follows her capricious nature, chasing McPhee to Berlin, where she continues to track him with the aid of the private detective Phillip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler). The jealous Eugene joins in the chase as well, which moves to Lisbon, to Moscow and from there to the far East. Eugene is desperate to not lose Claire, but her heart is already elsewhere — she calls their relationship ‘a broken ladder.’

As the hunt for McPhee develops, an eager bounty hunter named Burt (Ernie Dingo) joins in. Claire discovers that the little she knows about Trevor McPhee doesn’t add up, beginning with his name. ‘Trevor’ claims that he’s done nothing wrong, and that the C.I.A. has put out a fake Interpol alert on him. He has a reason to travel the world, which has something to do with a revolutionary invention, and his far-flung relatives.

 

This synopsis needfully cuts off before we find out what roles are played by other featured players: Allen Garfield, Lois Chiles, and Kuniko Miyake and Chishu Ryu, the stars of Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1950). And it’s not fair to explain how the major stars Jeanne Moreau and Max von Sydow figure into the story. A synopsis can’t express the film’s freewheeling tone, and the marvelous way the work of a dozen top musicians and bands is worked into the movie’s fabric. The movie certainly is a ‘road picture.’ We feel as if we’re accompanying several fascinating people on a race from country to country, capital to capital, and across great expanses of remote wasteland.

The show has a marvelous sense of improvisation, ‘being made up as it goes along.’ The film company had neither the money or permission to film in China, so Solveig Dommartin and one companion took the trip alone, and videotaped various scenes — all of which are viewed by Eugene Fitzpatrick back in Paris, ‘video-phoned’ at great expense.

The show is often quite funny, even when its jokes refer to technological ‘advances’ that have since been made obsolete. At one point Claire and Eugene recall seeing the Rolling Stone’s final concert in Tokyo … in 1994. But things become more serious in the third act, when the pace slows to a crawl. and UTEOTW becomes a philosophical meditation on the very real way that personal electronics are changing who we are. A full reel is turned over to experimental images recorded from the human brain, that may hold great secrets. It’s as if the X-Ray vison of Dr. James Xavier were directed to turn inward, to look at the human soul.

 

For those who remember the short version, watching UTEOTW unspool in twice as much detail will be a real thrill. Cinematographer Robby Müller’s dense, gorgeous images were dazzling on a screen as big as the Egyptian on Hollywood Blvd. For his limited theatrical screenings Wenders divided the show into three separate films called Die Trilogie. Each part 1. Teil, 2. Teil and 3. Teil was about a hundred minutes long, exhibited with two intermissions. The breaks gave us a chance to stretch our legs and share the excitement, as if Until the End of the World were a Super-Deluxe Roadshow presentation. By the finale, with U2’s anthem playing, the walk-out felt like a communal experience. I was able to bring along most of my family to a second screening, which became a formative experience, like taking them to the 70mm Spartacus when they were small kids and seeing the wonder in their eyes. My generation was lucky — movie-going was much different back then, special.

Magnificent Ambersons? Major Dundee? That’s not going to happen to my movie.

This is the happiest part of the story. After spending millions of dollars of corporate money, most directors lose control of their films. Executive producers cut and alter them; a director not ‘in the loop’ might not even know what’s been done to his picture until it premieres. The studio might store the elements poorly, throw away alternate versions, etc.. Wenders’ backers held him to his contract. The bad news came down that his 4.5-hour cut had been rejected as unacceptable, and that if he didn’t cut it, others would.

Wenders’ faith in his show was unwavering. He found a brilliant, if expensive, way to retain future control. Rather than turn over the negative of UTEOTW and never see it again, he spent his own money to make an entire dupe negative, and edited the contracted ‘Reader’s Digest’ version out of THAT.

Sadly, Wenders sadly had to chop his movie into a form that he felt sure would not please audiences. A 179-minute cut is what my editor associate said he had seen in Paris. MGM associate Gregor Meyer found me a highly collectable Japanese laserdisc of that cut, which of course pales in comparison to the 287-minute Die Trilogie restoration. The version we saw in the United States and on VHS deleted even more material, clocking in at only 158 minutes.

Artistically, Wim Wenders played a ‘long game,’ accepting that Until the End of the World would be a failure when new. But his original negative remained safe and sound, awaiting the day when rights would revert back to his own company. He saved his own film in a way that most film artists could not. Imagine what might have been if other ‘lost movies’ had been protected in this way before studios slashed them to bits, either losing the film elements for original versions ( The Wicker Man) or purposely obliterating them (The Magnificent Ambersons, Major Dundee).

 

This is YOUR guy.

Criterion’s new Director’s Cut Blu-ray halves the show at a good point, somewhere in the middle of what was previously 2. Teil. All that is missing is some additional ‘catch-up’ voiceover by Eugene Fitzpatrick, that opened the individual movies. The full-length UTEOTW is much more than its publicity descriptor ‘the ultimate road movie.’ Wenders’ marvelous early road movies are quirky character pieces that did their bit to dismantle the sameness of mainstream theatrical forms. This movie is partly a road picture but also a social science fiction epic. It extrapolates future events more successfully than H.G. Wells’ Things to Come.  Instead of inventing a far-flung fantasy a hundred years in the future, Wenders & Co. had to imagine a convincing world only eight years hence, in 1999. We see scores of clever technical innovations that seem prescient for 1991: automobile GPS assist for drivers, video phones, personal video recorders that can send mini-movies like phone calls. Computer advances are seen in the graphics-heavy ‘Bounty Bear’ program sold as an aid for private detectives. When a targeted individual uses a credit card anywhere in the world, the details are instantly forwarded to interested bounty hunter-subscribers.

Odd cars are seen on the road; the instrument panel of a rented RV appears to have a computerized interface. Video projections take the place of signage, as in Blade Runner. New constructions dwarf the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, and commemorate the Tienanmen Square uprising in an apparently partly-democratized Peiping.

 

UTEOTW also tackles the toughest challenge for ‘near-future’ science fiction design — what do people wear? Suits and street clothes in places like Australia and Lisbon are unchanged or even retro, but things get wild at a decadent house party in Venice, or among hipster boulevardiers in Paris. A couple of Dommartin’s outfits are so good, they transcend temporality — one dress made of linked tiles suggests a Roman armor & Peplum look.

Everything will change.

The slightly-advanced future world sketched by Wenders is more than mere background for the international chase that is the film’s initial form. Wenders’ story tackles a key science fiction theme — in what way will we adapt to all this new technology?  Wenders may have initially thought that he flubbed that theme. He all but apologized to his 1997 screening audience, saying that he failed to predict the Internet, the quantum development that came soon after he finished the film. The information ‘hookups’ of 1999 are maintained (I think) through phone communications of some kind, perhaps satellite connections?  People talk to each other on bulky hand-held devices that aren’t quite cell phones. The Bounty Bear program has access to some kind of information network, obviously.

But Wenders DID PREDICT the underlying impact of smart phones and the Internet — his Crystal Ball  ‘fail’  pales when we behold the intuitive concepts that UTEOTW got perfectly right. The film’s biggest idea — about the human interface with communication technology — is the equal of the greatest Sci-fi mind-benders of the past.

What’s my idea of profundity in this context?  Not The Matrix. Forbidden Planet (1956) sees an alien civilization destroy itself with technology that allows the projection of physical matter by mental will alone, ‘without instrumentalities.’ This ‘Krell Internet’ enabled every individual to convert thought into action. But the alien race’s collective subconscious aggression became real violence, as if a ‘flame’ comment on social media could become a Monster from The Id.

The political satire The President’s Analyst (1967) becomes sci-fi satire when its malevolent ‘Phone Company’ unveils a plan for a ‘Cerebrum Communicator.’ Planted in every new phone company customer before birth, the CC allows people to place phone calls just by thinking about the person they want to talk to. That’s quite a bit like social media as well. The phone company turns out to be run by sentimental automatons, that can’t fathom why humans don’t want to become telecommunication cyborgs.

 

Wenders’ story proposes an invention that penetrates the mind, enabling thoughts and memories to be displayed as images on a computer monitor. It apparently taps into a visual-thought cortex, decoding electric signals in the brain. For fans of sci-fi films, the idea might seem an extension of a device proposed (rather clumsily) in Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit. UTEOTW takes a serious look at what would happen if such a revolutionary device were possible. The inventor’s aim is to allow blind people to see, but U.S. military intelligence has other plans: the C.I.A. has recognized the device’s potential application for interrogations, brainwashing and mind control. To possess it, they issue an all-points-bulletin on ‘Trevor McPhee,’ with a big reward and the lie that he’s stolen a fortune in Australian opals. This is what motivates the ’round-the-world chase.

 

The God within us. Look at it. It needs nothing.

The final act of UTEOTW is an in-depth exploration of this device. Its inventor soon takes it beyond its initial purpose, by using it to record dreams. Wenders tapped Sony’s then- experimental HD video technology to create the semi-abstract dream images we see. They’re soon interpreted as fascinating glimpses into one’s subconscious, or one’s soul. The obsession with these abstract pictures become an addiction, a ‘disease of images.’ Claire Tourneur becomes an uncommunicative zombie, wailing whenever the batteries on her ‘personal electronics’ viewing device run low.

UTEOTW therefore predicts the addictive power of the Internet, social media and instant personal communication. We see it all around us — passersby on the street absorbed in their personal devices are in private worlds, ‘elsewhere.’ Real personal relationships are eroded or supplanted by virtual experiences on the Web. Being disconnected, even just temporarily, feels like a serious deprivation — it is a source of addiction.  Evidence Now suggests that some of us resent ‘real’ people whose arguments conflict with the personally customized environment we find online.

The film presents an extended argument that’s just as valid — the revolutionary technology outpaces the predictions of Marshall McLuhan. Our narrator Eugene Fitzpatrick is convinced that the image revolution is taking over, eroding our relationship to words, and reducing the culture at large to a pre-literate state. To Eugene (and Wenders), we are becoming less intellectual, less capable of perceiving and articulating the complexity of the world and human relationships. It’s ‘reality TV,’ folks — we’re devolving, and Death Watch and UTEOTW said it before it became obvious.

Hey, CineSavant offers piecemeal disc reviews and sci-fi profundity.

 

All this isn’t subtext, but is clearly spelled out. The film’s narrator Eugene Fitzgerald is a writer trying to turn his love for Claire Tourneur into a novel about a ‘dance around the planet.’ When a nuclear detonation in space creates an EMP pulse that blows out everyone’s microcircuits, Eugene goes back to basics, writing on paper using an old typewriter. In the beginning was the Word, and the word becomes a savior — Eugene relies on his faith in the written word to cure Claire, to save her from the disease of images.

Essayists analyzing UTEOTW relate other elements of the story to the films of Jean-Luc Godard. Where this ‘written language’ business is concerned, they’re dead-on correct: Godard’s satirical pulp fantasy Alphaville champions poetry — words — as the defining human strength that can overcome technological tyranny.

Happily, Until the End of the World does not take the easy route of wallowing in dystopian pessimism. When the ‘dream machine’ storyline takes over, other threats and problems are laid to rest. The possible millennial doomsday (a weirdly prescient Y2K analog) from the nuclear satellite is dispelled by a radio report broadcasting about traffic on the San Bernardino Freeway. It’s as if On the Beach’s doomed survivors in Melbourne suddenly learned that not everybody has died, that EGBOK, that ‘There’s still time, brothers.’

In that old article The Strange Case of Until the End of the World I relate some odd observances that came from what Wim Wenders said at the first Harmony Gold screening. Some of his explanations no longer seem to be part of the official story of how UTEOTW came to be — specifically a Bertrand Tavernier connection. But the link is difficult to ignore, seeing how Tavernier’s excellent 1980 film La mort en direct aka Death Watch has so many parallels with Wenders’ epic, too many to discount as coincidence. I’m still impressed by the way a bit of business with Solveig Dommartin’s black wig in UTEOTW mirrors that of Romy Schneider in Tavernier’s film. Both directors seem inspired by the wig worn by Jean Brooks in The Seventh Victim. Death Watch is dedicated to Val Lewton’s collaborator-director Jacques Tourneur; whose surname is used for Solveig Dommartin’s character, Claire.


[ This is a complete tangent, yet another possible connection with older film history. It’s a little unwise to bring up, because the film involved is one I’ve never seen, William Dieterle’s relatively obscure Die Herrin der Welt, aka Mistress of the World from 1960.

In synopsis form it sounds a lot like Until the End of the World. Released in two parts (also 1. Teil and 2. Teil),  Die Herrin der Welt is described as a ‘German-French-Italian science fiction-spy film.’ It’s a remake of a 1919 Joe May serial adventure, except that instead of searching for the treasure of the Queen of Sheba, the ‘MacGuffin’ that spies, gangsters and international criminals vie to possess is some kind of explosive atomic device. The chase across Europe leads eventually to Bangkok, Thailand. Producer Artur Brauner apparently undertook the show as a follow-up to his successful Indian dyptich films with Fritz Lang, but Herrin didn’t do as well.

Is it simply not a good movie?  The eclectic cast makes it a must-see, if a full version ever surfaces: Martha Hyer is the scientist’s daughter trying to safeguard his scientific secret. Other roles are played by Micheline Presle, Sabu (!), Lino Ventura, Wolfgang Preiss, Leon Askin, and George Rivière. ]

And thanks to Anthony Thorne for more information on Die Herrin der Welt!


 

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Until the End of the World has been hotly awaited since Wim Wenders’ re-premiered restorations of his films a few years back. The long show saw a release on European DVD back in the early 2000’s, but at the 4% PAL speed-up, which for me made hash of the music. It has been cablecast on Turner Classic Movies once or twice in the last two years, screenings that raised hopes that this Blu-ray was in the pipeline.

The disc is a new 4K digital restoration supervised by Wim Wenders, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio. It’s split across two discs as one long feature, not drei Teilen. The picture really pops, with the same rich colors and dark tones seen on Wenders’ other Robby Müller film The American Friend — they find breathtaking images in the wilds of Australia, but also on the back streets of Lisbon and the Ginza of Tokyo. Seen in true HD, the ‘brain images’ have an impact different than DVD — and they’re more accurate than the compressed cable signal of TCM. We’re used to it now, but Wenders was fascinated by the way digital video ‘pixillates’ when run at high speed, a trick he uses quite a bit to suggest amorphous memory images.

The music is of course ‘to die for’ — progressive, romantic, creative tracks by The Talking Heads, Neneh Cherry, Julee Cruise, Lou Reed, Crime and the City Solution, Can, R.E.M., Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, Depeche Mode, Jane Siberry & k.d. lang, T-Bone Burnett, Daniel Lanois, Robbie Robertson, Peter Gabriel, Chubby Checker, Elvis Presley and U2. In the long version it’s all there and all beautifully spotted; a scene of a reunion in a San Francisco bar conjures emotions much like those felt in Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Equally important are the cello themes by Graeme Revell, heard under the titles and during the haunting dream-vision sequences.

 

My mother will see my face.

Wim Wenders provides terrific input for the extras. He’s a fine raconteur in English, in an introduction plus a piece expanding on the oft-told tale of how he solicited songs from twenty of his favorite musicians, and was soon receiving original tracks from all but two of them. That’s when he knew for sure the film would have to be epic-length. On a third video Wenders discusses the Sax and Violins opening tune with David Byrne.

Older video items include a Japanese show about the creative use of their experimental HD equipment, and a piece with Wenders exploring Australia, entering through ‘the back door’ of the Western city of Darwin.

Especially welcome are thirty minutes of deleted scenes, much like the wealth of exciting editing-room-floor material we enjoyed in the Criterion disc of Wings of Desire. There are a million ways to do bad poster artwork for Until the End of the World, and the 1991 release used a lot of them. Michael Boland’s cover artwork is both attractive and expressive of the movie’s horizon-stare sensibility.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

[ Note: I’ve recreated my original 1998 article The Strange Case of Until the End of the World here at CineSavant, at this link.]


Until the End of the World
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
New Supplements: Introduction by Wenders; interview with Wenders about the film’s soundtrack; conversation between Wenders and musician David Byrne; insert booklet with essays by Bilge Ebiri and Ignatiy on the film and its soundtrack. Also: Japanese behind-the-scenes TV program detailing the creation of the film’s high-definition sequences; Video interview with Wenders from 2001; Up-Down Under Roma, a 1993 interview with Wenders on his experiences in Australia; The Song, a 1991 short film by Uli M. Schueppel detailing the recording of “I’ll Love You Till the End of the World” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds; 30 mins. deleted scenes; trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
November 27, 2019
(6144welt)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.