The End of Violence

(Wim Wenders, USA/France/Germany, 1997)


The ’90s were rough for Wim Wenders, one of the star auteurs of the ’70s New German Cinema. Since Wings of Desire (1987) his major productions – such as Until the End of the World (1991) and Faraway, So Close! (1993) – have been justly derided as bloated, pompous, dramatically lame efforts.

The case of Wenders is an instructive one. The more he was lauded as a great artist, the more he strained to make movies with sweeping, humanist messages extolling world peace and the need to reconnect with timeless, spiritual values. Only his smaller, more modest efforts – such as the lyrical The Brothers Skladanowsky (1995), made with Munich film students – reminded fast-defecting fans of his undeniable talents as a visual poet.

The End of Violence might seem, at first glance, to continue the downward trend of Wenders’ pretentious message pictures. It is an essay of sorts on screen violence, and on a Los Angeles milieu gripped by a peculiarly modern malaise. Alienation, non-communication, moral decay: all the big problems that arthouse movies have been bemoaning since the ’60s come around again to haunt Wenders’ errant, materialistic characters.

But this is, mercifully, a more indirect and secretive film than an inventory of its major themes would suggest. Its conspiracy-thriller plot is so cryptic as to be, at times, nearly incomprehensible. But Wenders – who has always been adept with loose, semi-plotless structures – makes this thick fog of mystery palpably affecting and moving.

A group of people wander, connect, disconnect – unaware, for the most part, of their link to a top-secret operation involving the construction of a lethal new weapon that paradoxically, in its brutal efficiency, promises to put an ‘end to violence’. Mike (Bill Pullman), an action movie producer, is wrenched out of his everyday pattern when he is assailed by two petty criminals. Miraculously saved from death, he goes underground and starts his life over.

Others in Mike’s orbit also explore new paths in this strange, floating world of Los Angeles – always under secret surveillance of various sorts. Mike’s wife Paige (Andie MacDowell) takes over his business affairs with a cold ruthlessness. Cat (Traci Lind), an actor in one of his films, talks philosophically with Doc (Loren Dean), a investigating cop. Ray (Gabriel Byrne), in his lonely astronomy tower, scans satellite pictures of Mike’s brush with destiny.

As in Arthur Penn’s classic Night Moves (1975), we never directly penetrate into the murky network of power that rules this society. All we see are its sudden, shocking effects on the meandering lives of these characters. While in many respects a pessimistic or melancholic portrait of a lost world, The End of Violence is also oddly euphoric in its presentation of people who find a way to keep living, changing and hoping.

Wenders, taking charge of his medium once more, is unafraid to go for broke in this movie. Every staple arthouse device is included: a film within the film; extremely stylised, sometimes nutty dialogue; repeated scenes of performance-poetry; pictorial references to artists such as Edward Hopper. But there is scarcely a false step in this quietly intoxicating and mesmerising film – a deeply haunting work whose most chilling element is its tribute to the great American maverick Samuel Fuller, who died a few months after its completion.

MORE Wenders: The Blues, Buena Vista Social Club, Hammett, Land of Plenty, The Million Dollar Hotel, Paris, Texas, Alice in the Cities, Wings of Desire

© Adrian Martin January 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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