THE LONG CAREER of German director Wim Wenders has, for the most part, been made up of variations on the theme of an outsider trying to make sense of a new land or culture.

In Wenders' many features and documentaries, that idea usually manifests in, or is projected upon, one figure: a goalie acclimating to a pair of unfamiliar cities, an angel patiently seeking to understand the fears and hopes of various Berliners, a European filmmaker stumbling through the streets of Los Angeles in search of his producer, or an American musician navigating the often-insular world of Cuban culture.

That's undoubtedly why many of his films—and the majority of the features being screened at a Wenders retrospective that begins at the NW Film Center this Friday—are road movies. It's the perfect rubric with which to send the characters into unknown territories.

And the best of these—like 1991's Until the End of the World (shown on April 6 in its nearly five-hour-long director's cut), 1976's beautiful elegy to German film history Kings of the Road (March 10), and 1984's beautiful and devastating Paris, Texas (March 13)—perfectly capture the awestruck yet unsettled feeling of travel.

Wenders' greatest feat has been his ability to continuously find interesting ways to depict that sensibility, particularly with his nonfiction work. In 1985's Tokyo-Ga (March 27) he contrasts the patient, somewhat idyllic film work of Yasujiro Ozu with the bright, noisy clamor of then-modern Japan. And throughout 1989's Notebooks on Cities and Clothes (April 1), his portrait of fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, Wenders chronicles his own bemused efforts to make sense of his subject's brash creations.

The NW Film Center's program isn't a complete picture of Wenders' path as a filmmaker—it leaves out his noble failures and recent successes. But the 13 features and the handful of shorts here provide a fine rough sketch that is by turns dazzling and haunting, quietly funny and bitingly honest.