Dreaming a continent

The European project will wither and die if it does not place culture and the arts at the heart of i

Choosing to discuss the idea of "Europe's soul" carries the inverse implication - or perhaps it is more a suspicion - that Europe lacks such a thing. It would also seem to suggest that what is missing from the European project is a vision of the future, or a dream. If that is the case, we must do something about it, whether that means "we", the Europeans, or "they", the policymakers.

For most Europeans, Europe has become an abstract, alien entity. They are no longer sure whether they should identify with it or dissociate themselves from it, whether they feel represented or repressed. As such, the image of Europe is a contradictory one. The word "image" is useful; Europe's image is something quite different from the picture we have of our continent. An image is also a make, a brand, the product of a long series of past images, of stories, of tradition, of propaganda, of personal experience and reputation. Our feelings about Europe's soul relate mainly to this image. Europe needs to regain its tarnished self-esteem, in order that it can recover its soul.

Europe's image has suffered greatly; recalling the circumstances surrounding the failure of the European constitution is especially painful. Europe does, indeed, have a poor reputation among many young people - no better than that of the rest of the globalised world. At the G8 summit in Heiligendamm last month, I spent five days with young people who were on the other side of the fence from the politicians attending the meetings. For them, Europe has become a mere economic power, sharing the political blame for the dreadful state of the climate, for energy abuse and overexploitation of resources, as well as for poverty and injustice in the world. This is all Europe means to most of them.

That is sad, because we know that today Europe is really the opposite: a haven of human rights; a realm of freedom such as history has never seen before. There is no more social entity anywhere else in the world, no more peaceful community of peoples, no more democratic tradition. It is a source of great personal pain to me to see so many young people who have given up on Europe.

When I was a boy, the idea of Europe was the thing. The friendship between Germany and France, and the even more utopian vision of a United Europe, set my imagination soaring more than anything else - and yet Europe was still far away on the horizon. I would often cycle from the Ruhr region to Amsterdam to look at the pictures of Vermeer, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. My heart pounded each time I presented my German identity card at the Dutch border. European history in the first half of the 20th century was responsible for one feeling not exactly welcome, as a young German. A few years later, while I was hitchhiking in Brittany, a farmer tried to kill himself and me by crashing his Peugeot into a tree. I was the first German he had met since the war. All that seems as far away in the past as the war itself, during which I was conceived, but which was over by the time I was born.

Today, you no longer have to show identity papers when travelling across Europe, and we use the same currency. When I was a boy, that was an absolutely unbelievable prospect. Now, that dream has become a reality, and no one is moved by it any more. It seems Europe is most desirable to those that don't have it. In recent years, as I looked towards Europe from many other countries, especially in Africa, it warmed my heart to see the positively mythical status Europe enjoys there as an earthly paradise. From afar, our con tinent appears marvellous and resplendent, but close up, it is just business as usual, dull and strangely cool - what Berliners call "coffee gone cold". What became of the dream? How did the whole idea disappear down the drain?

Having spent many years living in America, during which time I became increasingly aware of my identity as a German (in my soul) and as a European (in my heart), I believe that the much-invoked American dream is relevant to this question. This was the dream of all the immigrants from 18th- and 19th-century Europe who had to leave their native countries for a wide variety of social and religious reasons to travel to that promised land called America. They dreamed of a land of unlimited opportunities, which offered them precisely what they lacked at home: a future. It was this blend of European hopes and projections that gave rise to America; the American dream was thus a European projection in the truest sense of the word.

Why then was there never a European equivalent of the American dream? Hasn't the time come to start dreaming it, particularly as the Americans have stopped doing so? (When was that? After the Great Depression? The Vietnam War? Watergate?) But there has never been talk of the "European dream". The subject was already covered - by the cinema, by the world of moving pictures.

When the language of film was born, it grew up almost simultaneously in Europe and America. In no time at all, it had become a real industry everywhere, not only in the United States, but also in France, the Soviet Union and Germany, where, especially in the 1920s, the young film industry gained its greatest momentum. Even in relatively small film countries such as Denmark and Sweden, national film productions blossomed and won international success.

The Americans, however, were quicker to grasp the power that using pictures to tell stories would eventually bring. Instinctively, they knew they were backing a winner by using the power of pictures to promote their American dream - using it, ultimately, as a way to put out and spread their message. They were very quick to realise that this new medium had the potential to become one of the biggest industries worldwide. (The Lumière brothers long believed that their invention was nothing more than a short-lived fairground attraction.)

History has proved the Americans right. Today, for most people across the world, going to the cinema is synonymous with watching an American film. While we have to salute the Americans' foresight, we should not forget, however much we admire their movies, how ruthless the American film industry was in marketing and pushing its own products, particularly in postwar Europe. In Germany, the Americans did so largely at the expense of the domestic film industry - but that had lost any last vestige of credibility anyway, as the realm of pictures had been thoroughly poisoned by the Nazis.

At this time, a united European cinema was still a long way off. It was at most the sum total of all the small film industries, or what was left of them; it was not yet more than that, had not yet found a third - its own - way. People were still thinking in national terms.

In America, they were thinking in different dimensions long before the notion of a global culture emerged. The US was the largest single market for the flourishing film industry. Exporting these films was a lucrative sideline, in which it was even possible to invest huge sums for promotion purposes; box-office takings in America alone would more than pay for production costs. The American dream grew and thrived with the popularity of American films. And the more it became divorced from reality, the more it was kept alive by film images. Cinema has all it takes to consolidate an image, to make it grow and become even bigger than life. It not only provides powerful pictures, but also supplies the plot, the narrative, the stories and history, the myths, the tradition and the reputation.

As the idea of Europe was born, instead of being accompanied by films, it was the preserve of politicians and business people. The emotions that were, without a doubt, initially kindled (for example, in this German boy) were not fuelled by pictures. Europe has not presented itself in images, has not glorified and propagated itself, has not projected its light on to cinema screens. That happened only in the old national film industries, and their dreams were not specifically European dreams. We have been happy to leave the whole business of producing continental dreams and picture utopias to the Americans. This is not foolish anti-Americanism; quite the reverse. Nor am I suggesting this was an omission by the Europeans - I am just looking at the history of our continent's image.

The European Film Academy, of which I am president, is our equivalent of the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. We have been around for 20 years now and have 2,000 members from all film-producing European nations, of which there are many. Our Europe extends as far as Georgia, and we have admitted Israel and Palestine to our club. In December, we will be holding the 20th European Film Awards - the "European Oscars" - in Berlin. This event is now broadcast in more than 60 countries, including 19 Arab nations. Sometimes we think: if, instead of waiting until 1988, we had started 60 years earlier, like the Academy Awards, European cinema would be in a different position today. But it has never been seen as an instrument, let alone as a "political weapon", and it still isn't, not even today. European cinema is still quite content to be the sum of its individual cinematographies.

We Europeans have our own ways of doing things. Our culture is so important - not to say sacred - to us that we refuse to let it be instrumentalised, either by politicians or industry. At the European Film Academy, we are taking a great deal of trouble to make the world aware of European cinema, but it is primarily to the European public that we wish to make it more accessible. If you wish and are able to take the opportunity to watch the European Film Awards, you will see that we do things differently. In Europe, this event is not of a competitive nature; our complex European film landscape is basically unsuited to that. Our awards are European cinema's big family get-together.

The damage to the image of Europe is done, but it is by no means irreparable. Digital cinema, which we see inexorably approaching, will be a boon, in particular for the diversity of our European films, and will rewrite all the rules in this field. It is here that the huge potential of our future picture storytellers, the up-and-coming proletariat of young film-makers, will find new ways to communicate and a new audience to communicate to.

What other means might we use, besides pictures, to polish up Europe's tarnished image? As a film-maker, I have enormous respect for storytellers (there would be no cinema without humanity's great myths and stories). There is nothing I love more than music, another essential element of cinema for earthing pictures and emotions. Because my films are set in cities and are about places, I also feel an affinity with architects, who, like us, create structures with the building blocks of space and time. For these reasons I now wish to call on "the arts" in general to come to Europe's assistance in its soul plight.

There is no one better equipped for the task. What do the arts, what does culture do? They "ensoul". Business does not ensoul; politics alone ensouls no one, and that's just how it should be. But art, wherever it acts, ensouls both the creator and the receiver. Europe's history as an economic community meant that it defined itself primarily in terms of economics and international law; they were its means of communication. There was simply no way of creating an affinity of souls, except between industries - not with citizens and between neighbours.

Implementing this cultural renaissance in terms of concrete policies is admittedly a very difficult task, which would usher in a new era. It seems to me to be the essence of a new European vision of the future. Politics and industry have led us to the foot of a mountain, but the ascent is still before us.

To return again to the origin of my own en thusiasm for Europe: I was young and I lived in a country that was embarking on a new future, a country that had just been readmitted to the international family of nations with great patience and with great forgiveness. At the time, I would have preferred to be anything rather than a German (perhaps that is why members of my generation find it so easy to be European patriots). There was not yet a surfeit of information. Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer were familiar to me through the cinema, from the weekly newsreels. Reading was what I did most, and it taught me that all these adventures, all these stirring emotions, all of humanity's secrets and insights, were not contained in mere words. They are to be found between the lines, in the empty space that not only children but all readers fill with their own worlds and their own dreams.

What I had gathered by reading was confirmed to me in the cinema: there, too, the wonders were hidden between the pictures. And, of course, it is the same with music: its true essence was contained in the inexplicable, between the notes and sounds. Only that which seemed to be self-communicating - and music left plenty of room for one's own dreams - had an impact and reverberated. This is also true of painting and photography, and is most evident in poetry. Everything that has ever meant anything to me came to me like this. It did not have to be forced upon me.

In an age in which everything is compressed and condensed, an age of wall-to-wall information and communication in which every product has its own image campaign, Europe is setting out with the desire to become more than an economic community. Nothing can help it cultivate this more than its innermost tradition, its culture. This cultural dimension needs room in order to be effective. Only then can it work, in freedom. If it is just an appendage and illustrator of politics, designed merely to embellish political messages, culture collapses.

To give it this room requires political courage. The arts and culture are not profitable. They can't be assessed and evaluated. But they are effective. And they have great, and benign, power over people. They give people a sense of security and identity, of belonging, pride, meaning. The big hole left by national patriotisms (thank God there's a hole, even if it occasionally gapes open again) cannot be filled overnight by a European patriotism. (Even this term is self-contradictory, which is definitely a point in its favour.)

Europe is unique because I can remain German, Portuguese, Slovenian or Polish and speak one of 50 languages as my mother tongue, and at the same time rest assured that my little country, my endangered language, my local culture is being protected by a bigger power - one that is non-encroaching and without "imperial" ambitions. Europe is generous. It has retained a culture of the small, and in this, too, it is more committed to human rights than any other continent. Europe just needs to show the same generosity in communicating itself.

An "ensouled" Europe would not have rejected its constitution; on the contrary, it would have pushed it through. A Europe frustrated by politics, business and bureaucracy rose up and rebelled - and perhaps it was the right moment to do so, to express publicly its prime concern: the right of the individual to his or her own cultural space. Of course, "the right of the individual" is also postulated in America, but there the individual is essentially the smallest possible economic unit. Here in Europe, the individual is the smallest cultural unit, with its own language, region, pictures, music, myths and stories, ideology, country - in short: its own diversity, otherness, idiosyncrasy.

This definition of the "individual" is Europe's greatest asset. It is why young Europeans are so adamantly against becoming consumers in a globalised world. They are right - they have so much to lose! At the G8 summit, the atmosphere among the politicians was very businesslike, cool and extremely unemotional. Outside, the young people were putting their hearts into the struggle; they were discussing and listening a lot more. That finally made me wonder: which has greater legitimacy? The self-appointed, elitist international club that is just as busy ensuring its own preservation as it is with exercising its enormous political responsibility? Or these "ensouled" European youth, some of whom had travelled a long way to be there because they believed a different world was possible and were passionate in their desire to help shape it?

A great European quality of the second half of the 20th century was demonstrated on both sides of the fence, in the young people's camp and in that of the politicians: the ability to listen. Patient negotiation, tolerance of other ideas. "The other" is not seen as something hostile (and I reject any attempt to stamp "the Americans" as such, or "the terrorists", or "the Arabs", or "the Israelis"). We, the Europeans, are our own "others". We all have plenty of neighbours surrounding us - Germany has ten of them - that speak and think differently. We can show the world how to live together well with "the other", without assimilating or appropriating it and without imposing our own values on it. In the globalised world, "Europeanisation" is much less of a threat than, for example, Americani sation, as Timothy Garton Ash aptly remarked recently. That may be due to the United States' lack of neighbours, which is unquestionably a problem for Americans.

The politicians and the business people, the administrators and the bureaucrats - the powers that be - cannot take control of Europe's cultural life, cannot take charge of the "ensoulment". That is something only culture can do. Only culture works between the lines. It allows us to fill the gaps that economics and politics are compelled to leave empty, because it is not in their nature to fill these precious and innermost European spaces.

Our intellectual potential needs its own spaces, for Europe's sense of purpose and for Europe's good. Culture must simply be given the room it needs, without specifying in advance what this room should be. Europe must be prepared to take this risk, and it must have the courage to give scope to its pictures and its sounds, its stories and its poetic inventions, and to its sciences as well, even if that involves effort and expense that do not immediately pay off. Europe should not necessarily be guided by its culture, but it must allow its culture to accompany it. That is where our innermost strength lies. America is too materialistic in its thinking to consider taking such a step. In Asia, and that includes the "new tigers" China and India, culture does not enjoy this status; there is not such high regard for "the individual" and "what is one's own", nor is there such a highly developed sense of neighbourliness and community.

Bringing this treasure into the global age is something of which, it seems, only we Europeans are capable. Not only our culture in the sense of art (with which the whole world associates our continent anyway), but also respect for diversity in general, regard for what is small or otherwise dying out, listening to and tolerating "the other". Europeans want to know that Europe is there to protect and preserve their wonderful differences. They want to be able to read their continent between the lines, between the pictures, between the sounds, between the languages. They want to be fascinated by it.

What a communication campaign it could have been if, after the failure of the referendums, the European Commission vice-president Margot Wallström had made immediate and direct use of the language of literature or the pictures created by film-makers and photographers to convey the importance of the European project; if artists had been allowed to assume this task, and had been given scope to show their own emotions concerning Europe. That would definitely have affected Europeans more, I venture to suggest, than what the bureaucrats in Brussels - aided by their marketing consultants - finally came up with: a top-down, run-of-the-mill publicity campaign.

I'm quite aware that ceding this kind of territory to artists is a daring thing to do. You never really know what sort of pictures they are going to show, what sorts of sounds they are going to create or what words they will find. And some things are not going to work. But so what? Isn't it worth the small risk of occasional failure if we set out to use this tremendous treasure of European culture to advance the European unification process? Europe's soul is old; it simply wants to recognise itself in new pictures. It wants to continue telling its story in all of its languages; it wants to continue singing its song in all of its tones. Otherwise, it will wither and die.

At the close of an era in which economics has held sway, Europe must now develop a fresh vision of the future. This certainly involves preserving social justice, safeguarding peace and freedom, respecting human rights and fighting to restore the health of our sick planet. But in the coming age, these can no longer be accomplished by political and economic means alone. If Europe is to prove itself in the eyes of the Europeans themselves, it must now define itself through its innermost quality: the wonderful, chaotic, unique diversity of its culture.

This is an edited version of a speech given by Wim Wenders as part of the "Soul for Europe" initiative, which unites leading figures in European cultural and intellectual life with representatives from the European Union. For further information, log on to http://www.berlinerkonferenz.eu

Wim Wenders

Born in Düsseldorf in 1945, the son of a surgeon, Wenders was christened Ernst Wilhelm Wenders. The name "Wim", which is Dutch in origin, was refused by the German authorities on the grounds that it was "not a proper name".

After working as an engraver and then a film critic, Wenders founded (1971) the "Filmverlag der Autoren", which became the focus of the New German Cinema movement.

His best-known feature films are Paris, Texas (1984), a Palme d'Or-winning collaboration with Sam Shepard, and Wings of Desire (1987), which won him the Best Director prize also at Cannes. He also directed the music documentary Buena Vista Social Club (1999).

Wenders became president of the European Film Academy in 1996.

He now lives in Los Angeles and Berlin with his wife, the photographer Donata Wenders.

Omid Nikfarjam

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Chavez: from hero to tyrant