Wim Wenders’ “The End of Violence” is so dreamlike and odd, it almost defies description.
The film’s elliptical quality undoubtedly hurt its premiere reception at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, as well as its barely-there release in America months later. Despite a mostly dismissive response from critics and audiences, there’s much to treasure in this breathtaking oddity from Wenders, one of the most poetic and personal filmmakers working today.
We meet Bill Pullman’s Mike Max, who is referred to as a “famous Hollywood producer,” the kind of filmmaker who, like Francis Ford Coppola was known to be, makes movies and runs his life from behind a screen. Max is powerful but feeling vulnerable, which matches the oceanside spread of his luxurious and unguarded house.
Max stares at his computer screen while his wife gazes out a window, reflecting her husband in the distance. An accident has occurred on the set of Max’s new film, titled “Seeds of Violence,” which has resulted in an injured stunt performer, played by Traci Lin, being hospitalized.
Meanwhile, Ray, a quiet, private man, played by Gabriel Byrne, works in a secret bunker within Griffith Observatory, where he watches the world below and experiments with the dangerous technology he’s been assigned to run.
Ray’s boss assures him that, if this Big Brother-like weapon works, it could mean “the end of violence.”
Cowritten by Wenders and Nicolas Klein, this is a companion piece to Wenders’ 1991 masterpiece “Until the End of the World,” which also explored how humanity is both surrounded by and fatally immersed by the omnipresence of technology.
“The End of Violence” is also interesting for its presence in Hollywood history, arriving after the shock of the ’92 L.A. riots- a key scene of two men about to kill a man is seen from surveillance footage and intentionally or not, is a visual reminder of the Rodney King footage.
Other themes addressed are the unceasing accusations of Hollywood movies becoming more violent all the time, the intrusive presence of surveillance as a means of protection and tragic accidents on film sets (this came out after the horrible accident on the set of “The Crow” and, sadly, feels prescient due to the recent “Rust” occurrence).
Perhaps Wenders’ best, most celebrated works are his German films, with his somber, gorgeous “Wings of Desire” (1987) perhaps the universal favorite.
His filmography is a long list of riches to be experienced, but I’d argue that his American films, starting with “The American Friend” (1977) and “Paris, Texas”(1984) are equally as essential.
This may be neither here nor there for those unfamiliar with his works but, for all the deserved accolades that readily go to Wenders’ Road Movie Trilogy (1974-76), his 1990s output are among his most undervalued and misinterpreted.
“The End of Violence” is deserving of rediscovery, as is “Faraway, So Close!” (1993) and “The Million Dollar Hotel” (2000) – all three are regarded for their soundtracks and not the films, which is unfair.
Byrne’s character is akin to one of Wenders’ Berlin-central angels in “Wings of Desire,” as he can observe the intimate lives of others but cannot participate. The exploration of how omnipresent and weaponized surveillance can either harm or enhance the human experience, feels like a foreshadowing of both the Patriot Act and drone weaponry.
The main characters in “The End of Violence” are slaves to technology, as it provides the only window in which they experience life. Byrne’s Ray states, “I try to avoid modern technology as much as I can,” though he’s almost always surrounded by screens and incoming data. His strolls up to the Griffith Observatory for work are the only escapes into nature he has.
Ry Cooder’s cool groove of a score sneaks up on you, cranks up the guitar and takes hold. The central theme pops up frequently, and I was always electrified by its return.
Pullman’s narration has the same oddly soothing, underhanded hum of Harrison Ford’s unfairly lambasted voiceover in “Blade Runner.” At one point early in, Pullman’s character references an alien invasion, a nice nod to his role the prior year in the mega-blockbuster “Independence Day.”
It was an indication of Pullman’s staying power that, post-“ID4,” he didn’t follow up with another box office sure thing but took his sudden career bump as an opportunity to work with Wenders on this and David Lynch in “Lost Highway.” At one point, Pullman in narration states, “paranoia is our number one export…there are no strangers, just a strange world,” which sounds like a line Lynch would write.
There’s an amazing shot of a surveillance camera looking down on vast cityscapes. In fact, there are few scenes here that aren’t swoon-inducing, as Pascal Rabaud’s cinematography creates and captures visions that are genuinely jaw dropping.
Klein’s dialog is witty (I loved Max’s assurance that Kat, a stuntman with little experience, could become a movie star, as he asserts with a single word: “Schwarzenegger.”).
Playing Max’s wife, MacDowell poses her way through her role (perhaps she’s playing more of an idea than a character) and this is the only example I can think of where Pruitt Taylor Vance gives a bad performance.
The stylish Daniel Benzali (riding high from the brief buzz of starring in Steven Bochco’s “Murder One”) stands out in his couple of scenes. Udo Kier is fun in a character inventively named Voltan Tibor. Yet, the film is stolen by Traci Lind, who, after a few standout supporting roles, did this film then stepped away from the film industry.
Lin is wonderful here.
“The End of Violence” is visually splendid, with a celebrated recreation of Hopper’s “Nighthawks” but flush with scenes that are hard to describe but rich with feeling and visual splendor. It’s dreamlike and odd, slow but hypnotic if it catches you, as it’s in no rush to get to the big moments. Wenders’ film also sports one of the decades’ best soundtracks.
Despite the title and how the tech Ray oversees is touted is possibly bringing an end to violence, its less about violence than how disconnected people can become participants in their own lives.
Not all the ideas coalesce. This is more a meditation on shifting identities than anything traditional. Still, Wenders has a handle on American film iconography and themes more than most U.S. directors.
There are rich ideas here, as well as a filmmaker exploring the meaning of cinema and violence in ways that defy both definitions. “The End of Violence” isn’t flawless but it’s risky and welcomes the conversations it clearly intends to spark.
And man, is it beautiful.