Filmmaker Wim Wenders came to international prominence as one of the pioneers of the New German Cinema in the 1970’s, and is considered to be one of the most important figures in contemporary German film.
While there are plenty of books and scholarly articles about his work, there has never been a scholarly conference focused on Wenders contributions to cinema and the visual arts…until now.
As part of the 2016–17 Tucker-Boatwright Festival of Literature and the Arts, French professor Olivier Delers and German and Arabic professor Martin Sulzer-Reichel organized a two-day conference, “Change is Possible and Necessary: New Perspectives on Wim Wenders as Filmmaker and Visual Critic.” A group of 20 scholars from the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Germany, as well as 11 Richmond students gathered last month for lecture presentations, 3-D screenings of two Wenders films, and a Skype conversation with the filmmaker himself. “There are no experts on Wenders at this point, so we’re trying to bring a number of people together to reflect on who Wenders is today, and how we talk about this particular filmmaker after watching 40 years of his films,” said Delers.
The road to creating the conference initially began out of Delers’ and Sulzer-Reichel’s desire to work together. “We had taught a class together on how Arabs view the West, and after that finished, I said ‘we need to do something else together,” said Delers. Their shared love of Wenders films led to an FYS course, From Berlin to Paris Texas, where they and a group of sixteen students watched and critiqued various Wenders films. “We were going back to something that had really interested us in our teen and early adult years, that we had a visual memory of, and thought it would be interesting to explore those films with the students,” Delers said.
And while they loved his films, neither professor considered himself an expert on Wenders’ body of work, so they were learning alongside their students. “Some professors like to teach courses where they are specialists in the topic, to control the material,” said Sulzer-Reichel. “The decision we made when teaching about Wenders was that we don’t have any control over this material, but we know how to help students think about difficult things. It’s dangerous every day, but that’s what makes the class, the fact that we’re not experts.”
They enjoyed teaching the FYS so much that the next step for them was to plan a conference where scholars could gather to discuss Wenders. “Although he’s been making films for nearly 40 years, there’s never been an academic conference on Wenders, and that surprised us,” said Delers. “There have been a number of books, but never an international event that brings people together.”
As the conference began to take shape, Delers and Sulzer-Reichel made it a priority to include their students, by developing another course on Wenders that would include participation in the conference. “The students who took the FYS class are now juniors and seniors,” said Delers. “We invited some of the best students from those classes to take another class with us.” “We wanted the students to come back to Wenders films after a career of college and revisit them, to see what they make of them now,” said Sulzer-Reichel.
Both professors agree that the students’ perspectives on the films are different than they were as first-year students. “The students are more mature intellectually,” said Delers. “They’re noticing more, they’re thinking more critically about what they’re seeing, and now Martin and I are able to have those conversations that we want to have about Wenders.”
“When you teach first-year students they go on to pursue all sorts of different courses of study; we wanted them to come back and bring those viewpoints from where they are,” said Sulzer-Reichel. “We have students coming from psychology, we have one who’s pre-med in biology, there’s another who’s studying computer science, and it’s intriguing what those different viewpoints bring to the conversation.
There are so many things we can learn from the students and with the students.”
Photo: Wim Wenders' 2011 documentary Pina