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Director Wim Wenders attends the San Sebastian International Film Festival in September.

Carlos Alvarez/GETTY IMAGES

According to the Scottish actor James McAvoy, Wim Wenders is a quiet, confident presence on set who does not “direct” his actors as much as “will” them to do what he wants.

“He doesn’t stipulate how to do the scene but he tells you what the scene should be,” McAvoy said during a press conference in Toronto where the film Submergence was screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.

“He would rather just go and do another take, and he is praying that the actor will do the thing that he is hoping for. And when he gets it, he is like a little kid in a 72-year-old man’s body, jumping up and down.” It’s safe to assume the German director’s exuberance amused McAvoy and his co-star Alicia Vikander.

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Dressed in black, his legs neatly crossed and hands folded in his lap, Wenders does not look like the type to bounce up and down, regardless of how good a scene is. But in an interview about the geopolitical/romantic thriller, Wenders said that even after 45 years he still gets excited about taking on projects others might find unwieldy. As far as he’s concerned, the more unwieldy, often the more interesting.

Submergence explores two very different worlds. One where religious beliefs dictate everything, and the other, science dominates all,” says Wenders, a photographer, author, playwright, documentarian (his current project is a doc on Pope Francis) and filmmaker whose works include 1984’s Paris, Texas and 1987’s Wings of Desire.

“But I don’t think I could have done this film without the love-story aspect. It was essential.”

In the film, McAvoy plays James More, an undercover British Secret Service agent who poses as a water engineer to infiltrate terrorist organizations in developing countries. An upcoming assignment is in Somalia, but before he leaves, More meets Danielle Flinders (Vikander), a bio-mathematician who is staying at the same hotel in Normandy. She is preparing for her own adventure on a research vessel to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

They meet, spend several days together, fall in love, and plan to reunite once their respective assignments are finished. That is when their worlds – and the film – split in two. More is captured and tortured in Somalia. She is both metaphorically and physically kept in the dark as she journeys to the bottom of the sea while receiving no communication from James. Both protagonists are submerged in two very different ideologies: one hate, the other light (or illumination).

“The light in this story is their love for each other,” says Wenders. “It’s what enables them to endure, especially what he has to endure. I don’t think I would have dared to make a film about only James’s story. All the violence and hate he gets exposed to would have scared me. It would have been too black. I am really indebted to Martin Luther King for his one line: ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’

“I believe in true love. I know it exists. I know it can be found and I know how it works,” said Wenders who has been married to Donata Wenders (his fifth wife) since 1993.

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A leading figure in New German Cinema, Wenders says he is interested in making films that test his intellect. In this film, he and his actors immersed themselves in counterespionage and science, both areas that Wenders believe the public generally does not embrace with enough fear and respect.

“A long time ago, prophets told us what could happen, and where we were headed. Today’s prophets are scientists. They tell us where we are going. They tell us what’s going to happen to our planet, with mankind, with our health, with our life expectancies, and with our morals. But sadly, scientists – our modern-day prophets – are not always listened to, especially by politicians.”

Submergence is based on the acclaimed 2013 novel by J.M. Ledgard, an author and former political correspondent for The Economist. Adapted for the screen by Erin Dignam, it’s one of the most conventional films Wenders has done in years. Still, it’s auteur enough to allow Wenders to explore many conundrums, including science and its overall lack of profile. Wenders takes issue with society’s fixation on space exploration when water, he believes, holds the key to our origins.

“Water is so powerful. We are all born in the water, in our mother’s wombs. But it’s always perplexed me that humankind seems to be drawn so much to the various planets, the moon, the stars, and god knows what. But our closest element – which takes up two-thirds of the planet – is largely ignored and unknown.

“Water replenishes, sustains life, and has the power to obliterate and destroy. In this film, water is used as a way to understand human nature, with all its darkness, its light, and its complexities.”

Submergence opens April 21 in Toronto and Vancouver

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