Wim und Donata Wenders
ZEISS Beyond Talks

Interview with veteran filmmaker Wim Wenders and his photographer wife Donata1

Veteran filmmaker Wim Wenders and his photographer wife Donata spoke to us about how technology has transformed their art forever.

For over 175 years, the people at ZEISS have asked the question: How can we challenge the limits of imagination? In celebration of that vision, ZEISS has partnered with thought leaders and great minds from around the globe for ZEISS Beyond Talks, giving them centerstage to speak about their own work, visions, passion and issues that are affecting our world moving forward.

You’ve been in the film industry for a long time – please tell us something about the changes you’ve seen.

Wim:  The other day I realized I’ve been making movies for seven decades – can this be true? It’s a very long time.

It was a different ball game back when I started. For a while, I had my own 16mm camera, but the aspiration was to shoot for reel – which was in 35mm. There was no other option for shooting on film. Video only came along 10 or 20 years later, and digital wasn’t even in the dictionary. So you needed film and a lab to develop it in, all of which was very expensive.

Only as a film student – with the equipment provided to you by a film school – could you make movies. This was a good reason to go to film school!

Everything was different: the procedure, the equipment, the business, and what you could achieve. Even the language of storytelling was different to that of today. Everything was slower. Our brains were working slower, and you even edited slower.

We’re still storytelling as film makers, but everything around it is light years away from how it was before. If I think about it, the lens is the only element that you needed in the 60s and 70s that you still need today. Everything else is different.

Wim Wenders filmmaker

In filmmaking, the lens is the only element that you needed in the 60s and 70s that you still need today. Everything else is different.

Wim Wenders


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Is the change as profound in photography?

Donata:  Yes. It took me 10 years to change from analogue to digital.

The dark room work was the main reason I wanted to be in photography. I could go in there to work with all these chemicals and wonderful paper. I had something real in my hands. Every solution had a different character, and to throw the solutions together in different ways was a great joy.

There is a suspense as to what comes out in the tray – you wait for the image to arise. Even if you have done it hundreds of times, each time is such a delight and a surprise.

So it’s fair to say that technology leads when it comes to the art of filmmaking and photography?

Wim:  I love to embrace technology when it enhances my abilities; if it allows me to tell a story that I wouldn’t have been able to tell otherwise.

Digital technology has brought great tools that have really pushed us forward in terms of what we can show about the world we’ve living in today. You couldn’t possibly approach today’s world with yesterday’s technology.

Painters had canvases, which are two dimensional. Yet they invented ways to make us believe we are seeing more dimensions. Similarly, with movies we invented incredible ways to move people through space, for example. Yet the space was never there – it was always an illusion.

I really love the way we can immerse people in a certain reality. I actually think it’s even better in documentaries than in fictional films. You can take people into a certain place and enhance their experience of being there.

  • Wim Wenders and his wife Donata

Do you believe that experience has the power to create change?

Wim:  Movies don’t create change like politics and companies, like buildings collapsing, wild-fires, and other natural disasters. But movies can create a different perception of reality, so that people may look at the world differently and want to change it. That’s the hope you have as a film maker.

Films don’t change the world, but they can change the way people see the world. And that is a very political act.

Any movie is political, especially entertainment movies, as they make people happy with the status quo. But I like movies that make people realize how things could be different. Or at least how you have the freedom to look at the world differently.

I’m a storyteller, trying to represent our times as they are and make people ask themselves: “How should I live? How should I deal with these things? Can we live better? What world are we living in?” For me that is a storytelling attitude.

That’s what you hope to achieve with literature, poetry and music – you don’t change things, but you can change people’s willingness to change things. Movies play an important part in people realizing they have change in them.

Wim Wenders and his wife Donata

Films don’t change the world, but they can change the way people see the world.

Wim Wenders


In art we often talk about the power of imagination – how does that manifest in filmmaking?

Wim:  Imagination is a constant process – it never stops. Long before there is a movie or even a plan for it, you may have a dream about it and wake up to write it down. Or maybe you read something, or come across a certain place and think how you’d like to shoot there.

Imagination continues every day – even on set. It also changes. Sometimes, when you’re editing, your best ideas and highest hopes turn out to be in the way of what you really want to convey. Your highest expectations may be disturbed by too much imagination. It’s a process that continues until the film is finished.

In my opinion, imagination continues even after you’ve made the film. A movie does not just exist in a box or on a hard drive – it exists when people watch it, and when they see different things than what you think they would. This is the most beautiful aspect of filmmaking – that imagination continues even in the reception of the film. In this way, filmmaking is amazingly interactive.

Donata, can you give us an example of this imagination at work in your photography?

Donata:  For me, imagination is a dialogue. It’s more like a feeling, and then it develops along with the person or the place you are interacting with.

In one particular case, I got inspiration from a man on set who was sucked into books like I’ve never seen before. By holding a book up in front of himself, he was completely in his own world. I was really drawn to this.

When I take pictures of somebody, there is always a fascination involved – I would even call it a love. I’m interested in showing how lovable this person is by whatever he or she is doing.

Donata Wenders

When I take pictures of somebody, there is always a fascination involved – I would even call it a love.

Donata Wenders


These are testing times for cinema – how do you see the future unfolding?

Wim:  The pandemic has been a huge blow to the institution of cinema. Many theatres were closed, are still closed, or are not opening anymore.

At the same time, the pandemic has been an incredible boost for streaming. The streaming services could never have dreamt of being able to move so fast and reach so many people. Everybody streams now.

The question is: are cinemas in a position to regain some audiences? I’m talking about cultural habits. When the pandemic is over, are people going to reembrace these social experiences again? Will they sit in a cinema for two hours, without fast-forwarding, interrupting, or saving the rest for tomorrow? That’s a big question for me.

For a lot of young people, cinemas are not interesting. But we cannot dictate to them, and tell them to keep quiet and leave their phones at the entrance. People are changing. What’s coming after this change is really a matter of how we can adapt.


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    Interview edited for clarity