Document drafts a roadmap through the New German Cinema pioneer’s must-see works following remarkable critical reception of his latest film, ‘Perfect Days’

Wim Wenders is no stranger to the open road. The pioneer of New German Cinema has been making films for over half a century, traversing the gamut from otherworldly (1987’s Wings of Desire) to documentary (1999’s Buena Vista Social Club), placing his characters behind the wheel in almost every one. A prolific photographer as well as filmmaker, nearly every still of a Wim Wenders film could stand alone as a still image. His optimistic eye has a knack for finding the sublime in the banal. In Wenders’s latest film, Perfect Days, we are on the road again. Yet unlike the scenes of Harry Dean Stanton driving through the desolate plains of Paris, Texas—which Beyonce’s recent music video teaser for “Texas Hold ‘Em” pays visual homage to—Perfect Days takes place on the bustling freeways of Tokyo, Japan. It’s a tender close-up of a simple life, and a blissful ode to the city of Tokyo, the quiet cinema of director Yasujirō Ozu, and the almost-title of the film, the Japanese phrase komorebi, meaning “the sunlight that leaks through the trees.”

In the reflexive spirit of New German Cinema, filmmaking for Wenders is as much a journey through time and place as it is for his characters. His beginnings are rarely explanatory, endings are rarely conclusive, and not a whole lot happens in between. Stories unravel slowly and tacitly, leaving behind a bittersweet aftertaste that causes one to move about life just a bit differently. Thus, the process of viewing Wenders’s films is not so much one of complete comprehension, but surrender to the slowness. Such is true in Perfect Days, an elegiac Tokyo narrative about Hirayama (Kōji Yakusho), a middle-aged beatnik who cleans toilets for a living. By the end of the film, we know Hirayama’s days (and nights) by heart—which Wenders’s camera lingers on placidly—but little else about his past aside from a couple of revelatory chance encounters. Hirayama teaches us instead how to live in the moment, to look closely at the trees around us—how they move, how they reflect light. The past may be messy, but the present is perfect.

As Perfect Days makes its way through theaters, Document shares a list of Wim Wenders’s most transportive, and transcendent films. As existentially profound as they are visually striking, these films reflect the cities and sounds that move Wenders, and the themes that drive his work.

Summer in the City (1970)
Summer in the City was Wenders’s thesis film for the University of Television and Film in Munich and his first feature. It offers an early glimpse into his broader sensibility as a director, working alongside cinematographer Robby Müller with whom he would go on to make several other films, including Paris, Texas. It’s dedicated to ’60s rock band The Kinks, based on a titular song by The Lovin’ Spoonful. Ironically set in a cold Munich winter, Summer in the City is a brilliantly existential portrait of a man recently out of prison—aptly named Alphaville as a nod to Godard—released into a world he is unable to identify with. Seeking the elusive “answer,” he travels to Berlin, ducking down desolate streets and into lonely bars in the process, although never making it to the faraway America of his dreams. As Wenders notes, “the hero’s path is an escape route, driven by the hope to find a way back to himself through the mere movement of travel.”

Alice in the Cities (1974)
The first in Wenders’s Road Trilogy, opening under the boardwalk of a northeast beach (vaguely recognizable as Rockaway) and followed by a Northeast tour featuring cameos of the New York City skyline and late GEM spa, Alice in the Cities is a Baudrillard-esque outsider’s commentary on postmodern 1970s America—which Wenders’s gaze holds an idiosyncratic fascination for. After a failed journalism pursuit in the United States, Philip Winter, an aspiring writer, meets young mother Lisa and her precocious daughter Alice on their way back to Germany. When an airline strike cancels their flight, Alice is left in Philip’s care while Lisa stays back to tie loose ends with a past lover. Once the unlikely pair land in Germany, they embark on a road trip in search of Alice’s grandmother, riddled with red herrings through which Alice puts her wits to play. As film writer and mentee of Wenders Allison Anders notes, “The adult male character we thought was our focus is actually the passenger; the girl child is driving this road movie.”

Paris, Texas (1984)
American philosopher Marshall Berman titles his book on modernity with a reinterpretation of the famous Karl Marx quote, “All That is Solid Melts Into Air.” In the postmodern, daylit take on a Western that is Paris, Texas, all that is solid melts into dust—under a burning Southwest desert sun. A Palme D’Or winner, and one of Wenders’s best known films, Paris, Texas is Wim Wenders at his most vivid. After several years spent wandering the plains of the Southwest United States, absent and estranged Travis—played by Harry Dean Stanton—is discovered by his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell) and brought back to Los Angeles. There, he is reunited with his remarkably perceptive young son, Hunter, with whom he embarks on a journey to discover his wife, Jane (played by the stunning Natassja Kinski) working at a Texas Strip Club. Stanton’s face mirages the topography of the desert, and his yearning is visceral in the neon glow of the scenes where Travis speaks to Jane through the one-way mirror of the peep show phone booth. It’s an Edward Hopper painting of a film.

Wings of Desire (1987)
A departure from Wenders’s road film trope, Wings of Desire is distinctly stagnant. Set in a border-ridden West Berlin just two years before the Berlin Wall came down, the road in Wings of Desire looks upwards towards the heavens. A haunting, yet ethereal noir portrait of a lost city just before demilitarization—captured largely from above—Wings of Desire follows two angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) around the city as they listen in on the thoughts of its inhabitants. Damiel begins to fall for Marion, a circus trapeze artist, and ultimately sacrifices his immortality to experience a beating heart in love. Peter Falk plays himself as an American movie star angel-turned-mortal. In possibly one of the sexiest scenes ever shown on screen, Nick Cave performs on stage while a newly mortal Damiel searches for Marion amidst the brooding crowd. It bleeds with desire.

Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
While many of Wenders’s films hold a symphonic quality, Buena Vista Social Club may be the only one directly about music (unless you count his 2011 documentary Pina, about choreographer Pina Bausch). One of several forays into documentary, Buena Vista Social Club captures the aging and largely forgotten Cuban music group alongside American musician Ry Cooder as it ascends to a somewhat unexpected fame in its later years, culminating in the ensemble’s final performance at Carnegie Hall. Wenders interviews several group members against the backdrop of the Havana streets as they share vibrant stories of resilience pursuing music amidst an isolating and relegating pre-revolutionary Cuba. Yet unlike Wenders’s other films, the footage is remarkably low-res, desaturated and unpretentious. In Buena Vista Social Club, it’s the sounds that render it sublime.

Perfect Days (2023) 
A nomination for Best International Film at this past Oscars, Wim Wenders’s most recent endeavor Perfect Days might be as close as one gets to a perfect film. Originally commissioned as a documentary about the Tokyo Toilet design project, Wenders instead confirms himself as both a visual auteur and a sensitive storyteller. It’s also accompanied by a perfectly rocking ’70s score—many of his favorites—Patti Smith, Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones, which Hirayama listens to on cassette. Each day, the custodian wakes early and drives against the traffic to his job, where he meticulously cleans every inch of the hi-tech stalls. He spends his free time mostly alone, but never lonely; eating lunch in the park, reading Faulkner and Highsmith, going to the baths, biking, frequenting food joints where he’s greeted as a regular, and photographing trees on his small, point-and-shoot film camera. Yakusho quietly explodes in the role with a bursting range of emotion, the embers of which warm the final scene where Hirayama drives down the freeway to the sound of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” His close-up face breaks the fourth wall, melting between tears, smiles, laughter, and everything in between. As the lights went up, I turned to my dad in the theater seat next to me. There were tears in his eyes, too.