The solace in ‘Until The End of The World’
At some point, everyone pictures their life as a movie. Be it studying to “Battle Without Honor Or Humanity” and pretending to wield a samurai sword, mourning a breakup to “Visions of Gideon” and doing your best Chalamet or driving like James Bond to his theme song, we’ve turned the world into our own film, soundtrack and all. Lately, though, my inner movies have all veered toward one genre: apocalypse.
To paraphrase Bob Dylan — Corona, Corona, gal, you’re on my mind.
Coronavirus came slowly, advancing like the horde in “Night of The Living Dead.” At first, it seemed too far away to do any damage, and slow enough to be stopped by a capable government. Yet in the beginning of March, there it was, pounding our door down and stretching its filthy hands toward us.
First it took the schools. Then the restaurants. The bars, the libraries, the movie theatres. Borders, airports, friends. Writing this article, outside my window, the streets are practically desolate, like something out of “28 Days Later.”
To make things worse, our situation is more “War of The Worlds” than any zombie movie. Zombies are easily killed while, without a vaccine or cure, coronavirus is a much more complex threat, attacking a society powerless to stop it. We spend our days waiting, watching for symptoms that could appear at any moment and wreak havoc. If my life was actually a movie, I would scream, “Cut!” Yet I, like everyone else, am stuck living through this horror show.
We’re all (if we’re smart) socially distancing. That means most of us are living out our own renditions of “I am Legend” or “10 Cloverfield Lane.” So how should we fill these empty hours, waiting for the zombies to come?
All jokes aside, what I watch is vital to my mental state, especially in times of stress. A few days ago, in a moment of weakness, I made the ill-advised choice to watch “Outbreak.” Needless to say, I became even more terrified than I already was. Watching a fictional deadly American pandemic while living through a deadly American pandemic isn’t exactly the most comforting pastime. Don’t be like me.
After “Outbreak,” I searched for another movie. Choosing something too carefree wouldn’t work, plastic and sugar-sweet would just remind me of the dire straits my life was veering toward. Yet darkness clearly wasn’t a good idea either; just looking at the poster for “The Mist” gave me a cold sweat. I needed an escape, but one that was honest. Thankfully, I found the perfect film on the Criterion Channel.
When “Until The End of The World” was released in 1991, it was a critical and commercial failure. Even at almost four hours, it was deemed inscrutable — Roger Ebert called it “a film that was photographed before it was written, and edited before it was completed.”
Yet the film that was released in 1991 wasn’t director Wim Wender’s (“Paris, Texas”) true vision: The studio had forced him to trim the movie by at least an hour. No wonder things were jumbled. Wenders and his editor then copied the film negative at their own expense, making a five-hour version that they showed throughout the world. This September, the Criterion Collection made it official, restoring and releasing the Wenders Cut.
“Until The End of The World” is a road movie, a love story, a noir film, a science fiction allegory and a hopeful meditation on storytelling. It’s the apex of what cinema can achieve, crossing continents, genres, tones and technological eras. Best of all, the plot matches what we’re going through almost exactly.
It begins with Claire Tourneur, played by Solveig Dommartin (“Wings of Desire”), waking up in Venice toward the end of a Rococo-futurist style party (think “Marie Antoinette” meets “Blade Runner”). To the tune of “Sax and Violins” by Talking Heads, she walks through this fading celebration, passing intoxicated dancers in silk dresses and stepping over passed out drunks in tuxedos. In her eyes we see that she’s tired of this life, sick of the overwrought frivolity on display. After she leaves the party and decides to head home to Paris, we learn that it’s also the end of the world.
In this alternate, futuristic 1999, a malfunctioning nuclear satellite heads toward Earth and nobody knows where it will hit. Many clog the streets in a panicked effort to escape predicted drop zones, some hunker down and stay home, while many party their days away. In the age of COVID-19, this situation was hauntingly relevant. As I watched many I knew get drunk, lock themselves in their rooms or pack in a flurry and rush home, I wondered if the world would ever become normal again. All around me, lives were upended because of an unstoppable, inexplicable existential threat. Like Claire, I felt lost and was sick of it.
Yet Claire is soon rescued by this ennui when her car crashes and she meets two bank robbers who need her help. This quest soon becomes another, then another, and before one knows it they have followed Claire from Venice to Paris, Lisbon, Berlin and Moscow, all before the movie is even halfway over. Almost instantly, this traveling cured my quarantine blues. The soundtrack mirrors the breadth of scope, too; there’s music from the likes of Talking Heads, U2, Lou Reed, REM, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith and Julee Cruise. If nothing else, “Until The End of The World” will add some new songs to your playlist.
The film’s final act takes place in the stunning Australian Outback and involves a scientist played by the recently departed, legendary icon Max Von Sydow (“The Exorcist”). As always, his performance is a highlight. The scientist lives with an Aboriginal tribe, and has shades of Steve Jobs, Doctor Moreau and Colonel Kurtz. The Aboriginal characters’ culture, like the other cultures depicted in this movie, are treated with great depth and respect, which even now is incredibly rare. There’s also an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist message that still rings true, especially when many modern movies’ versions of representation so frequently involve a white savior.
So much of the film is relevant that I’m tempted to call it prophetic. Characters use video chat to communicate, all money is electronic, the wealth gap is horrific, gun violence is rampant, substance abuse is widespread, the globe is connected both virtually and physically and everyone lives in fear of an imminent, deadly threat. Sound familiar?
The movie predicted the technology boom and globalization of the 21st century, while also seeing the dangers of climate change, nuclear power and the addictive nature of digital life. It displays how advancement isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be — after all, haven’t these past few weeks shown us how those in a connected world suffer together?
Yet, time and time again in “Until The End of The World,” characters still seek joy. Be it through music, a walk through the woods, a trip to another city or just a good book, Claire and those around her find happiness through escape, even if it is in the briefest of moments and the direst of situations.
Hours after watching it, my mind still bustles with the characters, locales and emotions that fill “Until The End of The World.” It was an escape from my current troubles while also an analysis of, and answer to, every one of them. Even in the face of armageddon, Claire never stops trying to be happy, and those around her almost always lend a helping hand. The movie reminded me that, even in the worst of days, the positivity inherent in most people always endures. No matter what, life goes on and every day is another opportunity to change things for the better. Even if one feels totally stuck, there is always a way to escape.
If you’re bored, and your current quarantine activities just don’t cut it anymore, give “Until The End of The World” a try. It’s five hours, yes, but time isn’t exactly scarce for most of us. Why not replace another anxiety-driven binge of “The Office” with this globe-trotting, joyous, riveting masterpiece?
Just please, no matter what, stay away from “Outbreak.”