Wenders was born in Düsseldorf into a traditionally Catholic family. His father, Heinrich Wenders, was a surgeon. The use of the Dutch name "Wim" is a shortened version of the baptismal name "Wilhelm/Willem". As a boy, he took unaccompanied trips to Amsterdam to visit the Rijksmuseum.
He graduated from high school in Oberhausen in the Ruhr area. He then studied medicine (1963–64) and philosophy (1964–65) in Freiburg and Düsseldorf. However, he dropped out of university studies and moved to Paris in October 1966 to become a painter. Wenders failed his entry test at France's national film school IDHEC (now La Fémis), and instead became an engraver in the studio of Johnny Friedlander, in Montparnasse. During this time, Wenders became fascinated with cinema, and saw up to five movies a day at the local movie theater.
During the late 1960s Wenders studied film at the Munich Film Academy while working as a film critic. After directing eight short films for the academy, he made his first feature film, the thriller Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (1971; The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick). In 1976 he wrote, directed, and produced Im Lauf der Zeit (“In the Course of Time”; Eng. title Kings of the Road), a “buddy” picture pairing a linguist with a movie-projector repairman who can barely communicate as they travel across Germany together. Der amerikanische Freund (1977; The American Friend), based on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, explores the concept of dislocation, or separation. For this film, Wenders cast his longtime idol, film director Nicholas Ray, and the two later collaborated on the documentary Lightning over Water (1980), about the last days of Ray’s life.
In 1978 Wenders went to Hollywood to direct Hammett, the story of American detective fiction writer Dashiell Hammett. Disputes between Wenders and executive producer Francis Ford Coppola resulted in the release of only a truncated version some years later. The difficulties Wenders encountered with Hammett served as inspiration for Der Stand der Dinge (1982; The State of Things), which depicts the mishaps of a film production in Portugal. Wenders achieved international fame in 1984 with the release of Paris, Texas, which was cowritten by Sam Shepard. The lyrical drama about a man in the American Southwest who is physically and spiritually lost won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival. Three years later Wenders received the best-director award at Cannes for the hauntingly beautiful Der Himmel über Berlin (“Heaven over Berlin”; Eng. title Wings of Desire), in which angels roam modern-day Berlin. The film’s sequel, In weiter Ferne, so nah! (1993; Faraway, So Close!), however, was far less successful artistically.
Wenders’s films are notable for their lush visual imagery, largely because of the talents of his most frequent collaborator, the cinematographer Robby Müller. Wenders’s later work includes Lisbon Story (1995), a sequel to The State of Things; the thriller The End of Violence (1997); the ensemble mystery The Million Dollar Hotel (2000); and the drama Palermo Shooting (2008). He also directed the documentaries Buena Vista Social Club (1999), about a group of veteran Cuban musicians; Pina (2011), a 3-D tribute to German choreographer Pina Bausch; and The Salt of the Earth (2014), a chronicle of the career of photojournalist Sebastião Salgado.
Winders remains romantically itinerant, in love with music, America, and the idea of the movies. But he is closing in on sixty, and nothing lately has been as big or as cogent as one would like to see. Not that one isn't appreciative: it was Wenders’s tact and assistance that helped Antonioni to make another film far from worthless and altogether cleaner than the earlier hero-worship of Nick Ray; Buena Vista Social Club is a delight if a little monotonous. On the other hand, The End of Violence is pretentious and silly, and no feature film has really reminded us of the younger Wenders. In America is a project involving Sam Shepard, and one can only say that they both need the best in each other.