‘A horn blew when human remains were found’: Wim Wenders’ six hours in the hell of Ground Zero

UNs a boy growing up in the rubble and ruins of postwar West Germany, Wim Wenders would often dream of falling towers. So at the age of 56, when he watched the twin towers of the World Trade Center blaze and then plummet into the streets of New York, the impact hit him hard. “It started to haunt me badly," lui dice. "Voglio dire, I saw everything live on TV like everybody else. All of mankind was badly shaken. But I kept dreaming of being stuck in collapsing towers. I wanted to somehow exorcise these things. And I figured if I could go to New York and see for myself, that would help.”

That was how Wenders came to be at Ground Zero in the aftermath of the attacks and took the five large-format photographs now showing at the Imperial War Museum in London as part of its 9/11: Twenty Years On exhibition. They are extraordinary works, capturing great horizontal and vertical swathes of this steel-and-concrete apocalypse, with cranes, diggers and firefighters standing out in heroically bright colours. Shattered pillars jut out from piles of warped girders in a hellish crucible of chaos and destruction.

A longtime champion of the American highway in films such as Alice in the Cities and Parigi, Texas, Wenders was actually resident in US at the time, although he had returned briefly to Berlin the day the towers fell, the Pentagon was attacked and another plane crashed in Pennsylvania. The director was friends with Joel Meyerowitz, the only photographer with official permission from the city to document work on “the pile”, as it became known, at Ground Zero. Meyerowitz could take an assistant, so under that guise Wenders managed to get inside the cordon.

“It was like working on a huge graveyard,” the 76-year-old remembers two decades on. “It was all silent and quiet. Conversations would happen in whispers. Every now and then, there was a horn blowing. And everyone would take off their hard hats because it meant somebody somewhere had found human remains.”

Wenders spent about six hours at the site and shot sparingly. As ever, he was hoping the surroundings would reveal something to him. “I’m a photographer of places, I practically never take portraits,” says the director, a hale and strapping figure these days. Wearing braces and a black polo neck, he’s speaking via Zoom from an austere-looking apartment he’s renting in the countryside around Berlin. “I feel places talk about us, they tell us about ourselves. As a photographer, I become the listener.”

At one point at Ground Zero, the sun suddenly came out, glinting off the adjacent skyscrapers. “Joel, who had been there for weeks, disse, ‘I’ve never seen this. The sun never shines in this hellhole.’” Ground Zero, Wenders felt, was telling him “an unbelievable thing”. He explains: “It was like the place was talking about healing instead of perpetuating this madness and shedding more blood.”

We are discussing his work in the week the Taliban retake Afghanistan, a chilling new chapter in what 9/11 set into motion. Wenders shares the general sentiment that this development is “absolutely horrifying” – but believes there was a brief window when the attacks could have taken history down a different path, away from the endless cycle of war, imperialism and self-interest. “I attended some services in which all the world religions took part," lui dice. “It seemed for a while that this event could have an amazing cathartic effect. Bush could have made such a name for himself as a peacekeeper by not reacting with that old and worst reaction, which is revenge.”

Anziché, history took a darker course, the way of “fucking lies”, as Wenders puts it. He was proud when Germany and France refused to join the invasion of Iraq in 2003, forming what the New York Post dubbed an “axis of weasel”. Al tempo, Wenders wore a T-shirt declaring: “Proud to be a weasel.”

Difficult though it was to be there, in many ways Ground Zero was familiar territory for Wenders. Always drawn to emptiness and desolation in his films, using them as places for existential contemplation, he cast Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander as angels picking through Berlin’s pre-reunification wastelands in 1987’s Wings of Desire. The scenes were unforgettable: history gaped through wounds in the landscape, just like it would later do in Manhattan.

It feels obvious to draw a line back to his childhood in the husk of Düsseldorf, 80% of which was destroyed in the second world war. Wenders lived until he was six in the former shopfloor of his grandfather’s pharmacy, housed in a building that lost all but two of its storeys. As the future director dreamed of collapsing towers, he also had a realisation that would make a traveller of him: “There was no television and we never went to see newsreels at the movie theatre. But I knew of other places from paintings and photographs. I realised the world elsewhere was very different to mine. Mine was probably the shittiest of all.”

Wenders doesn’t like destruction for the sake of it. He believed Hollywood’s newfound love in the 1990s for digitally assisted demolition – such as blowing up the White House in Independence Day – gave 9/11 a terrible “familiarity”. Immediately after the atrocity, he suggested Hollywood was guilty of a kind of hubris of the image and expected a correction. “The attacks," Egli ha detto, “will now have consequences for a specific genre and a specific kind of special effects.”

As anyone who has watched a Marvel movie will testify, that has not exactly come to pass. Ancora, if audiences’ perverse love of watching their own metropolises getting trashed hasn’t diminished, Wenders is refusing to buy in. “I don’t watch these movies any more. I just walk out.” He lets out an exasperated sigh. “I have no interest. There are very few movies that can really do something with that except create a feeling of doom.” If a city must get stomped, he prefers the “innocence” of earlier blockbusters, the King Kongs and Godzillas. He sees something in their playfulness: “Especially the ones that came out of Japan. It was maybe even a necessary way to come to some sort of catharsis or exorcism [following the atomic bombings]."

After the photographs, Wenders’ next response to 9/11 was the 2004 drama Land of Plenty. It starred Michelle Williams as a young Los Angeles woman attempting to bring her uncle – a Vietnam vet on the trail of a supposed terrorist cell – out of his patriotism-induced paranoia. After they witness the murder of a young Pakistani, they decide to take his body to his family, the resulting road trip providing an education for both.

Finishing with the pair gazing out over Ground Zero, the film was Wenders’ somewhat laboured attempt to work through his complicated feelings toward his adopted country: America’s neglect of its own, its refusal to admit any vulnerability. Filmed semi-improvisationally in LA and the Mojave desert, it was another of Wenders’ attempts to “listen” to a place.

This open way of working is virtually impossible within fiction film-making now, lui dice. That is why he has gravitated increasingly towards documentary-making, with the likes of the critically praised Pina, about the great German dancer Pina Bausch. “Fiction has become a different business," lui dice. “Fiction is very formulated. I did my best work with an unfinished or nonexistent script. Wings of Desire was done without a script. I always looked at film-making as something in which you want to learn about a story, and not just know it beforehand and then merely execute it. That is no longer possible.”

Unsurprisingly for this witness of Ground Zero, this director who finds potential in wildernesses and no man’s lands, Wenders is interested in how to rebuild correctly. His next project is a documentary about Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, whose philosophy of buildings as centred around personal experience, with a fastidious feel for materials and respect for local culture, appeals to the director. It’s not just about Zumthor, but about “architecture in general, how buildings and houses influence us”.

Wenders has an architectural project of his own at the moment. He is busy restoring a rare mid-century brick barn, the reason why he is living in an apartment next door. He was supposed to be in this summer, but the pandemic had other ideas. “The whole building industry in Germany went berserk. All of a sudden it gets tough to get people because they’re building everywhere like there’s no tomorrow. And now you can’t get any wood and prices have skyrocketed. It’s very strange. We live in a country with many forests, but all our wood goes to China. And we need big beams!"

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