I spent a recent holiday watching the 287-minute director’s cut of Wim Wenders’ 1991 techno/sci-fi extravaganza Until The End Of The World (streaming on Criterion Channel.) The 158-minute theatrical cut infamously bombed and the film, a follow-up to the still-beloved Wings of Desire seemed to languish in memory until this longer version surfaced–first in Europe, then in the US in 2014 and finally as part of the Criterion Collection a few years later.
Rather than attempt a traditional review, I present a journal of my viewing experience, done pretty much in one sitting—possibly the longest film I’ve ever conceived this way. (Times are in hours:minutes.) SPOILERS AHEAD, obv.
0:04 – Protagonist Claire (Solveig Dommartin) wakes up and wearily strolls through a lingering party in a bohemian but upscale Venice apartment like she’s Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll 25+ years early.
0:10 – Set in “1999”: MP3s do not yet exist, although music comes on ultra-thin rectangular discs that resemble playing cards instead of CDs. More prescient (to the COVID age, anyway): the boat driver wearing a face mask.
0:14 – I was thinking I could spend the entire film blissfully watching Claire driving through pre-apocalyptic landscapes and whoops, her car just crashed.
0:24 – The problem with sci-fi, particularly films set less than a decade in the future is that the imagined technology often resembles a slightly warped take on what is readily available in the present. Hence, the bank of VIDEOPHONES Claire calls her friend Makiko from (and runs into Sam (William Hurt) at for the first time.)
0:24 We have the U2 title song! I remember seeing/hearing this soundtrack everywhere but have no memory of the film playing theatrically in Milwaukee, though I was 16 and not yet aware of the ins and outs of arthouse cinema.
0:30 – At least some of the imagined tech is seriously warped, like the police cars that resemble Lego Duplo figures.
0:37 – Well, Claire and Gene’s (Sam Neill) Parisian flat is the most 90s apartment ever; Elvis Costello’s slooow version of The Kinks’ “Days” is the worst version I’ve heard (def. inferior to Kirsty MacColl’s from two years before.)
0:44 – Someone actually says, “Don’t be stupid; this is 1999.”
0:53 – Nearly 20% (!) through the film, and I’m suitably entertained. When not overtly wacky, the production design’s sublime (e.g. the giant, rotating world globe illuminating one time-zone clock after another.)
1:03 – Between this and The Piano, early 90’s Neill really was your go-to guy for playing strait-laced, uptight cucks.
1:14 – “Bounty Bear” WTF.
1:29 – I might’ve done without so much narration from Gene. “She spent a fortune video-faxing the tape to me in Paris,” he notes, presumably straight-faced.
1:33 – Oh Claire, I hate Gene’s suit too.
1:35 – Guessing the Tokyo hotel chase scene, where the film briefly turns into an episode of Scooby-Doo (with spazzy, incidental music straight out of an ancient Merrie Melodies cartoon) was cut out of the shorter theatrical release.
1:44 – Regarding the rural Japan sequence, as Wenders proved in his earlier doc Tokyo-ga, Ozu he is not; it’s still touching to see octogenarian (and Ozu regular) Chishū Ryū onscreen though.
1:52 – Here we get to the premise/MacGuffin/whatever: “A camera that takes pictures blind people can see !” (o rilly?) To which Claire silently responds, Can you see my naked body?
2:01 – After the unexpected thrill of seeing Claire and Sam to do “The Twist” on a cruise ship, the U2 theme appears for the third time. Feeling overwhelmed that we’re not even halfway through this thing, so I’m taking a 15-minute break.
2:19 – The bright blue and orange of the Australian outback landscape is truly breathtaking; not even late-period Lou Reed can destroy it, although Gene doesn’t throw the most convincing punch at Sam. I had to look up and confirm that the South Australia town of “Coober Pedy” actually exists.
2:31 – “They shot down the satellite” – man, it really is Y2K; also, “It’s the end of the world” (but certainly not the film.)
2:42 – “These are bloody dangerous times, mate.” Believe the guy with the hook (not only for a hand, but his entire arm.)
2:51 – So happy Jeanne Moreau is here. And Max von Sydow as a weird doctor? What novel casting!
3:22 – Around here is where I start to drift. The theatrical cut apparently contains less than an hour of the Australia stuff while this has more than two. I miss the “on the road” part of this road movie—it builds more momentum than waiting to see if blind Moreau can see the images taken by the special camera. I imagine the actress lying down in the simulator thinking to herself, “Merde, what did I get myself into?” The “simulations” themselves have a flash video quality and sound not far off from the early days of dial-up internet (so that’s prescient of ’99.)
3:27 – We have a digeridoo, and of course the guy with the hook is playing it.
3:43 – Gene’s narration includes a dippy speech about music being the purpose for their journey – what a dopey writer, ain’t he?
3:49 – On 12/31/99, we find out the nuclear crisis is averted for the missiles conveniently blew up in space. Von Sydow exclaims, “The world is still alive!,” while sourpuss Moreau dissents: “The world is not okay.”
3:51 – At least Solveig’s Nico-esque version of “Days” is charming (and much better than Costello’s.)
4:03 – That darn Dr. Von Sydow! Now he wants to record pictures of dreams, the dope. I begin waiting for Harvey B. Dunn from Bride Of The Monster to show up and say, “He tampered in god’s domain.”
4:12 – The dream imagery is not pretentious, exactly, but unquestionably weird. Turn off the sound and it might make for good ASMR. This is getting vaguely psychedelic, like end of 2001: A Space Odyssey but less portentous.
4:19 – Someone named Karl: “There’s a line that should never be crossed, and we passed it a long time ago.”
4:32 – “Split… from myself”; “Impossible to rescue a man lost in the labyrinth of his own soul”… now the film’s getting a little pretentious.
4:38 – Gene’s still wearing that awful suit!
4:41 – Gene wrote his book, and Claire read the whole thing! It all ends with perhaps the worst rendition of ‘Happy Birthday” ever, then that damn U2 song returns over the closing credits.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. Not the resurrected masterpiece I was hoping for and not Wenders’ best by a long shot (I’ll stump for Paris, Texas though I haven’t seen it in a quarter-century.) Maybe his last good non-documentary*, however, though it may have had a sharper impact had it been split into two a la Kill Bill or The Souvenir.
*Buena Vista Social Club, while imperfect, belongs on a shortlist of essential Wenders.