Legendary Director Wim Wenders Dishes on Making a Film About Pope Francis

German filmmaker Wim Wenders is well-decorated within the film community, for his work on fictional films and documentaries, including awards from the Venice Film Festival (1982), the Palme d'Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, Best Direction at the 1987 Bavarian Film Awards and the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. In 2012, his film Pina was nominated for the Best Documentary Feature of the 84th Academy Awards. But now he's turned his view toward one of the religious leaders known around the world, The Pope. 

Flying back to the United States, Wenders answered a few questions exclusively for Christian Cinema, tens of thousands of feet in the air. His film about Pope Francis, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, hits theaters today. 

What distinguishes Pope Francis from his predecessors? 

WW: I only know the public appearances of his predecessors. Pope Francis is the only pope I met in person. And I have a terrible aversion against comparisons. So please allow me to just say that I don’t think any pope before would have had the openness to be available for such a film. I was very impressed by the sheer power of Pope Francis presence, by his genuine kindness and tenderness, the emotional impact of his simple, yet deep language, by his humility and his love for people, but maybe most of all by his fearlessness.

How did you know when you had the right material to produce the documentary?

WW: I wrote a treatment, and in that conceptual paper laid out the elements that I thought we needed for the film. There were first of all the interview sessions we were going to shoot ourselves with Pope Francis. Then there were going to be a few re-enactments of the life of Saint Francis. (Which had to remain modest; in the spirit of Pope Francis I wanted to make a film that wouldn’t cost much. He shouldn’t be represented by an expensive and exuberant production.) Then I was counting on the Vatican’s archives, knowing that all of the pope’s journeys and appearances were being filmed and were available for us to be viewed and potentially used in the film. Plus there were materials by other TV teams from all over the world, not just CTV.

We initially had only planned three long talks, and then I realized in the editing that I would need one more and final interview, and we were allowed to do that. I saw several hundred hours of footage from the archive, and almost as much from other sources. In the end, my question was not: “Do I have all we need?” but rather: “How do I deal with having so much more than I can possibly use?” 

What does it mean to you that Pope Francis’ “approach” has raised attention in the Protestant and secular world?

WW: This does not amaze me. With some of the issues dear to his heart he is really addressing human problems that all of humankind is troubled by, and in many of his speeches he’s not addressing Catholics or Christians in particular, but all people of good will. And his personal modesty and the fact that he lives what he preaches has earned him worldwide respect. I have seen tough guys cry watching this film, and some of them were not believers at all, rather atheists. Pope Francis is able to reach into people’s hearts and souls and touch them in a way that they just don’t expect: they realize he is right. Even if they can’t share his spirituality and his rock-solid trust in God, they respect his honesty and they’re impressed by the clarity of his “approach”, as you call it.

What difference can Pope Francis make in the way that the Catholic Church moves into the future? What ripple effects do you see coming?

WW: I see so many people who say: “I grew up Catholic, but…” and those “buts” reveal a loss of conviction, a frustration with the Church, a disappointment with it not acknowledging people’s realities in the 21st century. These “buts” come relentlessly, and it often hurts to hear people who think there’s no way back for them. And then they see and hear Pope Francis, and you can really tell they’re shaken and they say: “Yes, I can believe this man, he touched me very much.”

I cannot predict the future, but in my everyday life, I see people long for a church they can identify with, that responds to their needs. So I hope the ongoing secularization will eventually stop and people will find a way to find their spirituality back in a world that overpowers them more and more and drives them away from the idea, and reality, of a loving God.

That little line by Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge…” when he was speaking about gay people, has raised more hopes for the future than many other long speeches and declarations. And people really react in a big way to his suggestion that we shouldn’t cast so many people aside, that we shouldn’t exclude so many, for whatever reasons, social, racial, economical, gender, age, education. All constitutions in our Western countries tell us that all men (and women) are created equal, but in reality, our economic systems and our societies continue to separate, segregate, cast away, exclude and marginalize. Pope Francis is right to bring the most simple things back!

We’ve lost the idea of fraternity. We’re into “growth, in America just as well as in China, Russia or Europe, growth for growth’s sake, and looking away when we realize that its effect is leaving more and more people behind, in the dust. Pope Francis is accused of being a communist when he insists on our own most basic values, when he urges us to consider to get by with less, for instance. It would be so great to grow a little less and let others catch up with us a bit. Wouldn’t it? 

The documentary focuses on peace and ending poverty. Why are they so central to the documentary? 

WW: When I read the reports of the early church in “Acts”, I keep reading about sharing, about community, about solidarity. Seen from today, this was almost a Utopian community. But I’m the first to admit: we refrained from making a film that would mainly address and approach a Catholic audience. You can always imagine another film, and you’re totally free to do so. I imagined this one. 

What was the most surprising thing to you about your time with the Pope? What was your favorite moment as you filmed?

WW: When Pope Francis first walked into the door, we were all nervous, me included. After all, we were going to shoot with the pope! And he looked around, saw us all staring at him, and he smiled. And then he started to greet everybody, one by one, taking time with everybody, talking to everybody, looking everybody in  the eye, not making the slightest difference between “important” people, like the producers or the director, and everybody else. He treated everybody the same. And his body language and his entire behavior said: I’m one of you, I’m not better or more special than any of you. He did the same at the end of every shoot. Each of us was deeply touched by his humanity and his cordiality. The same happened each time we saw him, altogether four times. As much as we were nervous the first time, we were really looking forward to each new encounter. And when he had said goodbye to everybody, he turned around once more and said, very seriously: “Please, pray for me!” And we did.

And yes, I almost forgot, [there is also] the very first time we huddled together with him and prayed. The “Our Father” came out in several languages at the same time. That was a bit cacophonic, but such a beautiful sound: the same words in all these different languages.