Opening credits. The Byzantine, in red letters, appears over a shot of the Manhattan skyline.
I Am Waiting as performed by the Rolling Stones plays on the soundtrack.
We cut to an apartment. The song is now playing on a radio. Tomas (Bruno Ganz) is a German living in New York. On this morning, he wakes from a dream. In his head is the name of a book, and an author.
The Byzantine by John Goreman.
He feels that he must find it. Near his apartment in Manhattan is an all-night bookshop. He pays them a visit, but don't have it. The next day, he goes to as many libraries and bookshops as he can, but he cannot find the book. No-one has heard of it. They recommend him books about the thrilling Byzantine Empire, and books about their gorgeous architecture, featuring domes carried on pendentives over squares and incrustation with marble veneering and with coloured mosaics on grounds of gold, but it isn't like his dream. They point him to books by John Gorman or John Goring or Jim Gawman or John Goodman, and even a book named Byzantium by John Gressman. That must be the one you're looking for, sir. But he knows that that is not correct.
Tomas is distracted, unfulfilled. He falls behind in his work. Flashes of dream come back to him, but make little sense. He must find this book. But nobody has heard of it.
At the same time, a craze envelops New York. Even many of Tomas' educated and somewhat cynical friends are entranced by a glamorous Japanese visitor, a man called Dr Otomo. He is known to America as 'The Hysterical Water Claimant' thanks to the press coverage of his demonstrations. Dr Otomo is a scientist who believes that water has the ability to absorb, hold, and even retransmit human feelings and emotions.
Tomas is persuaded by his fellow expatriate Lothar to go to a highly publicized series of talks given by Dr Otomo on the Staten Island Ferry. Once there, Tomas is perplexed by just how excited the normally cynical New Yorkers are about this. He is even more surprised that the abruptly cynical Lothar is excited too.
During the demonstration, the Doctor shows an audience how using high-speed photography he discovered that crystals formed in frozen water reveal changes when specific, concentrated thoughts are sent towards it. Music, visual images, words written on paper, and photographs also have an impact on the crystal structure. Otomo suggests that as water can receive a wide range of frequencies, it can also reflect the universe in the same way. Water from clear springs and water exposed to loving words shows brilliant, complex, and colourful snowflake patterns, he claims, while polluted water and water exposed to negative thoughts forms incomplete, asymmetrical patterns with dull colors. The Doctor finishes by suggesting that since people are 70 percent water, and the Earth is 70 percent water, we can heal ourselves and our planet by consciously expressing love and goodwill.
His assistants take a block of freezing water and write Hate on it. They take another, and write Love on it. Each block is analysed to see the crystal patterns formed. The one with Hate has irregular patterns; the one with Love flourishes symmetrically. Dr Otomo's plan is to put huge blocks of ice in the Hudson river with the word Love written on them all.
His experiment seems to work: It brings much excitement and happiness to New York. People begin to calm down on their commute. There is an increase in friendly body contact. While Tomas is happy for his neighbours and friends, who all behave as if they have won a small lottery, he is less content that ever.
Because his small riddle is unsolved. He knows that until he finds a copy of The Byzantine by John Goreman, a particular itch will remain unscratched. And this small fact horrifies him. It makes him think about all the other things he hasn't done: The novel he hasn't finished, the family he hasn't started, the girlfriends who are gone. The book from his dream represents all of the failures in his life. Finding it would give him some hope.
Except, of course, it may not exist.
He re-reads the opening lines of his abandoned novel:
Little houses run themselves round rags planted for me. Headbutt hearted-hands fly upward serenades, hard hallelujahs invoked. Suggested readings lost, paperbacks burned for heat. Pulp murders downwind roughen the geography, and terrors abound in lipstick dreamings. Mis-spelt yoofs dictate the pace of cities, none more so than the liberal playgrounds, where innocents can carry samurai swords into bookstores and drink coffoee with back-slaaping friends without fear of challenge. The lozenge of prayer smooths streetsleepers' words, ghosting their existences withpalpable routine and wonder.
His English metaphors and beatnik angst trouble him now. He wrote these lines when he was happier, and now he feels a burning worry, and cannot write. Lothar suggests that he take advantage of the new age of excitement and pick up a girl at a party, enjoy himself. At one, Tomas finds himself alone on the balcony when the host, a pretty young socialite named Sara (Sophie Marceau) comes out to talk. She asks him why he is down. He says that something is missing. She offers him a drink. He declines, as he's already had lots to drink. She says that she is very intrigued by him: Everyone else here is happy, but he is not. Tomas apologises, saying that he did not mean to insult the hostess. She tells him not to worry, as she is happy that he is not happy. She is not happy either, and the pretense is killing her. They laugh. She goes on to talk about her dreams, and how she keeps seeing an image of a basement in a house that she knows is in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Over and over, she sees this basement, sees this house, knows it is in Bethlehem, Connecticut, and knows it holds something important.
But she has never been to Bethlehem, Connecticut. She didn't even know that there was a Bethlehem in Connecticut until her dream prompted her to look for it.
Tomas is amazed, and talks about his own dream. Maybe your book is in my basement, Sara suggests, laughing. Tomas looks at her seriously. We should go and look for it. Sara laughs, and then sees how serious Tomas is. She shrugs her shoulders, takes him by the hand, runs through the party, finds the keys to her car, and they leave. They drive through the night to Bethlehem.
We see a montage of the pair driving, laughing, enjoying each other's company. One More Night as performed by Can plays over this sequence. This could be love, we think.
They arrive the next day, exhausted, but keen. Sara draws a picture of the house, and a local shopkeeper warily suggests they try the northern side of town, as there are several houses that look like her picture there. They do.
After a while, Sara points at a house. That's It! They stop the car, and Sara runs to knock on the door. There is no answer. She knocks again. No answer. Then she looks down, and sees a note under a stone. She glances back at Tomas, bites her lip, and picks up the note.
Gone to the city to see the ice. Key is in the usual place. J
It could be John, Tomas thinks. Sara impetuously walks round the back of the house, and by the time Tomas catches her, she is climbing through a back window. She gestures to him to stay outside and keep lookout. The camera stays with Tomas as he nervously waits. For four minutes, an unbroken shot follows him. As he fidgets, looks around, and hops on the spot, a single synthesised note slowly rises on the soundtrack, reaching a fuzzy crescendo. The anticipation threatens to burn through the celluloid.
And then Sara returns. Nothing there, she says breezily. Shall we get breakfast? Tomas stops her. There must be something there. She shakes her head. And it looks quite different to my dream. Oh well, lets eat and get to know each other. Maybe that's the real meaning of all this. She begins to walk to the car. Tomas looks after her, confused.
OK he says. They get in the car. I Am Waiting by the Rolling Stones plays once more.
Cut to Tomas' apartment, morning. The Stones are still on the radio. Tomas wakes.
The Byzantine Directed by Wim Wenders Produced by Don Guest, Anatole Dauman Written by Sam Shepard Starring Bruno Ganz, Sophie Marceau, Jurgen Prochnow 20th Century Fox Release Date France: May 1981, UK: Oct 1981, US: Nov 1981. Tagline: 'Who can choose between truth and happiness?'