Wim Wenders on Pope Francis Doc and How Faith Has Shaped His Work

Juan Naharro Gimenez/WireImage

The German auteur also recalls the time he got robbed in Cannes and offers advice to fest newbies.

When it comes to Cannes, Wim Wenders has done it all. The German director has had nine films in competition; has won best director (Wings of Desire, 1987), the Grand Jury prize (Faraway, So Close!, 1993) and the Palme d’Or (in 1984 with Paris, Texas); and even been president of the jury (in 1989). “I’ve stopped counting how many times I’ve been to Cannes,” says the 72-year- old auteur, who is back on the Croisette with the documentary Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, which premieres May 13 out of competition. Speaking with THR, Wenders recalls capturing the Palme d’Or, offers advice for fest newbies and reflects on how faith has shaped his work.

What’s your fondest memory of winning the Palme d’Or?

At the ceremony, they had placed all the people who were going to win somewhere close to the aisles. All the awards came and went — best director, no. Best script and best actor — Harry Dean [Stanton] didn’t win it. There was only the Palme d’Or left, and there was only me and [John] Huston [in competition with Under the Volcano]. We were sitting across the aisle from each other, and we had this thing going: With each award, we would signal to each other — you? Or me? Then it was the Palme d’Or, and it was Paris, Texas, and he gave me a big smile and gave me the sign to get up. Then, afterward, which we didn’t know, he got his award, the lifetime achievement award. Backstage, he suggested we swap Palmes. But we didn’t.

Any Cannes nightmare stories?

For the 60th anniversary in 1997, we showed The End of Violence, which we had shot in downtown L.A. That was a pretty tough area, but nothing ever happened to us during the shooting. But when we were leaving to attend the red carpet at Cannes, we were robbed at gunpoint. I was with my wife and the producers. They got the wallets and purses and left. Nobody had much in there because we were going to the gala. Nothing much but lipsticks.

What’s your advice for a first-time director going to Cannes?

Be prepared not to win anything. The majority of films that go don’t win anything. And juries can be very eclectic. It can be cruel. So you say, “I’ll never go back there again.” I’ve had that too. But Cannes also has been very good to me.

Did you approach the pope film similarly as your docs on artists?

No. The approach I took was that I wasn’t interested in his biography. It was not going to be in any way biographical. It wasn’t a film about the person, it was a film about the person’s hope and desires for the church and for mankind. I didn’t want to have a talking heads film. I wanted him to speak in an eye-to-eye situation to the person watching.

What surprised you about him?

We met for four long afternoons. Of course, I had read everything he had written before I met him, so it was already as if I knew him. And then it was still a surprise. It was still amazing how he came completely alone, without any bodyguards, without any entourage, extremely present and extremely prepared to just be there for us. He didn’t have a mobile phone. He was very attentive and said hello personally to each member of the crew, and he took his time for each and everyone before and after and treated everybody alike.

Did you address church controversies like the sex-abuse scandals?

We addressed all of these. He didn’t shy away from anything. I could have had him talk for 10 hours. I had cuts where he was talking for two and a half hours, but I realized that no one can grasp more than these 90 minutes because it is quite demanding to follow one person and his train of thought. So some issues were treated shorter than they could have been. But that was my choice: The Vatican didn’t object to any cut, and I had final cut anyway.

You’ve used Christian symbolism in your films ...

Every artist basically is the sum of his experiences. And spiritual experiences are very important. You can, of course, decide to live a life that is opposed to that. I was a radical student in 1968, and I turned away from my religious upbringing. I came back in a big way in the ’80s and found that I hadn’t really lost it. It was very much linked to the death of my father. Seeing him face death without fear, and actually with some anticipation and joy, was an incredible experience.

A version of this story appears in The Hollywood Reporter's May 11 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival.