Saturday, July 6, 2013

Remembering Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (a.k.a. Der Himmel über Berlin)

(1987, Wim Wenders Dir., Stars: Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander, Curt Bois, and Peter Falk in a special appearance as himself.)
I remember the first time I watched Wings of Desire in 1989. I had no idea what I was getting myself into that night. It was a VHS rental from Blockbuster (Remember Blockbuster? For that matter, remember VHS?). The film had been chosen strictly because it “looked” interesting and the cover had a girl riding a trapeze. I watched the video twice that night in awe, and by morning it had replaced 2001: A Space Odyssey as my favorite film. Like 2001, Wings of Desire is one of a handful of films I feel can be considered serious works of art.
This film opens with a monologue considering the views of an enigmatic “child;” their desires and habits. This mysterious young soul is revisited throughout the course of the film. Perhaps this concept refers to the “child” of God. Alternatively, in a more general sense, the “child” is all of us, singularly and collectively -- wishing, as many of us did in our youth, that our personal river of time would flow faster and the puddle of our lives in eternity would be an ocean.
Wim Wenders draws us into his vision of angels in the skies over Berlin, in much the same way as his angels are drawn into our world. The traumas of birth, growth and death resound within the first ten minutes, as we voyeuristically listen in on the thoughts and everyday lives of various citizens of Germany’s capital city. Such is the existence of angels, Damiel and Cassiel (Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander, respectively) and their kind: unseen, non-corporeal, witnesses of life and time’s passing, but nothing more. Damiel wants to join the world, though; to feel cold and stub his toe, to get ink on his fingers from a newspaper and be excited by a meal; even lie through his teeth -- all for the life experience!
Damiel’s decision to “fall” into the river of time and become mortal is made resolute after he discovers Marion (Solveig Dommartin). Damiel and Marion’s story is one of unabashed romanticism at its best and works perfectly. As a trapeze artist, Marion is a woman whose every physical motion is poetic and precariously balanced; the very embodiment of beauty in physical existence. But in observing Marion’s life, Damiel comes to understand that she, too, is at a crossroads. With her circus closing for the season, Marion is being set adrift in Berlin, a fate that doesn’t frighten her, but doesn’t roll off her back as easily as it had in the past.
Peter Falk (best remembered as TV’s rumpled detective, Columbo) makes a great, fun cameo in this film, playing himself. However, in the world of Wenders’ film, Falk is more than himself; he is a “fallen” angel as well. Falk chose to surrender eternity and become human in the late fifties, but still feels the presence of his old compańeros. Falk wishes the angels would join him in the physical world, to experience the simple pleasures of corporeal existence.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds make a surprising cameo in this film, as well; performing in the bar where Damiel and Marion finally meet in the flesh. This much-anticipated scene is truly elevated by the prelude of Nick Cave and his crew performing a raw, live rendition of “From Her to Eternity.”
Damiel is let off lightly in confronting the woman for whom he surrendered eternity to be with: Marion does all the talking! It is almost impossible to describe the layered intensity of Marion’s monologue. Having grown older, she finally feels alone, and this loneliness somehow completes her as a person. She is tired of coincidences in her life; things have now become serious. Breaking the forth wall, but addressing Damiel, Marion invites us to become a part of her world; part of the art on the screen. She and Damiel represent more than just themselves; they incarnate everything...and people around the world, she tells us, await the answer of whether or not they will be together in that moment -- the moment that becomes real and therefore eternal itself.
It’s absolutely stirring cinema and the film’s emotional, spiritual and physical climax. The very thought of Solveig Dommartin’s performance in this scene leaves me breathless just thinking of it!
Besides the sweetly basic main story of Damiel and Marion, Wings of Desire walks a piano wire-thin tightrope between art film and straightforward narrative, and does so with a skillful balance worthy of any circus. Thoughts on life and death, not only of people, but of cities and eras, are explored.
Some of the most remarkable scenes in Wings of Desire take place in the Staatsbibliothek, Tiergarten, Berlin – one of the city’s largest libraries. These scenes are presented with a haunting collage of sound reminiscent of the Monolith music from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here, angels gather where the peace and quiet affords them the best environment to listen to people’s thoughts.
It is in this library that Cassiel, Damiel’s angelic best friend, discovers the elderly Storyteller (Curt Bois) reflecting upon his life and the changes he’s seen, changes in the city and in its people. People used to sit in circles listening intently to stories; now they sit alone -- no longer listening and not even facing each other. Cassiel monitors the Storyteller as he wanders vacant lots of overgrown rubble and discarded furniture. In these scenes, the Storyteller recalls places of his youth long gone.
In the late-1980’s, when Wings of Desire was made, vast stretches of Berlin were still flattened from allied bombing during the 2nd World War decades earlier. The ignoble “Berlin Wall” was still standing then, too; dividing the city into Eastern and Western Berlin, another reminder of the war. These locations are shown in a very offhand fashion, as is occasional stock footage of Berlin during the war and its devastation. Even the movie that Peter Falk is supposedly filming is a WWII period piece. I believe, for Wim Wenders and his generation, the legacy of the Nazis is one to be acknowledged, but also detached from and disowned. The general sense I got was that the sins of the fatherland should perhaps not necessarily be handed down to the children. The river of time flows on; people change, societies can change as well.
In visualizing his ethereal subject matter, Wenders switches effortlessly between black-and-white and color cinematography. The angels’ disconnected, spiritual world is presented with flat, yet warm, black-and-white images. The richly living world of Marion and all humanity is shown in vivid color. Wenders plays these two formats off of each other with subtlety and purpose, building upon his symbolism as any good filmmaker ought to be able to do. In the end, Damiel is shown helping Marion with her acrobatic exercises in color, but in a corner of the screen is an unobtrusive circle of black and white where Cassiel sits, the silent heavenly observer.
Wings of Desire did spawn a sequel, Faraway, So Close (1993). This film followed the post-fall adventures of Cassiel, as he helps Damiel and Marion, along with some of Marion’s circus performer friends, to rescue their daughter from some Euro-trash baddies. Unfortunately, Wenders’ follow-up, while fun in its own way, simply didn’t capture the magic of his previous work.
Similarly, later in the 1990’s, a U.S. version of this film was made retitled City of Angels, starring Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage. In this flimsy re-imagining of Wenders’ work, the spiritual romance is replaced by Hollywood schmaltz and the depth of the themes Wenders explored is lost completely! For example, City of Angels presents Meg Ryan as a heart surgeon as opposed to a trapeze artist, who becomes the object of angel Nicholas Cage’s affection. A “heart” doctor – get it? Pathetic. Sandlot symbolism is no replacement for honest art.
There is a distressing epilogue to the story of Wings of Desire. In 2007, the very lovely and talented actress, Solveig Dommartin, who played Marion, died at the age of 45. I feel it is important to bring this up because she was too young to die when she did, and as evidenced by her work in this film, too talented to be forgotten. I can think of no other actress who might have breathed life into Marion with such effortless grace and accessibility. Mlle. Dommartin left behind a small collection of films, the best of which she made with Wim Wenders. When I get a chance I’ll track them down, view them and review them here.
After watching Wings of Desire for the first time in years, it was easy for me to remember why I love it – to me it’s a near perfect film. It has romance, drama, humor, and a spirituality that speaks to not only the human condition but what we can all do about that condition insofar as how we affect our own lives. This is an art film you can enjoy without feeling like some intellectual prat who dresses in all black and dreams of really good cappuccino. I remember the first time I watched Wings of Desire in my subterranean apartment in 1989. I think you’ll remember where and when you first watch it too.
[“Wings of Desire” is currently available through Netflix on DVD, and at Hulu for instant streaming. The Criterion Collection has released a Blu-Ray of this film, and this is available on Amazon. Select scenes are also available on YouTube, should you wish to preview Wenders’ masterpiece before adding it to your library or Netflix queue.]

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