Kings of the Road at the PFA

I caught Kings of the Road Friday night at the Pacific Film Archive. It was the opening show of the series Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road. Like most of the films in this long series (it plays through July), Kings is the beneficiary of a recent 4K restoration.

Therefore, the PFA projected the 1976, black-and-white, 176-minute non-epic digitally from a DCP. That’s sort of ironic, since Kings of the Road is a film very much in love with the projection of 35mm film.

But then, on the other hand, it comes down pretty heavily on the scourge of bad projection.

As the name suggests, it’s a road movie. Two young men, both travelers, meet accidentally and decide to travel together. That’s basically the story. They talk, they see things, they listen to popular music and discuss the English lyrics (remember, this is a German film), they go their separate ways, they get back together, and they split again.

Very little of what you’d expect in a road movie happens here. They don’t run into trouble with bigots or the law. They don’t commit fun crimes. They don’t get laid (although one comes close).

Laid-back hippy-like Bruno (Rüdiger Vogler) travels to earn a living, and his large bus is his home. He repairs projectors in small-town movie theaters, and is quite a good projectionist himself. This is where the film’s love of 35mm, and its critique of bad projection, comes in. In one scene, disgusted by a dark and badly-framed image, he goes to the booth to complain. He finds the projectionist masturbating. (The film has a lot of full-frontal male nudity.)

Robert (Hanns Zischler) is more closed in. He’s clearly running from something, or to something. We first see him driving his Volkswagen into a lake. He’s a restless, frequently unhappy man, but he’s able to have moments of joy.

Wenders fills Kings of the Road with many wonderful and moving moments. Bruno flirts with a woman running a movie theater that’s been reduced to showing porn. Robert comforts a man whose wife just died in a car crash. And the two men, behind a backlit movie screen that only shows their silhouettes, improvise a very funny slapstick routine for the benefit of children waiting to see a movie.

As wonderful as it often is, Kings of the Road doesn’t have enough good scenes to fill out the three hours of its runtime. It could easily be cut by a third and be a better film. That’s why, despite the many masterful scenes, I can only give it a B+.

The new restoration looks great.