Until The End of the World: the Directors’ Cut


In 1991, Wim Wenders released the film “Until the End of the World”. I am not a movie person by any stretch of the imagination, but I am a music person, and in 1991, I was a label manager for Warner Bros. Records. Warner Brothers released the soundtrack, and an advance cassette of the soundtrack landed on my desk, introducing me to art that would make an indelible impression on me.

The album’s contributors read like a who’s who of 1990’s rock and roll: Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Depeche Mode, Nick Cave, U2, R.E.M., Patti Smith. All of the artists contributed original material, but these weren’t cast-offs or random studio outtakes. The album is brilliantly sequenced and perfectly paced. R.E.M.’s achingly vibrating “Fretless” remains one of their best songs ever; Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ (I’ll Love You) Till The End of the World” is equal parts hilarious, and epic; Patti and Fred Smith contributed the dirge-like “It Takes Time,” the first new work from her since 1988’s Dream of Life. And, of course, the title track. “Until The End of the World” was a riff on a discarded U2 demo until Wenders met with the band about contributing to the soundtrack. They pulled out the demo and turned it into the title track as well as a pivotal cut on Achtung Baby. There isn’t a dud in the entire collection, from Jane Siberry to T-bone Burnett.

This hugely ambitious project, Wenders’ ‘ultimate road movie,’ filmed in 7 countries with a budget of 23 million dollars (unheard of for a non-mainstream production) was reduced to 2 1/2 hours (158 minutes, to be precise) and released commercially. The soundtrack was tremendously successful; the film was not. But there was something about the film that spoke to me deeply. I was never a fan of science fiction, but the sci fi in this movie felt realistic to me. There was something in the bleak futurism combined with Claire’s chase around the world that matched where I was at the time, living halfway around the world in a country where I bought dollars on the black market, was befuddled by the operation of pay phones (they required a token and I could never ever get one to work for me), and found myself in the improbable position of sleeping in a bomb shelter and carrying a gas mask in a cardboard box slung over my shoulder like a purse as though it was nothing during the first Gulf War. My entire world was turned upside down, so it’s no wonder that I could grok Wenders’ futurist vibe so strongly.

Until The End of the World remained one of my totems; I would make potential boyfriends watch it as a kind of litmus test. In the DVD era, I naturally began looking for a release, only to learn about the film’s trials and tribulations. This was when I became aware of the four and a half hour directors’ cut, which was shown at the University of Washington in 1996. By the time I found out about the screening, tickets were long gone, and it remains one of the few events in my life I could not get myself into, despite waiting outside for hours. I would chase the Directors’ Cut for 25 years, until this past weekend, when it was shown at the Museum of Modern Art as part of a Wenders retrospective. I planed my ticket purchasing with the same discipline I apply to get tickets to a highly popular concert, and with good reason; the screening sold out immediately.

On line to get into the theater, I noticed that most people were there alone, or with a friend; most people readily confessed their obsession with the film and how they’d been trying to see this version for decades. Everyone seemed to be a writer or an artist or photographer or film maker or pursued some kind of creativity. We all talked knowingly about the difficulty of finding out about screenings, people who missed the one at the Museum of the Moving Image; me, feeling grateful that 2015 was the year that I decided to pay for a MOMA membership, without which I would not have ever found out about the screening. People spoke knowing about the Italian and the German DVD’s (both of which I never bought because I would have to also get a multi-system DVD player and that seemed somewhat excessive just to watch one movie). When the doors opened, people dashed into the theater with very deliberate purpose; there were those who ran for the front rows, others who took sides, and aisles, and random single handicapped seats. Many confessed that they’d deliberately stalked out the theater at previous screenings to determine the optimal seat in which to sit to watch a 4 1/2 hour screening. (I opted for an aisle seat in the second row that didn’t have another seat in front of it.)

Wenders spoke before the start of the film, confessing to the goal of creating the ultimate road movie, that it was the work he was the most proud of. And then there it was, restored in 2014 from the original negative. It was shocking to me how vividly I still remembered the movie; the last time I saw it was at least 10 years ago, around the time we all stopped using VHS on a day to day basis. Watching the story unfold again was like visiting an old friend; the cinematography did not disappoint, and it was amazing to hear the music in context again, and unlike the shorter version, you got the full songs and not 10 seconds here and there, and there were two additional songs from Peter Gabriel and Robbie Robertson that were not on the soundtrack. By the time “Until The End of the World” rolled over the end credits, I had tears in my eyes, not just for finally seeing a thing so pivotal to me that I had chased for so very long, but from the very physical act of being so immersed in a piece of art for such an extended period of time. (There was one 10-minute intermission; people ran out to the rest rooms as soon as the word appeared on the screen, and then everyone stood around and snacked surreptitiously until the lights went down again.)

At the end, Wenders spoke again and took questions; before I could raise my hand to ask about the soundtrack someone beat me to it. Wenders explained that he had knew he wanted a big rock and roll soundtrack to go with the movie, but that it was important to him that it sound like 1999, the year the film was set in, and not 1991; so made a list of 20 of his favorite artists, and asked them if they would be willing to provide a song that sounded like the future. 16 said “yes,” which Wenders said, never happens – if you’re lucky you get five. (And this was another reason the director’s cut was so important to him, the ability to hear the songs and not just snippets of them.) What’s most striking about the film’s futurism is how much of it Wenders got right; he equally got a great deal of it wrong, but it remains remarkably and unintentionally prescient, and as impactful as it was 25 years ago.