Moving Pictures
By Jeff Reichert

The Salt of the Earth
Dir. Wim Wenders & Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, U.S., Sony Pictures Classics

The eighties nearly ruined Wim Wenders. After he expanded and enriched his cinema throughout the seventies at a regular clip from The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick to Alice in the Cities to Kings of the Road and The American Friend, 1984 saw the arrival of his Cannes-winning best work, Paris, Texas, a summation, but also quite the tossed gauntlet for a filmmaker who had, to that point, been most notable for a pleasingly soft-edged anomie and a gently oppositional relationship to Hollywood narrative norm. Paris was followed not long after by Wings of Desire, similarly feted and, for many who grew of cinematic age in the late eighties, a film that practically defined a strand of accessible, romantic foreign language “art” movie; it furthered Wenders’s rise by grossing over twice as much as Paris, though it feels, more so than that film something very much of its moment. Then, through the latter part of the eighties, the nineties, there are documentary misfires (Notebook on Cities and Clothes), forgettable narratives (slick Hollywood satire The End of Violence), oddball collaborations (Beyond the Clouds, a softcore Antonioni work which Wenders helped finish), gimmicks (the charming, yet slight early-cinema-doc-cum-mock-silent-film A Trick of the Light), one film maudit that seemed an attempt to broaden his canvas even further (Until the End of the World, recently restored and ripe for reappraisal), and even directed a video for U2. The last narrative film of his I can recall seeing in a theater was 2000’s execrable Mel Gibson (!) sci-fi vehicle The Million Dollar Hotel, though his filmography lists a handful of titles finished in the decade and half since, some of which have found their way to U.S. theaters, some not. For a long time, it’s seemed like Wenders has been destined, like many of his peripatetic protagonists, to drift forever, the impossibility of finding a landing place, of ever having it as good as it once was, hanging over him.

Perhaps that was the way it was meant to be. One would have a hard time labeling Wenders, even in his salad days, as one of the “greatest living directors,” but he is one who has, by virtue of taste, talent, savvy, and consistent work ethic, managed over time to make a number of very good movies, and one unimpeachably great one. This is no small thing. His relative absence from serious cinephilic conversation over the last couple of decades has meant that his reputation has suffered in comparison to the other leading lights of New German Cinema—he hasn’t the personal charisma that has allowed Herzog to age into weird uncle hipster eccentricity, and, as he’s still working at a regular clip, his oeuvre hasn’t been cast in amber and regularly toured like Fassbinder’s. Rather, he’s living proof that journeyman isn’t a bad word. Judging by the healthy attendance at recent retrospective screenings at MOMA, Wenders has been gone long enough for people to get curious about him again, though, notably, the series stops showing his narrative films after 1992’s Faraway, So Close.

Few likely rushed out to Buena Vista Social Club or Pina because they were auteur texts, but when placed aside his latest documentary, The Salt of the Earth, codirected with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the three form a loose trilogy about artists and art-making that represents a fundamental change in the way Wenders handles nonfiction—his artistry continues to evolve, even if nobody’s watching (I’ve yet to see his 2003 entry in The Blues, The Soul of a Man). Unlike his sepulchral hybrid eulogy to Nick Ray, Lightning Over Water, his Yasujiro Ozu riff, Tokyo-ga, and his mixed-media portrait of fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, Notebook on Cities and Clothes, in these new documentaries Wenders seems more comfortable letting his footage take center stage. Where once he was front and center (anyone interested in Wim sporting a Lilith Fair haircut and high-waisted stonewashed jeans playing billiards should get themselves immediately to Notebook) via constant voiceover rumination about his subjects, technology, his process, and, most often, the history and future of his beloved cinema, now he all but recedes into the background. You can still feel his curiosity: in Buena Vista’s cross-cutting to emphasize the culture-spanning exchange the musical project it documents represents, in Pina’s resetting of seminal dance works in the outside world to highlight the flexible strengths of Bausch’s art, in Salt’s loving ogling of photography, a medium Wenders practices himself.

The focus of The Salt of the Earth is the life and career of Brazilian-born, Paris-based photographer Sebastião Salgado, one of the most celebrated photographers of our time. Salgado’s work has most often taken the shape of long-form photojournalism projects that have seen him crisscrossing the globe and documenting subjects as heavy as the titles of the anthologies they’ve appeared in: Workers: Archaeology of the Industrial Age, Migrations, The Children: Refugees and Migrants. Whether photographing masses of tortured bodies at labor in Brazil’s Serra Pelgado gold mine (hellish shots that make Hard to Be a God look like a Hollywood musical) or a single figure coated in spewing oil during the apocalyptic early 90s Kuwaiti oil fires, his high contrast black-and-white images sport a hyper-crispness and that quality of focused vision that reminds the viewer that great photography is art, not merely the reproduction of reality. Salgado, as is evinced by the many photographs we see in Salt, has proven himself as adept at filming intimate portraits of aboriginal villagers as vast expanses of refugees on the move, and, judging from the sheer amount of places he’s traveled and different people he’s worked with, he seems to have an easy way of making himself welcome.

Salgado’s wandering streak makes him an ideal Wenders protagonist—he’s Phil Winter from Alice in the Cities, but with a real camera and a mission. At Salt’s outset Wenders muses in voiceover about the first few Salgado prints he purchased, how they struck him at the time, how they still move him many years later. Wenders is more directly present here than he is in Buena Vista or Pina, but even if we see him in the frame early on, directing his cameraman, it’s clear that Salt is Sebastião’s show—the film never descends into the kind of essayistic indulgence of his earlier documentaries. Salgado’s son, Juliano, began the project as a way to get to know his often absent father better and the pair invited Wenders in to provide an outsider’s perspective. The three of them are all present throughout the film in different ways, but it’s, appropriately, Sebastião’s bald pate, filmed in interviews with a black-and-white HD that mimics his photographs, that lingers.

The bulk of the film, which follows the progression of Salgado’s work, intersperses his photographs with footage of him taking photos in the fields near his home in Aimorés, Brazil; an interview setup where his own images are overlaid on his face in a cluttered effect not unlike that created by Henri-Georges Clouzot in The Mystery of Picasso; and some of Juliano’s footage, shot when Wenders was too ill to travel, the most humorous of which captures Sebastião’s stealth attempts to photograph a herd of skittish walruses in the Russian Arctic. “We humans are terrible animals,” Sebastião muses, and having lived a life spent looking intently at some of mankind’s worst abuses of the land and each other, he’s earned the gravity. Today, Sebastião is an acclaimed nature photographer (his massive Genesis project shifted his focus almost entirely from the effects of man to the glories of nature) and a committed naturalist who, with his wife and collaborator Lélia, has reclaimed thousands of acres of rainforest as part of a nature preserve and educational facility. It’s somewhat due to this last point, one supposes, that such a lovely film of portraits and portraiture like Salt feels as though it needs to end with a call to action, which is now de rigueur for documentary.

It’s possible that Wenders cedes too much ground to Sebastião and Juliano. So many photographs are featured that it’s a breath of fresh air when Salt opens up into vérité, or allows for some musing from Wenders—anything that affords an additional perspective on the work beyond Salgado’s focused intensity. As well, Juliano remains also something of a mystery—is he Paris, Texas’s fatherless Henry all grown up? How much of what we’re seeing is under his control, and was created for the original project of trying to know his father better? Salt is a relentlessly traditional piece of filmmaking—it’s certainly not part of the new documentary landscape caught up in questions of hybridity and aesthetic experimentation—but Wenders’s other films, save perhaps Wings of Desire, were never particularly trendy. The Salt of the Earth has all those qualities we look for in a Wenders film—unassuming smarts, sensitivity to aesthetics, a wandering spirit. With The Salt of the Earth following up the daring Pina by only a few years, perhaps we now have proof that Wim Wenders’s best days aren’t behind him.