“For a moment the film was a smell, a taste in the mouth, a tingle in the hands, a draught felt through a wet shirt, a children’s book that you haven’t seen since you were five years old, a blink of the eye. It’s like walking out of the subway into broad daylight.”
—Wim Wenders, Van Morrison 1970
In the May 1970 edition of the magazine Filmkritik, Wim Wenders wrote in a review titled "Emotion Pictures slowly rockin’ on" of a Grateful Dead album: "Slow and calm and melancholy movements and images." That same year he shot with Robby Müller his first feature Summer in the City—his graduation film—about a young man named Franz, played by Hanns Zischler (who will reappear six years later as one of the kings of the road), newly released from prison in Munich. He roams around the snowbound city, goes to the movies, rides around in cars, stands at jukeboxes, visits various friends. Together they listen to rock ‘n’ roll records, play billiards, talk about films and books: John Ford, Thomas Bernhard, et cetera. On the run from his former crime life, Franz flees to Berlin and eventually Amsterdam. Much of the film is made up of long soothing shots out of car windows of Munich streets at night, dreary suburbs sunk in the grayness of winter, or static shots of movie theaters and other buildings now long gone, while the sweet and gentle music of The Kinks plays on the soundtrack. (The film is dedicated to the English band.) Seen today, the film is a documentary about a specific time and place, about an attitude towards life intrinsically bound up with the music of the 1960s and American cinema: about things that are no longer here captured in "slow and calm and melancholy movements and images."
"Ein Film von Wim Wenders nach dem Roman von Peter Handke" read the opening credits of Wenders’s next feature, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972), a film where all you have to do is rely on your eyes and ears in order to trust the wonderful simplicity and directness of the story, where details and objects are unalterably themselves, are not weighed down by empty suggestions of symbolism or hidden meanings. As a German film from 1971, it reminds one of an American movie by John Ford or Howard Hawks, a film with a real story, very clear and unobtrusive, the kind of film made up of easily describable moments and events that revive your appetite for the world. Shot on location in Vienna and in a small village in Burgenland on the Hungarian border, the film is a crime story, meaning that at some point a murder occurs, but the question of who did it and why are not important. We see the protagonist Josef Bloch—the titular goalkeeper—strangle a cinema cashier with whom he has just spent the night, but the film is not concerned with forcing his actions into a pre-established psychological framework, nor does Bloch appear particularly worried about being captured, even after he flees to the border town where the majority of the story takes place. Motives disappear into the everydayness of events, into the precise and considerately chosen images, and this is what makes the film so suspenseful. Klaus Bädekerl, the assistant director, wrote in Filmkritik the following about the film (translation my own):
Bloch’s story makes for a suspenseful film, but its suspense is not created by the presence of lingering threats. No shadows will emerge out of the darkness; nothing abnormal is hiding behind a curtain. The film’s suspense is derived much more from the constant strain of the senses (or mind) that we all daily experience: when a young woman addresses us while standing at a jukebox, what it’s like to exchange the first words with her; when we enter a hotel room for the first time and glance out the window, when we take a bus ride through a previously unknown landscape or even when we watch a football match and a penalty kick is performed.
It is very difficult when watching a football match not to look at the ball and the striker, but to focus on the goalie standing alone waiting at the goal, Bloch says at one point. This is a film that looks away from the ball.
Like in the source novel by the great Austrian writer Peter Handke—Wenders’s life-long friend and collaborator—wherein every sentence is reduced to a thrillingly precise description of an action or detail that not so much moves the story forward as it is seamlessly absorbed into the flow and rhythm of the prose itself, so too is every shot in the film, every image and object so lovingly exact and right that you have the urge to call them out:
the jukeboxes! the beer signs! the film titles on cinema marquee! the U.S. quarter coins! “Tucson, Arizona!” the St. Louis Gateway Arch postcard taped to the window! the huddle of immigrants at Vienna’s Südbahnhof (and the sudden cameo of the director himself walking towards us on the right side of the frame!) the bus driver peeling an egg! the yellow bus! the old woman sleeping! all the newspapers! the apple in the tree! the pile of pumpkins! a grey rainy morning in a nameless village! Bloch’s pointy cheekbones like Jack Palance, like a cowboy in a movie!
There are whole sequences that re-invigorate the eyes for the everyday, vivifying moments that are so concrete that you sit up in your chair and begin to see a little more clearly:
The exhilaration of travel in the ten-minute scene of Bloch’s journey to the border town: sitting at the back of the bus next to a stranger, an old woman, talking with her about a trip to America; doing a crossword puzzle, falling asleep while listening to the radio as the landscape outside fills with the slow creeping colors of dusk; looking out the window at a train driving parallel to the bus (an image repeated in False Movement and Kings of the Road), the train riding along in the nightly distance; what it’s like to stop at a rest stop and watch a man play pinball, to drink a beer, drop a coin into a jukebox, choose a song and leave aboard the bus before the song finishes; arriving at your destination, a strange town you’ve never been to before, in the dead of night and finding a room in a guesthouse…the world constantly rearranging itself around you.
Bloch’s unhurried walk down a country road: the glittering asphalt in the afternoon, the smell of tar in the sunlight, the yellow painted traffic stripes, the corn fields, the feel of the languidness of the day, how the camera follows alongside side him as he walks and suddenly he runs out of frame leaving for a brief endless second an image of a peaceful still life, just the wind in the air.
Rüdiger Vogler’s first appearance in a Wenders film as a village idiot (before becoming Philip/Bruno Winter), sitting atop a wall and tossing a beer bottle into a tangle of bushes, his overalls, how he combs his hair back! A whole geography of gestures, and ordinary movements that spread themselves over the tender surface of the film. To recount every example would amount to describing the entire film, something different from retelling its plot. Each of these moments contain the kernel of the kind of openness and freedom of style that will come to full fruition in the beautiful expansiveness of Kings of the Road, shot five years later with Rüdiger Vogler and Hanns Zischler paired together behind the wheel of a moving truck making its slow itinerant crawl along the German-German border.
The end credits of The Goalies Anxiety at the Penalty Kick reveal that it was also shot by Robby Müller, edited by Peter Przygodda, the original music composed by Jürgen Knieper, and additional dialogue written by Peter Handke, a collaborative constellation that will be oft repeated in Wenders’s career—here, it is the beginning of the road.
It was a beautiful October day. Bloch ate a hot dog at a stand and then walked past the stalls to a movie theater. Everything he saw bothered him. He tried to notice as little as possible. Inside the theater he breathed freely.
—Peter Handke, The Goalies Anxiety at the Penalty Kick