Wim Wenders’ latest film is one of his most luminous, opaque and mystical releases in years, featuring very little in the way of a regular plot structure or conventional atmosphere. Instead, Submergence, which is based on the novel of the same name by J.M. Ledgard, follows two characters who meet at a resort on the Normandy coast, and then go their separate ways, only spending a few nights together for the entire duration of the film. The first of these characters is Danielle Flinders, played by Alicia Vikander, a marine biologist and specialist in deep-sea topography who is holidaying in Normandy before heading up the first manned expedition to the very deepest point of the ocean, where the hadal zone meets the earth’s mantle. The second character is James Moore, played by James McAvoy, who is departing from the French coast to help set up a fresh water scheme in Nairobi while working as a British intelligence agent. Over the course of the film, Wenders cuts between Danielle and James’ brief time together, and their subsequent trajectories, which see Danielle making her way to the hadal depths, and James captured by jihadists, who attempt to recruit him as a suicide bomber. While both of those situations sound quite dramatic, the film nevertheless plays as a sustained mood piece, or tone poem, suffused with a great, global melancholy (“I’ve never been lonely before” “Welcome to the planet”) that allows Wenders to give full rein to his proclivities for arresting imagery and widescreen mysticism.
Yet to call Submergence a mere exercise in mysticism, as so many critics have done, would be a disservice to its originality as well. While the film may seem almost unbearably diffuse at times, that’s part of the point, as Wenders evokes something about our current political and environmental landscape that defies being perceived or represented directly. Whether it’s the depths of the ocean, or the heart of jihad, the film continually gravitates towards “the other world in our world,” and what remains unrepresentable or inconceivable within the world as it appears to a Western liberal mindset. Alternating between luminous horizons, vast oceans and monochromatic beaches, Wenders conflates transparency and opacity into a looming and brooding vacancy, converging water, wind and air into a single medium that seems to both demand and thwart human agency. That medium is liquid above all else, as Wenders shoots the land and air so as to never let you forget that most of the earth is covered with water, and that land and air are more or less irrelevant compared to water from a truly global perspective. As a result, the light on land already seems submarine, just as Wenders’ oceanic ambience makes its way into everything, turning the hydrosphere into a continually crashing reminder of something more global happening elsewhere, or the agency of the globe itself minimizing any local or specific happening. Virtually every land sequence is set on the edge of the sea and – perhaps more importantly – every land sequence feels set at the edge of the sea, as Wenders suffuses every space with that odd sense of breezy porosity and expansive ambience you feel whenever water is close.
Within that ambience, the prospect of terrorism, and the prospect of environmental catastrophe, are both depicted as what Timothy Morton has described as hyperobjects – entities that are too global, and too transpersonal, to be capable of representation in any finite way. All Wenders can do is evoke the finitude of human action, and the finitude of the earth’s resources, until the planet itself appears as a hyperobject, continually swathed and cushioned by winds that seem to have arrived from vast, unimaginable distances to contour the scene at hand. In the most profound way, the world, or the globe, or the planet – whatever you call it – is present here as an irreducible thing that can’t be processed or perceived in any real way. In part, that’s because the world is bigger than any human effort to parse it, but paradoxically that size only becomes tangible because the world is smaller than ever before, with Danielle reminding us that “we are entering an age where everything will be quantified, where what will be abundant will be limited.” In Wenders’ formulation, then, globalization works by making the world bigger and smaller at the same time, rendering it more available to the individual in space and time, but also more looming and imposing in our renewed sense of it as a single entity, and of our complicity in that entity.
While Submergence may not be particularly interested in narrative crisis, it does gain a momentum from this more looming sense of global crisis, which appears to have reached a point here at which the innate and unchanging rhythms of the planet are able to ressert themselves due to the sheer chaos of human contingency and agency, which in turn comes to reflect and articulate these deeper patterns despite itself. Time and again, political conflict and vicissitude is both absorbed back into, and articulated by, the luminous voids of air, sea and land against which the action unfolds – a liminal, cosmic beach around which the oceanic flux of the world is perpetually ebbing and flowing, making every scene more precipitous and precarious than the last. In its own way, Submergence is a vision of the end of the Anthropocene, in which the world, as both entity and concept, becomes more surreal and opaque as the film proceeds. The result is a sweeping circumambience that often recalls the spatial extravagances of Wenders’ classical period, but without any of the structural devices that he once set against it, since the narrative resolution of Paris, Texas, the angelic guidance of Wings of Desire, and the total surveillance of The End of Violence are all absent here.
All of those films were, in their own way apocalyptic, but Submergence resists even the anthropomorphism of apocalypse, instead envisaging a future state, and adopting a planetary perspective, that is fundamentally disinterested in the distinction between life and non-life. As Danielle points out, if “you magnify the edges” of any specimen, “you wouldn’t be able to see where life begins and life ends,” and that principle applies to the film as well, which pairs a sentimental humanist palette with a profound discorrelation of the world from our human perception of it. Indeed, at times, it feels as if Wenders has only adopted this humanist lens to make this discorrelation more dramatic, as the action gravitates towards landscapes and vistas that seem bluntly disinterested in human access or agency, whether in the form of abstracted ruins along the coast of Normandy, or a brief interlude on the Faroe Islands, whose vertiginous topography – steep hills ending abruptly in sheer cliffs, like incompletely formulated land masses – form the only terrestrium that we see from anything like a regular establishing shot, effectively undoing the import of the establishing shot as a way of correlating our cognition with the film image in the first place.
Among other things, that approach means that Wenders never attempts to traverse the otherness of the radical Islamic world, which remains as discorrelated here from a Western liberal optic as the wider world presented in the film remains discorrelated from the perspective of the Western liberal viewer. In that sense, Wenders conflates the radical Islamic conception of the world with the world that the film can never fully comprehend, offering up exactly the sentimental humanist palette with which efforts to understand radical Islam in the west are typically couched, only to discard that palette as utterly inadequate. In doing so, the film captures radical Islam as a planetary movement, an effort to install a new planetary regime and to use local and specific incidents to create a sense of planetary convulsion. There’s something bracing about that decision on Wenders’ part, as the film continually strives – and fails – to envisage Western liberal democracy as a planetary position in turn, finally conceding that while this Western mindset may be more common, and more hegemonic, it is less planetary in its aspirations and reach. That paradox – that the most planetary political movements can inhere in local gestures and moments – culminates with the extraordinary final sequence, in which James is prepared as a suicide bomber in the most nebulous of the film’s vacant spaces – a barren expanse of mangroves and sand by the edge of a non-descript ocean that turns out to be continguous with a nearby American base, albeit situated in a blind spot that the Americans virtually never fly over or check in any way. Between that space, and Danielle’ descent into the depths, the film finally comes up against the planet it can’t process, and its own representative limits, in one of the most uncompromising, yearning and melancholy film in Wenders’ entire career.