Monday, November 29, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Wings of Desire" (1987)

"Wings of Desire" is one of those modern foreign classics that every serious movie lover is told they simply must see, and adore. I'd heard about it going as far back as my tenure in the cinema studies department at NYU in the early 1990s, and always meant to get around to it.

I did admire it, without really liking it all that much.

This is one of those films where the idea behind the movie is much stronger than the one they actually made. Wim Wenders' romantic (supposedly) fantasy about angels envying mortals is a lovely storytelling frame, particularly the angels' ability to read the thoughts of every human they meet. They exist to observe and catalogue the wondrous diversity of mankind's existence. Angels are the ultimate voyeurs.

Unfortunately, in Wenders' conception the interior monologues of every person is filled with poetic, sing-songy existentialist gobbledygook. It's like peeking over the shoulder of some Goth teen scribbling the worst kind of self-involved, morose verse imaginable.

Bruno Ganz -- familiar to American audiences for playing Hitler in "Downfall," a wonderful drama  known for its many YouTube re-edits -- plays Damiel, an angel tempted by the people he watches. In Wenders' screenplay (co-written with Peter Handke and Richard Reitinger), Damiel has grown tired of always observing and wants to experience life for himself. He confides to Cassiel (Otto Sander), a fellow angel surveying Berlin for all eternity:

It's wonderful to live as a spirit and testify for all eternity to only what is spiritual in people's minds. But sometimes I get fed up with this spiritual existence. I don't want to always hover above. I'd rather feel a weight within, casting off this boundless freedom and tying me to the earth.
I loved the device of  how the angels go about their business. Clad always in black trench coats (their wings are invisible), the angels move about unseen among the humans, pausing to listen in on their inner thoughts. Though they're never shown flying, we know they have this ability since we often see Damiel or Cassiel perched high up on a building -- preferring to congregate near statues of angels.

Occasionally, an angel will actually touch the human they're observing, which has the effect of calming them and even improving their mood. Cassiel performs this act on a man on a subway in a black mood, who is suddenly filled with resolve to start his life anew.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around three humans these angels are following. The least interesting is Homer, an ancient man who spends most of his time at the library contemplating the end of his existence. He is a storyteller who has been forgotten by his audience, but isn't particularly bitter about it. At first there's a suggestion this is the actual Homer of antiquity, but he spends too much of his time musing about peace to be that spinner of war tales.

Another is Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a young trapeze artist in the dying circus on the edge of town. Marion is desperately lonely, and in observing her Damiel is convinced they are soul mates. Marion worries about having to go back to waitressing after the circus is closed by the local authorities, and spends her off time in her trailer home listening to Nick Cave records. (His band, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, makes a brief cameo near the end.)

The last person being watched is Peter Falk -- the actor, playing himself. He's in Germany to shoot a World War II film, and spends his down time drawing sketches of the extras. "These are extra humans," he muses in his inner thoughts.

Damiel is surprised when Falk seems to be able to sense his presence, and even begins talking to him. Later it is revealed that, like Damiel, Falk was an angel who grew bored with his spiritual existence and traded it in for a corporeal one. There's a funny joke about the angels arriving with their suit of armor after they turn into humans. Damiel pawns his for 200 marks, and Falk tells him he was robbed -- he got $500 for his at a New York shop 30 years earlier.

The cinematography by Henri Alekan is simply astonishing in its spare yet lyrical quality. Using a perspective employed in other films, including "A Matter of Life and Death," the heavenly visions are in black-and-white (with a slight sepia tone) while the earthly view is in color. In this case it fits, since the life of an angel is studious and even-keeled, while humans are filled with messy emotions.

This being a German art film, it wouldn't be complete without a ton of stock footage of Nazi atrocities, as Wenders' probes the nation's psyche tormented with guilt and remembrance. "Wings of Desire" is as much a meditation on Germany as heaven and earth.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't find the movie terribly boring at times. The languid scenes of the angels moving from human to human to listen to their thoughts are so lovely visually, but then we have to listen (or read in subtitles) to the pouty, self-obsessed interior lives of these people, whose thoughts bear little relation to those of actual humans.

"Wings of Desire" ends with an explicit invitation of "To be continued," but few people remember the 1993 sequel, "Faraway, So Close!", in which Cassiel checks in on Damiel with his new partner, Nastassja Kinski. There was also a 1998 sorta/kinda/quasi Hollywood remake starring Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan, "City of Angels," which plays up the sappy romance angle.

3 stars out of four

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I just saw Wings of Desire for the first time myself, what a terrific film! I've been doing a little digging, and there's so much thought that went into the production of the film, it's mindboggling.

    I wrote a bit about it here if you're at all interested: