I have read Thomas Carlyle’s translation of Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister—not that this prepared me much for Falsche Bewegung, which Wim Wenders directed from Peter Handkë’s adaptation, which updates part of the long work to the present, and takes as its starting point, from which young Wilhelm (Rüdiger Vogler) departs on his journey of self-discovery, Glückstadt: Good Luck City. Things have changed since the late eighteenth century, when Goethe’s two-part novel first appeared. Wilhelm now might have stayed home. (Wenders: “The world was no longer the theater for experience.”) His week-long travels turn up empty. It is the “wrong move.”
Sandwiched between two others by Wenders, Alice in the Cities (1974) and In the Course of Time (1976), this road movie has Wilhelm befriending an assortment of characters as they advance, or not advance, by train, car and foot. (Mignon, a cartwheeler and clumsy juggler, finds thirteen-year-old Nastassja Kinski claiming her first film role.) In an amazing scene, in a film full of amazing scenes, the group, on a high-elevation walk amidst autumnal Nature, configure and reconfigure in different couplings and groupings. The hills are alive with the still, sad music of humanity.
German loneliness indeed stills everything, and apparently this maddens some viewers. (The film is widely disparaged.) But Wenders effortlessly finds its correlative in a sterile urban environment, where the high rises are a vertical translation of Wilhelm Meister’s dusky horizontal journey. At the last, writer Wilhelm, whom “everything leaves . . . cold,” is composing something to show that kindliness and pitilessness go together. “I could not understand how [desperate] people,” he confesses in voiceover narration, “put up with life.” Wilhelm leaves his mistress (Hanna Schygulla) with an utterance that breaks my heart: “I know I shall love you very much someday, Therese.”
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