A great communicator

Wim Wenders on the refugee crisis, the power of nature, and Pope Francis: A Man Of His Word

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Wim Wenders‬ on ‪Pope Francis: A Man Of His Word‬: "I felt the film really physically sometimes had to make us feel that nature was one powerful thing and we better have it as our ally than our enemy."
Wim Wenders‬ on ‪Pope Francis: A Man Of His Word‬: "I felt the film really physically sometimes had to make us feel that nature was one powerful thing and we better have it as our ally than our enemy." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

"Time flies," Wim Wenders says off camera, as we look down over the town of Assisi at the beginning of Pope Francis: A Man Of His Word. If you catch yourself finishing that sentence in your mind with "when you're having fun," you are not at all on the wrong track, because fun, or as Pope Francis puts it, the importance to "enjoy life" is as much part of the thrust communicated here as is "the dignity of work" or the quest for "fraternal peace."

Indifference is killing us. "God created us free," Pope Francis states and "without freedom we cannot love." The insightful and intimate interviews Wenders conducted with the Pope are interspersed with footage of his extensive travels that show the meaning of his words. He speaks at Yad Vashem on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem, we see him walk through the gate at Auschwitz, on a boat off the coast of Lampedusa (the crisis is documented in Gianfranco Rosi's urgent Fuocoammare) and in a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.

‪Wim Wenders‬ on Pope Francis: "Yeah, he is a great communicator. I mean, I started the film four years ago and the whole political landscape was different four years ago."
‪Wim Wenders‬ on Pope Francis: "Yeah, he is a great communicator. I mean, I started the film four years ago and the whole political landscape was different four years ago."

Pope Francis is not only the first Jesuit and the first Pope from the Americas, he is also the first to take the name Francis after Francis of Assisi who chose a life of poverty and whose strong bond to nature was at the core of his teaching. "Who is the poorest of the poor?" He asks at one point. "Mother Earth", is the answer, who suffers from our maltreatment and what he calls our "culture of waste."

Anne-Katrin Titze: "Culture of waste" is a phenomenal way to express our times. The more you think about it, the more examples come to mind.

Wim Wenders: In the eyes of Pope Francis this is not just the actual physical waste we produce. This is also an expression he uses for the people we discard and who become like waste.

AKT: The abject.

WW: Yes. And we create more and more of them all over the world. In Europe just as well as in America or in Africa or in Asia. Our societies and our industries and our economy leaves more and more people by the wayside.

AKT: You show the Pope visiting refugees in Lampedusa and on Lesbos. You could have chosen probably many more locations. Because the world is experiencing the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

Pope Francis hands Wim Wenders a copy of his book: "It's really the Pope's humanity and the way he can bring this into words what is troubling our times."
Pope Francis hands Wim Wenders a copy of his book: "It's really the Pope's humanity and the way he can bring this into words what is troubling our times."

WW: It has immense dimension and I was very touched when the Pope stood in front of the American Senate and reminded them that they were all immigrants to begin with. Or at least sons and daughters of immigrants. And he himself is the son of an immigrant who came to South America.

And in my own country, millions of Germans had to immigrate at the end of World War Two. Millions of Polish people immigrated. And now look at Poland. They're closing their borders, they don't want to even accept one single refugee. While most of Europe sort of figured out how to deal with the crisis.

But there are other places that should know so much better. And among the places that should know so much better is America. It should know so much better. The entire American culture is built on the principle of immigration.

AKT: When the Pope in front of Congress, in English, says "the land of the free and the home of the brave," there wasn't a dry eye in the house because it has become so poignant.

WW: Yeah, he is a great communicator. I mean, I started the film four years ago and the whole political landscape was different four years ago. In Europe there was no Brexit, there was not the rise of nationalist governments all over.

‪Wim Wenders‬ on a "culture of waste": "In the eyes of Pope Francis this is not just the actual physical waste we produce. This is also an expression he uses for the people we discard and who become like waste."
‪Wim Wenders‬ on a "culture of waste": "In the eyes of Pope Francis this is not just the actual physical waste we produce. This is also an expression he uses for the people we discard and who become like waste."

My country has 11 borders and more than half of them are now borders with countries returning back to nationalism. And America is doing the same. This is nationalism. America First is another name for nationalism. So when I started this film it was a different world.

AKT: Totally different.

WW: And then the more we shot and the more we edited, the more I saw the Pope's work, his frankness and openness and kindness, the more I realised, wow, we didn't intend it to be, but this is becoming a political film. Because nobody else says these things anymore.

And none of our leaders in Europe, in America, in Russia, in China - none of the leaders has any moral authority to speak to us anymore. Actually they don't care about morals. So all of a sudden a man who does represent and rightfully represents a morality, not a Christian but a morality of human kindness, becomes a political figure.

AKT: He says you need freedom in order to love. You could discuss this topic on its own for two hours and wouldn't see the end of it. I wanted to ask you a question about the sound design. When the typhoon hits, you give us the immense noise. The screening room at the Whitby Hotel was shaking, it felt, with the rage of nature, rebelling against us.

‪Wim Wenders‬: "The more we spoke with Pope Francis and the more I witnessed what he's doing, the more I realised he is really dealing with our contemporary reality."
‪Wim Wenders‬: "The more we spoke with Pope Francis and the more I witnessed what he's doing, the more I realised he is really dealing with our contemporary reality."

I had to think of the Philipp Otto Runge tale of The Fisherman and His Wife where human greed produces nature to turn violent, with dark storm clouds and the ocean purple with rage. [In the tale from 1806, later published in the Grimms' collection, the wife wants to become Pope before her final wish, which is to be like God.]

WW: I mean nature and the power of nature and nature that is sometimes really unleashing its horrors on us, on the human race, is part of what we're facing today. We do face people who have to move away, because their countries, or their beaches or their villages are disappearing. And we see hurricanes of huger dimensions than ever before.

And we know that it's all symptoms of the same thing. Something that we created ourselves. We created that beast of nature. Not all of it. Volcanoes have always come out. But some of what we're witnessing right now is created by ourselves. And I felt the film really physically sometimes had to make us feel that nature was one powerful thing and we better have it as our ally than our enemy.

AKT: It's very effective because it viscerally pulls us from an intellectual understanding into the horror of the world. The other moment that I reacted to almost physically, was when we see Pope Francis in Auschwitz, walking through the gate. It's immensely powerful.

‪Pope Francis: A Man Of His Word‬ poster in New York
‪Pope Francis: A Man Of His Word‬ poster in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

WW: Also his sermon, his speech at the Yad Vashem memorial.

AKT: Yes, the Yad Vashem speech is unforgettable.

WW: "Adam, where are you?" is one of the most powerful moments in the film for me. It's an amazing speech. It's really the Pope's humanity and the way he can bring this into words what is troubling our times.

Or what has been troubling our times. He's an enormous communicator and not a demagogue. He doesn't have any military power, he doesn't have any industry power - his platform is strictly speaking for the common good.

AKT: There are so few. Where are they?

WW: That is the only voice at the moment that speaks for the common good. I don't see anybody else right now. This has been shaping up and out since we were editing this film. In the beginning we really thought this was going to be mainly and essentially a spiritual film.

Anselm Kiefer's Uraeus at Rockefeller Center (until July 22) recalls Wim Wenders' Wings Of Desire
Anselm Kiefer's Uraeus at Rockefeller Center (until July 22) recalls Wim Wenders' Wings Of Desire Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

And the more we spoke with Pope Francis and the more I witnessed what he's doing, the more I realised he is really dealing with our contemporary reality. Not just with the state of our spiritual reality.

Read what Wim Wenders had to say on his first meeting for Pope Francis: A Man Of His Word and Patti Smith's premonition and song for the film.

Read what Wim Wenders had to say on symbols of Catholicism, Saint Francis and filming Pope Francis in the Vatican Gardens for Pope Francis: A Man Of His Word.

Pope Francis: A Man Of His Word is in cinemas across the US and opens in Germany on June 14.

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