Wenders was born in Düsseldorf into a traditional Catholic family. His father, Heinrich Wenders, was a surgeon. Use of the Dutch name, "Wim", a shortened version of the baptismal name "Wilhelm/Willem", reflected his mother's Dutch provenance, but the Dutch version was rejected by the civil registration authorities in 1945 as "unGerman". 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.
Set on making his obsession also his life's work, Wenders returned to Germany in 1967 to work in the Düsseldorf office of United Artists. That fall, he entered the "Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film München" (University of Television and Film Munich). Between 1967 and 1970 while at the "HFF", Wenders also worked as a film critic for FilmKritik, then the Munich daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, Twen magazine, and Der Spiegel.
Wenders completed several short films before graduating from the Hochschule with a feature-length 16mm black and white film, Summer in the City.
Wenders has directed several highly acclaimed documentaries, most notably Buena Vista Social Club (1999), about Cuban musicians, and The Soul of a Man (2003), on American blues. He has also directed a documentary style film on the Skladanowsky brothers, known in English as 'A Trick of Light'. The Skladanowsky brothers were inventing 'moving pictures' when several others like the Lumiere brothers and Friese-Greene were doing the same.
Wenders was collaborating with artist/journalist and longtime friend Melinda Camber Porter on a documentary feature about his body of work, Wim Wenders - Visions on Film, when Porter passed away - the film remains incomplete.
Wenders is a member of the advisory board of World Cinema Foundation. The project was founded by Martin Scorsese and aimed at finding and reconstructing world cinema films that have been long neglected. He serves as a Jury Member for the digital studio Filmaka, a platform for undiscovered filmmakers to show their work to industry professionals.
In 2011 he was selected to stage the 2013 cycle of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Bayreuth Festival,[dead link] a reflection of his capacity to produce imaginative tributes to great works of art. The project fell through when he insisted on filming in 3-D, which the Wagner family found too costly and disruptive.
While promoting his 3-D dance film, Pina, Wenders told the Documentary channel Blog in December 2011 that he has already begun work on a new 3-D documentary, this one about architecture. He also has said that he will only be working in the 3-D film format from now on. Wenders admired the dance choreographer Pina Bausch since 1985, but only with the advent of digital 3-D cinema did he decide that he could sufficiently capture her work on screen.
Wim Wenders: Immagini dal pianeta terra, Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome, Italy Journey to Onomichi – Photos by Wim and Donata Wenders, Omotesando Hills, Tokyo, Japan Pictures from the Surface of the Earth, images from touring exhibition, Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade, Yugoslavia Dark Places, curated by Joshua Decter, Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica, California
The Forest: Politics, Poetics, and Practice, Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina Through the Lens, group exhibition, C. Grimaldis Gallery, Baltimore, Maryland
Pictures from the Surface of the Earth, ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Århus C, Denmark
Pictures from the Surface of the Earth, Australia and Japan, James Cohan Gallery, New York Between The Lines, group exhibition, James Cohan Gallery, New York Images of Time and Place: Contemporary Views of Landscape, group exhibition, Lehman College Art Gallery, Bronx, New York Wim Wenders, Galleria Marabini, Bologna, Italy Through the Lens: Eight Photographers, group exhibition, C. Grimaldis Gallery, Baltimore, Maryland.
Wim Wenders, James Cohan Gallery, New York Wim Wenders, Galerie Judin Belot, Zurich, Switzerland
Pictures from the Surface of the Earth, touring exhibition: Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin (2001), Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao (2002), Haunch of Venison, London (2003); Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (2003); City Art Gallery, Wellington, New Zealand; Millennium Art Museum, Beijing, China; Shanghai Museum of Art, Shanghai, China; Guangdong Museum of Art, Guangzhou, China (2004)
Buena Vista Social Club, Rose Gallery, Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, California
Wim Wenders: Landscape and Memory, Gallery of Contemporary Photography, Santa Monica Wim Wenders: Photos, in conjunction with the publication, Wim Wenders: Photos, Munich Goethe Institute (1996), Goethe Institutes worldwide
Wim Wenders: Landscape and Memory, Gallery of Contemporary Photography, Santa Monica, California
Wim Wenders Photo Exhibition, in conjunction with the publication, Once, Munich: Schirmer/ Mosel (2001), touring exhibition: Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome (1993); Villa delle Rose, Bologna (1994); FNAC, Paris (1994); Parco, Tokyo (1994); FNAC, Berlin (1995); Villa Rufolo, Ravello (1995)
Wim Wenders (2005)
Wim Wenders Photographs, touring exhibition: Galerie F. C Gundlach, Hamburg (1989); Galerie Marie-Louise Wirth, Zürich (1990); Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film, Munich (1991); Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles (1991); Shibuya Seibu Dept. Store, Tokyo (1992); Kiyomizu
Temple, Kyoto (1992); Musée de l'Élysée, Lausanne (1992); Amerika Haus, Berlin (1992); Venice Biennale (1993); Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek (1993); Sala Parpallo Palau Dels Scala, Valencia (1994); San Telmo Museum, San Sebastian (1994)
Written in the West, in conjunction with the publication, Written in the West, Munich: Schirmer/Mosel (1987), touring exhibition: Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1986); Encontros de Fotografia, Coimbra (1987); Palazzo della Triennale di Milano (1988); Film Society of Miami (1988); Goethe Institut, Stockholm (1988); Goethe Institut, Copenhagen (1988); Saint-Yrieix-La-Perche (1990); Städtische Galerie Schwarzes Kloster, Freiburg (Breisgau) (1992)