Wim Wenders on the First Film a Pope Has Ever Been Involved With (Audio and Transcript)
Listen to the interview in the player above and read the transcript below. Find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.
–posted by Emily Wells
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where I hasten to say the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, no question: Wim Wenders, originally Wilhelm Wenders, a documentarian, feature-film director, a brilliant force in films. And I’m really excited to be discussing this current film, Pope Francis – A Man of His Word. And it’s a documentary about the current Pope Francis, but it begins with Francis of Assisi, and the whole idea of the vow of poverty and reforming, a commandment from Christ to reform one’s own house. And you begin the movie really talking about this image, and one wonders, does the Catholic Church have this pope at just the right moment; is it the house that requires reforming, or are you referring to the world as requiring, as the house that requires reforming and saving and changing. So why don’t you just introduce that, the subject of [the] current pope. Who I have to say, this film appeals to my own feelings about this pope, that he has actually dared to challenge us on the most fundamental questions that we face, both with his words and his actions.
Wim Wenders: Already the first second I saw him, well, the world saw him, more than five years ago when he was elected, just before that, they announced on that balcony in St. Peter that the new pope would take on the name of Franciscus, which is Francis. And as I’ve studied nine years of Latin almost for nothing, it was at least good at that moment when they said that in Latin, I got it. And I realized that no pope was called Francis, and I was flabbergasted. I didn’t think anybody would ever dare to take up that name, because the name of Francis is a huge responsibility for any pope. And that’s why no pope before ever dared to do so, because that is quite a package that comes with that name. And that saint who lived in the 13th century was a huge reformer of the church for me. He was a hero of humanity. He was the only saint I ever knew what he had done, and all other saints remained sort of anonymous in my head. But I knew St. Francis was into things that are so essential for all of us. He was into nature in a visionary way at the time, like 800 years ago; he realized something was getting out of whack between nature and ourselves. And so he was the very first ecologist. And then St. Francis also had an incredible social consciousness, and identified with the outcasts and the poor of his time, and really lived a life of radical solidarity with the poor and outcasts. So a pope who would take on that name had to address these two subjects, big-time. When I was offered the opportunity to get close to him and make a film on him, I didn’t hesitate for a second. Because I thought, this man is one of the most important men of our time, and he is a moral authority like nobody else right now, and I have a chance to really speak to him at length, several times, and the Vatican to open their archives for me to make a film on him. An independent film, of course; this is not a commission, or not a film produced by the Vatican, but it’s an independent film. And they gave me that chance to have access to that very, very special man for the first time, I think, ever, that any pope was involved in a film.
RS: You were originally Catholic by birth, in, right, 1945?
WW: Yeah. By birth and by education.
RS: My own family, my father’s side, came from a Protestant background in Germany. And a half-brother of mine in this country actually was in the American Army Air Force, he actually bombed the area, and then he visited. And he was so alienated by the role of the Church in our home community, Mackenbach, near Kaiserslautern, small village. Because the church, the Protestant church, it’s certainly been compromised by its relation to power, to Hitler. And so had the Catholic Church. And I just, and a lot of the feeling I found in my own relatives in Germany was they wanted nothing more to do with religion; their religion had failed them. And–
WW: They were not alone.
RS: Yes. [Laughs] So why don’t we begin with your introduction to Catholicism, and here and now at this point in your life you end up actually celebrating–and in the best sense of the word, celebrating–well, celebrating a pope who I believe is worthy of celebration. So take us through your own journey to this point.
WW: Well, I was born right into post-war Germany. I was born into a completely destroyed country. And the one positive thing about that, because of course when you grow up you don’t know anything else, the one positive thing about that, I had a strong sense of community when I grew up. People were in solidarity with each other, because that’s all they had, each other; there was nothing. And I grew up in a Catholic family, and my father was a great example of a Christian life. He was a doctor, and he did his profession from his Christian beliefs, and he was there 100 percent for his patients, seven days a week. And very often we didn’t see him for days, because he was at the hospital. So I grew up really as a believer until the age of 15 or 16, and I even though I might become a priest. Because when you grow up, the only thing that you really consider is the professions you know, and apart from my father’s profession, medicine, the only people who had impressed me were priests. So I considered that. But along came rock ‘n’ roll and jukeboxes and pinball machines, and then I started to drift away from the church, like many, many others in my generation. And with some huge detours—I mean, I was a student in ’68, and of course I was a socialist at the time, and I studied philosophy, and I was very involved in existentialism. And along came the ’70s with all the things they were throwing at us, and the ’80s, and I got interested in Eastern religions. And with the death of my father in the late ’80s, I was confronted with my own belief again, because he died very consciously, very optimistically looking forward to it. He was not afraid of it. And I accompanied him in the last few months of his life, and that made me really reconsider where I was coming from. And I returned to my childhood belief only as a grownup, and that wasn’t quite the same. I became a Protestant and converted, and now consider myself a Christian. But not really an ecumenical Christian; I can go to a Catholic church, I can go to a Protestant church; when I lived in Los Angeles for 15 years I was in a Presbyterian community. So I am a Christian, yes, but I’m also a very open person. And I loved that this pope was so open to everybody, and was so welcoming to other religions, and that was another heritage of St. Francis. That man, 800 years ago, when there were the bloodiest wars between Christianity and Islam, he went at great personal risk to Egypt to speak with the highest authority of the Islamic world at the time to end the bloodshed. So the name of Francis, even in the area of peace between religions, is a huge obligation today.
RS: In your film, Pope Francis – A Man of His Word, it’s important because his word is provocative in the best sense. Going back to Francis, the commandment that he hears from Christ, “Go and restore my house”—that is a house that religion did a lot to destroy, organized religion. And you had all, ever since, whether it’s Islam, whether it’s a Christian religion, and so forth, you can go down the list, the fact is a great deal of harm has come from religion. And this pope came at a time when the Church, the Catholic Church, was in disrepute. Maybe he was selected only because he was the kind of person who could restore the Church. And he deals in your film with a whole series of provocative questions concerning the environment, concerning poverty, war and peace, pedophilia, and so forth. And you know, for a nonbeliever in that church, at first you want to question—well, now you’re telling this, and why didn’t you tell us before. And the film provides some real answers. He does trace responsibility back to the Church, as well as to other centers of power.
WW: Of course he does. But first of all, he really appeals to each and everybody to the most simple things that really we all take for granted, and then again we can’t. I mean, our Constitution in America, as well as anywhere in Europe, tells us that all people are created equal. But our society, our politics, our economics, don’t let us treat each other as if we’re equals. People more and more have a tendency to exclude others, and exclusion is the opposite of what people should do to each other, and it’s certainly the opposite of what Christians should do to each other, or to other people. So in many ways, Pope Francis is just saying the very obvious to everybody today. But because nobody is saying it anymore, it has become so meaningful these days. Because we’re living in a world that is basically used to the fact that it has become pretty immoral, and that nobody speaks anymore with any moral authority. A lot of the people who govern this world in powerful positions, morally they’re incapable of doing so. And all of a sudden there is a pope who takes upon that responsibility, and reminds us of so many simple things that we should, that we all thought we could take for granted, but we don’t anymore. You know, when we entered the 21st century, we thought this was going to be the golden age of humanity, but instead it got darker and darker. And we need a little light in this darkness, and I felt that Pope Francis was able to shed some light into the present darkness.
RS: Yeah, but it’s a message, again, that you know, is a challenge. You used the concept from St. Francis, taking the gospel seriously. And it means, you know, it can’t just be one nation, and thank God, you know—every politician says it, you know; it’s this kind of an echo of false patriotism in a way—my country, my God, and so forth. And what this pope is saying, you know, wait a minute—he’s attacking, for example, you have a number of headlines, of phrases that are themselves, could be the subject of a whole investigation. But the culture of waste—I mean, there’s a very profound attack on the whole celebration of international capitalism, and now the Chinese, so you have international communism capitalism; you have this sort of embrace of the consumer—
WW: They are not that different anymore. They act, at least, the same, that’s for sure.
RS: Yeah. So you have this great embrace of the culture, what the pope calls the culture of waste. And then you have the losers, and they’re—you don’t have to think about them; they’re discarded people. And then here this pope comes and reminds us, no, they can’t be discarded. And you have a figure, maybe there’s a billion people that are hungry in the world right now. And you know, I don’t want this movie to sound like a greeting card, because it’s quite the opposite. It says, sure, you can use these phrases about Christianity and the one common—but there’s an obligation. And this pope, in his quiet, down-to-earth way, reminds us of this obligation to the poor, to people who are criminal, to the environment, to peace. It’s a very, it reminds me of Pope John, who came along I guess in the early ’60s and late ’50s was the last time I can remember a pope that could command the world’s attention legitimately because of the power of the truth that he was expressing. Is that not really the theme of this movie? And I asked you, when you meet this pope, he seems real, and that’s what your movie conveys.
WW: Yeah. He is a very real person. The very first time he came into the room, when we did our first interview, and when myself and my entire crew were quite nervous, by entering and by looking around he made it clear already—hey, guys, don’t be scared of me, I’m just like everybody else. And the first thing he did was greeting everybody. Handshake, a few words with each and everybody in the crew, the electricians just as well as the so-called important people like a producer or director. He treated us all alike, and he made it clear, I’m one who is also just like any of you, I’m not special. And he lives that convincingly. And he doesn’t take limousines, but when arrived in the garden where we shot, he peeled himself out of the smallest car available in Italy, which is a Panda. And he didn’t move into the palace that popes used to live in, but he went and stayed in a little pensione. So he really lives what he preaches, and that is the, that is a necessary thing today; you can’t just claim things and mean something else. He means what he says. And in the end, after I really got to know him better, and followed him closer, and saw all these documents from all over the world on his journeys and all the places where he went, [like] prisons and hospitals and refugee camps—I realized he truly was a man of his word. He stood by what he said. And he doesn’t just meet heads of state, and when he came to America he just didn’t speak in front of the Senate or the U.N.; he also went to hospitals, and he went into American prisons. And who on this planet does that? Who goes to countries and sees poor people and goes to slums and goes to refugee camps, and also meets the president? I don’t know anybody else who does it. So I think he is a man of his word, and I think words in our day and age don’t mean much anymore, so somebody had to come and call attention to words anymore, and that words mean something, and that words do have, can have a moral authority.
RS: We’re talking about Pope Francis – A Man of His Word, a terrific documentary film that–and when I say terrific, because it provokes though. It doesn’t, it doesn’t hit you over the head with the authority of a particular religion or even of this man. What he seems to do with his basic style is actually raise questions and encourage critical thinking. For example, the exchange on the airplane that you have where he’s talking about homosexuality, and who is he to judge. And he has a position that still will not satisfy many people; it doesn’t satisfy me. He has a similar position that doesn’t satisfy a lot of people on the question of choice and birthing and so forth; doesn’t satisfy me. But he doesn’t present it in a didactic way that, you know, he’s somehow the vessel of God, and you’re going to take it or leave it, but you’re going to be punished. He’s actually, this pope, like Pope John, the last pope that I would be doing a program on, raises questions about: Who are we? What are we here for? What is our stewardship? And he does it in ways that actually are quite surprising. The discussion about homosexuality, again, won’t satisfy a lot of people, but it makes you think about the basic humanity of the people that otherwise are condemned or what have you, or with labels.
WW: Yeah. And I don’t know any of his predecessors who would have said, who am I to judge, as long as somebody is a good person, who am I to judge. And that “Who am I to judge” is a huge turn from other ways of treating any of these subjects. It’s true, he says God loves us all, and he even goes that far and says, God loves you even if you’re an atheist, and if you reject his love he has the same love for you, and that’s the only bond that we have as humans. And we are really, really brothers, and we have to take that seriously, and we cannot pretend we are anything else. We need to face that fraternity, and that we are a common family on this planet. So who am I to judge anybody who’s thinking differently from me?
RS: Which is incredible coming from the pope.
WW: Yeah. It is.
RS: And we should remind people of this history. I mean, I talked about half of my family being Protestant; the other half were Jewish. And I remember growing up as a kid in New York, and every once in a while somebody would punch me in the nose and say, “You killed our Lord.” And I didn’t even know what they were talking about, “You killed our Lord”; well, that was a position the Catholic Church supported up until recent history, right? It was, I think, under Pope John where it was officially declared, you know, that this basic anti-Semitic canard had to be rejected forcefully. But this is true of all religions—people claim to be Muslims, Hindus, you know, Buddhists, and they kill other people in the name of a lord. So they say they have the right to judge, they’ve been encouraged to judge, right, by their religion. And here’s a pope—and as I say, he’s just the right pope for that church for this moment, and for the world for this moment, because he is saying, you know—no. We have to take seriously the complexity of this situation, and of the human experience, and then return to some basics. And so, is this guy the real deal?
WW: This guy is the real deal. He’s not pretending to be anything. He’s not playing a part or role. He’s not putting up an act. That’s who he is. And when he looked me in the eye, and when he talked to everybody, and we shot the film in a way that he looks everybody in the eye; we shot it with a device that makes Pope Francis look at you when you see the film. Because I figured, if I have this unbelievable chance to be sitting face-to-face with him for eight hours, four times, two hours, then I don’t want to just have that for myself; I need to share that. So we shot it with a sort of a teleprompter, except of course the pope doesn’t see his answers, he saw my face, and by looking at me and by talking to me, he now speaks to everybody. And he is the real deal; he is not phony. And long before he was pope, already as a bishop and a common priest, he had shared this solidarity and sympathy with the poor. And his message then wasn’t a different message from what he has now. He is a very open and incredibly kind person, and humble. And that humility he still has; he doesn’t think highly of him[self] because he’s now a pope. On the contrary, he thinks he has to be even more humble.
RS: [omission for station break] Let me talk a little bit about your other films. Because this was kind of a character break. In terms of documentaries, one that comes to mind is the Buena Vista Social Club, which Ry Cooder was involved in. And you’ve zeroed in on different aspects of life, and I know when I’ve talked to filmmakers I have the chance to interview, they say, God, they would be tongue-tied, because you are a legend. And I mentioned before, when we were talking, Werner Hertzog, you remind me very much of him. That these are, you are two German filmmakers who seem, like this pope you’re describing, to be searching for truth rather than hammering it into our heads. And there’s a real range of your curiosity and your humility, that you bring to filmmaking, and yet you’ve been highly celebrated. So let me just ask you now how you appraise your own work, and how this film fits in.
WW: There is different ways to approach a documentary, obviously. There is, documentaries for some people are ways to research something, or to criticize something, or to bring something to light that is bad in the environment, in social justice. And my approach to my documentaries, like you mentioned Buena Vista Social Club or Salt of the Earth or Pina, my approach is that I like something very, very much, like the music of these old men in Havana; the choreography, and this whole new art form by Pina Bausch; or the unbelievable social photography of this Brazilian photographer. And I like something, and I want to share it. And that is my approach. It’s not a critical approach; other people can do that much better. It’s more of a loving approach, I want to share something. And I want to tell of my admiration, of my excitement about somebody’s art or somebody’s beauty, and somebody’s creation. So I like to disappear in my documentaries. I don’t want to appear, I want to make something else appear. So my films don’t have much of a critical distance, like other filmmakers prefer, but they are films about immersing in another world and another subject. And celebrate the music of these old men in Havana, or celebrate the art of Pina Bausch. And in this case here with Pope Francis, I really want to bring, to show as many people as possible how important I think the message of this man is, and what it really means that there’s a pope who calls himself Francis, and what does that mean in the 21st century. And I want to create that context, and really wanted to make this film so this man, through my film, could really look into everybody’s eyes who sees this film, and talk to each and everybody. Because that’s what he is, he’s an incredible communicator. And if you are face to face with him, you feel that he’s really deeply looking into you, and how serious he is about communicating, and how serious he is about what he thinks is wrong with our times, or what he thinks is lacking. And how he thinks we’re—well, not Christians, for instance, talking to Christians, or not taking care of our planet, talking to everybody on this planet. He is really concerned about many issues, and he’s not really talking to us only as the pope, and only for the Catholic Church; he talks to us with the authority of a man who has earned that authority by living what he says.
RS: For people who are not familiar with the encyclicals and other proclamations of this pope, I really would recommend that they read some. I know, you know, I was not inclined to think, oh, this pope’s going to have the answers and raise the right questions, until I read his document on the environment. And I thought, wow. And then the one on poverty, and wow. And then the one on peace, wow. And the “wow” is how clear, and yet simple, the advice and the questioning is, you know; and like, on poverty, do we really believe each of us has equal potential and value and worth and a soul? The basic question of the Good Samaritan, you know, and Luke. Do we really, when we bomb people, do we really think that they are, have children, or these children could be our own children? And you know, you go right down the list in this documentary. Why don’t you flesh it out, the different points that are raised? Because there are four or five.
WW: Yeah. He spoke in front of the American, both houses. And he said, well, all you guys, all you men and women in front of me, most of you are descendants of immigrants. And let’s look at these immigrants differently. And he himself is a son of immigrants in Argentina. He had a way of really catching the attention of the Senate by talking about immigration and migration, and this being one of the most important social issues of our time, these millions of people on the road right now in Africa and South America, or in Asia.
RS: Or on the border with Mexico and California.
WW: For instance, for instance, there we go. And it’s happening right here, and it’s happening in my country, in Germany, just as well as here in America. And he talks about borders, and he talks about the fact that closing borders has never helped anything. And certainly in the long run, never helped the population that it tries to protect; it’s turned, borders turn against everybody. And it goes on and on and on; this is just one example.
RS: Well you know, we’re going to have to end this here, but I want to pay tribute to you for making this film. You know, sometimes you watch things and they make you angry, but they make you feel hopeful. And the idea that somehow this old religion of the Catholic Church, and its interpretation of Christianity, which as I said before has been involved in not always wonderful activities, and sometimes deadly wrong, and so forth. And in a moment when it’s really a low point for the Catholic Church, to suddenly have a pope, it almost—if there is an Almighty, it almost seems like a gift. [Laughs] And this whole idea, I just want to end on this kind of critical idea from St. Francis that you raised, and maybe say a final word about it. But, “Go and restore my house”—by that house, though, it means all the people in this house, whether the house is the world, or it’s the universe, or it’s the Church. But it’s all of them, and it means somebody stuck in a prison; it’s somebody who did something wrong and was punished; it’s somebody who’s poor; it’s somebody who lives in a country you don’t understand their language. That is what this movie really is about, and what you’re saying this man is all about. He does not accept these barriers, these borders; he’s a bridge to everything, to everyone.
WW: You put it into very good words, Bob. I’m grateful for you. And you also have to know, this man has an incredibly positive radiation. He doesn’t have a dark outlook at the world. As bad as things are, he seems to be of sheer, endless optimism. And he doesn’t say to us, it’s all going down the drain; he says, it’s not going down the drain if we only remember that each and every one of us has his or her part in this. And I think that’s the most encouraging message he has, that is, a message of hope. And if there is darkness all around us, well, we can bring light into it.
RS: Well, that’s words to live by. And that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. My guest has been filmmaker Wim Wenders. His newest film is Pope Francis – A Man of His Word. The producers for Scheer Intelligence are Rebecca Mooney and Josh Scheer. Our engineers at KCRW are Mario Diaz and Kat Yore. We had help today from Paul Ruest at Argot Studios in New York. I’m Robert Scheer. See you next week.
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