Until the End of the World is the story of images, and our addiction to these images. At the same time it is the story of an end to modern civilization and our obsession with technology and media. Wim Wenders is forcing the viewer to examine their own personal relationship with the modern world. Here we will examine the methods that Wenders uses to emphasize the shrinking size of our world. We will also examine how Wenders criticizes our fascination with technology. Finally we will look at the possible solution to the current presence of technology that Wenders offers in this film. Wim Wenders has said that while images have tremendous potential for telling a story, these images are increasingly becoming prostituted by the commercialization of modern society (Gemünden 1997). In Until the End of the World Wenders is trying to make the viewer acknowledge our reliance upon images and technology.
Wenders’ world in 1999 is on the verge of a nuclear catastrophe but to Claire Tourneur this means little. Claire is having relationship problems with Gene and so goes to Venice. Returning to Paris she encounters the two bank robbers who persuade her to bring their stolen money to Paris for them. Claire meets Trevor McPhee/Sam Farber along the way and he asks for a drive into the city. This leads to a ‘dance around the world’ in pursuit of Sam with whom she has become infatuated. Until the End of the World begins as a detective thriller, as Claire follows the shady character of Sam who is also being followed by the bounty hunter Burt and the private detective Winter. Eventually we see that this is not international espionage but rather a son’s love for his mother and his desire to please her. The last half of Until the End of the World is set in the Australian outback with the Australian Aborigines. Here we see more clearly Wenders’ desire to make us examine the role that technology has taken in our modern society and our obsession with control.
What becomes apparent throughout this film is the small size of the modern world, Wenders emphasizes this in many ways. In Wenders’ world, and perhaps even in ours, a person is chased over international boundaries and between continents by following their credit cards, passport, and even a photograph. There is no escaping anyone if one is to remain in the modern Western world, of course this does not work in the still-Soviet East. These methods are how Claire chases Sam, Winter and Burt chase Sam, and Chico (one of the bank robbers) and Gene chase Claire around the globe.
The viewer never has a clear sense of time, neither in hours nor in months, this confusion- partly due to the many time zones that Claire crosses in search of Sam- helps to form a picture of the world as one great homogenous place. We see this clearly when Claire is in Berlin, she waits in the hotel lobby for Sam and behind her there are a dozen clocks each with a different time, it is not certain which of the clocks represents Berlin’s time. We also see this time confusion when Sam drives Claire’s car to Paris while she sleeps; when she wakes she asks "How long have I slept?" Sam responds in kilometres rather than hours (Kuzniar 1997).
One specific image that helps to create the impression of a small world are Winter’s search engine with people dancing around the world and the Russian search engine with a bear exploring the world to find a person. This representation of a dance is also in the title of Gene’s book about the whole adventure that Claire experienced. The title: ‘A Dance Around the Planet’. This gives the impression that the globe is so small that people can simply dance around it in their travels.
Along with the impression that the world is in fact a small place the viewer sees a world increasingly relying upon technology to help it experience life. Claire constantly films everything she sees, almost as if by recording the experience she can relive it. She travels by bus in Japan and films everything along the way, or when hitchhiking through Russia she films her voyage and sends the little movie to Gene so that he can see what she is up to. Indeed this is just what Henry Farber’s camera requires of the photographer, they must watch their recorded images to replay and re live the experience. It is ironic that in order for Edith to see the world must be recorded by a camera and by using enormous amounts of technology and it is only through these mediums that she can see ‘real life’.
We also see Wenders’ criticism of technology when Sam uses it to bring sight to his mother. The same technology that will give Edith the ability to see robs Sam of his. Interestingly while technology blinds Sam it is through traditional Japanese herbal medicine that his vision is regained. Also we see Gene ‘remembering’ how to use a pencil and paper and later an old-fashioned typewriter to write his novel when the nuclear explosion puts a temporary end to technology. Perhaps Wenders is trying to tell the viewer to remember what came before present day technology and that this knowledge is equally valid.
This technology is everywhere in the film, from the portable HDTV camera that Claire uses, to Gene’s computer that writes down what is spoken into it, to the tracing device that Chico places on Claire’s bag. Everyone has their little gadgets and devices that they use to supplement their human capabilities, this is especially clear in the search engines used to find Sam. Wenders often uses the character of Phillip Winter in his movies and it has been argued that Winter acts as Wenders’ alter-ego in his films (Harris 1998). It is Winter who echoes Wenders’ feelings about our dependence on technology to do our work for us when he says "This is where computer programming ends and real detective work begins". Perhaps Winter is the only character who truly understands what technology has become because he seems to be the only person in this film who will willingly abandon technology to use his own skills to find people.
When Claire says, "It’s the end of the world", and Chico repeats that phrase, "C’est le fin du monde", both are on their way to the Aborigines in Australia. It is only at the end of the world that humans return to the societies that they came from so many years ago. To some the Aborigines of Australia are of a higher level than the rest of humankind. Some believe that while Homo Sapiens stopped evolving the Aborigines continued one step further and represent the perfect society (Turner 1997). The Aborigines have a unique societal structure that is entirely equal and communal, in fact many political scientists and philosophers have looked to the Aborigine system for examples (Turner 1996). It is fitting that at the end of the world people should look toward the Aborigines for direction and a new social system in the absence of technology. What this half of the film seems to tell us is that despite a nuclear explosion and an end to all technology life continues, relationships remain, and the planet is resilient. In fact, to the community that the characters of this film enter into the nuclear disaster is unimportant. Almost immediately the viewer is aware of the lack of concern all the characters seem to have for this "fin du monde".
It is also fitting that a movie focused on images and dreams should terminate in what Gene calls "the island of dreams". To the Aborigines dreams are sacred things and Dreamtime is an essential part of their philosophy. The Aborigines understand the Dreamtime as the beginning; the beginning of life, and of creation. The Dreamtime is also a source of wisdom. It provides Aboriginal people with knowledge and contains elements of philosophy; psychology; arguably religion but definitely spirituality; lore (or law); secrecy, stories, songs and dance. The Aborigines consider the Dreamtime to be continuous through their Dreaming, Dreaming is the life of an Aborigine, the result of this philosophy is that the Aborigines aim to live exactly the same life as the ancestors had lived. Dreamtime is accessible at any time because it exists side by side with the physical world; it is important to note that the physical world is not reality to the Aborigines, they consider Dreamtime to be the real world (Bulkeley 1992).
A major manifestation of this is in their totemic relationships. The totem of the males is seen in a big brother relationship and females have a big sister relationship to their totem. In this sense each gender has their own dreaming. In local Totemism individual males who belong to the same totemic group also have one dreaming and would express this as having one country or as my dreaming place and refer to others in the group as being one’s countrymen. Totems are objects of nature and consequently they tie the Aborigines to the land (Turner 1996).
For Henry Farber to begin work and experiments with dreaming is a controversial issue to the Aborigines that are helping him to restore Edith’s sight. To them Henry is interfering with very sacred things, he is trying to see what created the world and what makes the Aborigine reality. To them this is an example of technology gone too far. Perhaps Claire says it best; "We don’t have the right". Modern technology has moved from controlling and potentially helpful to interfering and destructive. Wenders combines this with the nuclear catastrophe and it really does become "le fin du monde". Throughout the two years that this film spans we see the gradual breakdown of modern society through the eyes of Wenders and certain characters. Edith does experience what Henry and Sam work so hard to achieve, she sees the world, but this experience is unfortunate because Edith sees the condition of the modern world. On her deathbed she echoes Wenders’ message, "the world is not okay."
Finally, Wenders puts his characters in a situation whereby they cannot live healthily with technology. The Farbers and Claire become addicted to the images of their dreams and they cannot function without batteries. It is here that Gene takes control, he says he will heal Claire through "the healing power of words and stories". This ‘disease of images’ will require words and also self-expression to be suppressed. Claire is healed when she reads Gene’s book, but Sam is healed through a more complex method. David, Sam’s Aboriginal brother, says to him "I will take you to the old fellows, you will sleep between them, they will take your dream". Sam becomes healthy again once he has slept between these men and also after he expresses himself through painting and drawing the pictures of plants on stones (this is shown in the 280 minute director’s cut version). Wenders has said that
I see only one way to protect the images, to counteract the increasing prostitution of images, and that is through language.
That’s why I have put more emphasis on a concise use of language
. . . I no longer trust the narrative power of images . . . Today images have to sell, not tell. Therefore we cannot indulge in . . . images as naively and innocently as we used to. (Gemünden 1997)
Dangerously to a filmmaker, Wenders seems to say throughout Until the End of the World that images and technology are too deceitful to be reliable. It is ironic that Wenders needs to use images to criticize the current situation in the media and with technology.
Until the End of the World takes the viewer on a ‘dance around the planet’ where we see how small the world has become. Cities are becoming homogenous and there is little distinction between the cultures of Berlin, Tokyo, or San Francisco. The viewer also sees the extent to which we, in the modern world, rely on technology to help us experience life and even to do our work for us. In Wenders’ world writers have computers that write for them, private detectives have computers that find people, and cars can drive themselves. Wenders criticizes strongly the modern world while at the same time recognizing the roles that traditional knowledge and less advanced forms of technology have to play in our society. Wenders’ solution to these issues seems to be a revival of oral traditions and of language. He also places a great deal of importance on self-expression through other mediums, he encourages us to move away from our world of electronics and images and into a world of interaction with other people. Clearly, Wim Wenders is trying to make the viewer examine critically the current state of technology and media in the world.