Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander, Curt Bois, Peter Falk, Nick Cave. 127 minutes. Monochrome, with some colour sequences.
An Angel's Odyssey
by Brent Wills Bechtel, with Paul Rowlands.
WINGS OF DESIRE is one of the most celebrated films of recent times, but the universality of its themes, shown by the success of its remake (CITY OF ANGELS, 1997), demand that it be seen by those who would normally give foreign-language art films a wide berth. The film's director, Wim Wenders, was
inspired to create the film after returning to his native homeland of
Germany following a period spent partly in the US, working with Hollywood actors
Wenders was fascinated by the pop culture and wide open spaces that the
country offered, but grew frustrated by the red tape and the inability to
achieve his visions in natural settings rather than on a sound stage or in a
studio. His Hollywood debut as a director, the Francis Ford Coppola-financed
HAMMETT (1982), turned out to be a disaster. Coppola had invited Wenders to
Hollywood in 1978, but halted production on the film because he was unhappy with
the changes Wenders had made to the script. Whilst Coppola shot the film that
eventually bankrupted him, ONE FROM THE HEART (1982), Wenders set about editing
the footage he had and even made a new film, THE STATE OF THINGS (1982).
In the latter film, a director’s unexpected halt in filming due to a producer's
troubles parallels Wenders' own experience with Coppola during the shooting of
the film and reflects the filmmaker's disdain for big-budget Hollywood
filmmaking and its limitations and political bickering. Ever resourceful,
Wenders used a film crew he discovered in Portugal to make the movie. They were
shooting Raul Ruiz's THE TERRITORY (1981), and were running out of money.
After seeing the finished cut of HAMMETT, the studio was unimpressed (Wenders
claimed they found it 'too lyrical', 'too slow' with not 'enough action').
Reshoots were demanded that eventually blew up into a complete reshoot of the
original picture. It is rumoured that from 70% to 90% of the released version is
footage directed by Coppola and not Wenders.
Despite the trauma and
professional embarassment, Wenders managed to turn a negative into a positive,
with the experience distilling in him the passion to create deeper, more
visually pleasing and untraditional films. In Wenders’ own words, "Sex and
violence was never really my cup of tea; I was always more into sax and
violins." (The latter is also the title of a Talking Heads song on the
soundtrack to 1991’s UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD.) The first film was PARIS,
TEXAS (1984), which was ironically shot in the U.S., but actually made with
mostly French and German money. Acclaimed as a masterpiece, it won three awards
at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, including the coveted Palme d'or (Golden
Palm). Its success must have cemented his decision to make more European style
pictures, since the second film took him back to his home country, and reflects
his deep love of his homeland. He returned to Germany a man who had beaten by
the Hollywood system only to make one of the greatest studies of alienation in
American life (PARIS, TEXAS) outside of Hollywood. Wenders was a filmmaker at
the top of his game, and his next film was eagerly anticipated. It was released
there as DER HUMMEL UBER BERLIN, literally 'The Sky Over Berlin', in 1987. The
film is known in the West as WINGS OF DESIRE.
The story is primarily
viewed from the perspective of one angel in particular, Damiel, played by Bruno
Ganz in a paradoxically very 'human' performance. Ganz, who had previously
collaborated with Wenders on THE AMERICAN FRIEND, captures the naive innocence
of an otherworldly being observing and falling in love with a human trapeze
artist (the beautiful Solveig Dommartin). The angels' black and white
perspective gives a clear understanding that they view the world as divided into
two parts; the good and bad, and lacking the nuances of a mortal soul
The beginning of the film is a journey through the day of
two of the angels as they go about “guiding” humans, and is filled with all the
depth and angst one would expect from German cinema. Cassiel (Otto Sander from
1981's DAS BOOT), Damiel’s melancholy associate in the film, at one point, after
being unable to prevent a man from leaping from a building, throws himself off
the Berlin Victory Column (an interesting juxtaposition, victory and death) to
try and understand what happened. Cassiel tries to experience the frenetic last
moments of this suicide in a rapid barrage of disjointed scenes, blurring
lights, and stock images of Berlin burning after a bombing. These bittersweet
moments are deep glimpses into the personal spaces of human lives. Spaces that
are not usually shared even amongst humans, that angels lack the perspective to
relate to, but are privy to nonetheless. The imagination of children, the joy,
loss, and even the ability to feel grades of heat or cold, all stream through
this movie and settle comfortably on the viewer (or perhaps uncomfortably in
some moments), piercing the heart which is one minute elated, the next sad,
running the entire gamut of human emotion. Wenders allows the viewer to
personally experience the vast human condition in a short time. At one point in
the film, Damiel follows an old man (Curt Bois, CASABLANCA, 1942) named Homer
(aptly named as he is a storyteller) around as he makes his slow odyssey to
various parts of this once decimated city. The man clutches to his old fond
memories, toting around an antiquated photo album of his beloved Berlin like a
man still wallowing in the past, while hesitantly making his way through the
present. These photos come to life, utilizing old news reels of the devastation
of the bombings of Berlin during WWII, and capture the tragedy and spirit of the
residents of the city during that time. This man is the “true” heart of the
film. He feels displaced by the modern city he still calls home. These scenes
are some of the most heart-aching moments in the film because they ring so
faithful and true.
In Damiel’s wanderings he comes across Peter Falk (as
himself) having a cup of coffee and a cigarette. (It says volumes about the
unique tone of the film that despite its earnestness, Falk's appearance isn't
jarring.) Falk seems to see be able to sense the presence of Damiel (as can most
of the children in the film) and talks to him about what it is like to feel the
sensations of smoking and the simple act of holding a warm cup of coffee in your
hands when it’s cold. This seems to give Damiel the incentive he needs, and he
makes his choice to become mortal. Giving up his angelic wings to pursue his
love, Damiel literally falls to Earth, arriving with a suit of tarnished armor
that strikes him, causing him to experience pain and bleeding for the first
time. His childlike enjoyment of the sensation leads him to feel his wound and
taste his own blood. He stands, and experiences the cold weather of Berlin in
winter. Wrapping his arms around himself and smiling, he walks along the
graffiti covered Wall (still standing when Wenders made this film) seeing the
expressions, vulgar and poetic, that represent humanity. These aspects may seem
irrelevant overall, vignettes in a complicated and busy world, but they serve
brilliantly to lead the viewer into reminders about the everyday joys of life we
tend to take for granted. Little things in life are significant indeed. All have
a part to play in everyday living. This film is filled with such moments, all of
which remain in the mind for a long time.
soundtrack to the film adds immensely to the experience as well. It combines an
original score by Jurgen Kneiper, with angelic voices and enigmatic, ethereal
soundscapes, with eclectic modern pop music by such artists as Nick Cave and the
Bad Seeds (performing two of their songs 'The Carny' and 'From Her to Eternity'
live in a club), Laurie Anderson, and Crime and the City Solution (also
performing a song 'Six Bells Chime' live in the club).The club scenes again
reflect the duality, sensuality and feeling of being human and alive.
Much of the film was improvised, and Wenders focussed on the mood above
all. It ended up being a more serious film than originally intended. Deleted
from the final cut were Cassiel enjoying mimicking human actions, and a pie
fight in a bar involving Damiel and Marion that was originally supposed to end
the film. Cassiel was also meant to turn human too, but this was left to be
explored in the sequel. There was also meant to be a third angel who was female
(she can briefly be seen in the library scene).
The screenplay was a
collaborative effort between Wenders, Richard Reitinger and Peter Handke, the
acclaimed Austrian playwright and novelist who previously worked with Wenders on
THE GOALKEEPER'S FEAR OF THE PENALTY (1972, from his novella) and THE WRONG MOVE
(1975). John Updike referred to Handke as “the greatest writer of his language”
in one of his articles for 'The Observer', and is widely regarded as the most
important postmodern writer since Beckett. Handke was responsible for most of
the dialogue, the poetic narration and the poem 'Songs of Childhood', which
opens the movie, setting the tone of innocence that is portrayed throughout the
film. It serves as a starting point for the angels themselves, who are still
very child-like in nature, but soon evolve, as the humans they watch, into the
world of experience after making the choice to become mortal. This poem is the
axis upon which the film revolves, being brought around verse by verse, again
and again throughout the film. It is important to understand this poem (or at
least read it) to gain insight into what Wenders was attempting in this film.
Here is a brief excerpt:
'When the child was a child,
It was the
time for these questions:
Why am I me, and not you?
Why am I hee, and not
When did time begin, and where does space end?
Is life under the
sun not just a dream?
Is what I see and hear and smell
Not just an
illusion of a world before the world?
Given the facts of evil and people,
Does evil really exist?
How can it be that I, who I am,
before I came to be?
And that, someday, I, who I am,
Will no longer be
who I am?
This film is Wenders' stick lance against a tree, and the film
continues to quiver in the mind long after the film has ended. It asks the hard
questions in an innocent, rhetorical way that ultimately has no answers, as
Damiel discovers upon giving up his angelic being to roam, childlike, in the
realm of mortals.
The film received accolades from critics, as well as a
Best Director Award at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. Wenders dedicated the film
“to all the former angels, but especially to Yasujiro, François and Andrei."
This is a reference to fellow filmmakers Yasujiro Ozu (the subject of his
documentary TOKYO-GA, 1985), Francois Truffaut (THE 400 BLOWS, 1959) and Andrei
Tarkovsky (SOLARIS, 1972).
The film, while complete in and of itself,
ends with a To Be Continued. Wenders, true to his word, delivered the sequel
entitled FARAWAY, SO CLOSE! six years later. The story focuses on Damiel’s
angelic partner, Cassiel, becoming mortal. Cassiel finds being human and
experiencing time much harder to adjust to than the more optimistic Damiel.
Despite winning the Grand Prix du Jury and being nominated for a Palm d’Or at
Cannes in 1993, the film suffers artistically from too many plot strands, and
elements such as farcical gangsters and daring rescue attempts that feel out of
place in an otherwise intimate, meditative film. The film includes cameos from
people like Gorbachev, Lou Reed, Willem Dafoe, and others who all seem to want a
piece of what WINGS OF DESIRE offered. Wenders seems to be at his best when his
stories are starkly simple with complexity coming from the texture of the film's
environments. FARAWAY takes place after the fall of the Berlin Wall, whereas
WINGS was filmed before the Wall was brought down, and does not include Handke’s
input in any way.
Wenders himself states:
''WINGS OF DESIRE had
been essentially a fairy tale. Or maybe a fable…the angels had been some sort of
metaphor for a better person we’re all carrying inside ourselves. And FARAWAY,
SO CLOSE! deals much more with the contemporary reality of that city - a certain
hostility toward everybody who doesn’t belong, a certain kind of disorientation
that the German people just go through at this point.''
story of Damiel and Marion, who are now married and still very much in love, is
entertaining, the backdrop of a changed Berlin fascinating, and the harder tone
a nice contradt to the whimsical poeticism of the first film. Whilst not as
engaging and poetic (perhaps due to Handke’s absence?), or as deep or as
spiritual as the original, it is still a worthwhile movie. That said, it feels
less essential and resonant, and there is some fundamental piece missing from
the whole endeavour.
Five years after the sequel came the inevitable
Hollywood remake of the original, Brad Silberling's CITY OF ANGELS, with the
story relocated to L.A. (There had already been an Indian remake, NJAN
GANDHARVAN, in 1990.) What wasn't inevitable was Wenders giving the film a seal
of approval when it got greenlit. Nicolas Cage plays the Damiel equivalent,
renamed Seth. Cassiel is played by African-American actor Andre Braugher (GLORY,
1989). Marion becomes a surgeon renamed Maggie, and played by Meg Ryan. The
ending is unexpectedly dark and in the spirit of FARAWAY, SO CLOSE!'s ending:
Seth gives up his immortality only to watch Maggie die. It is a bitter, less
fairy-tale version of the original, and will almost leave the viewer who enjoyed
that movie with a bad taste that threatens to expunge the beauty of the original
from the soul of the viewer. It can only be considered a remake in the loose
sense of the word. This adaptation apparently appeals to a more superficial
American audience, who is used to being spoon-fed its emotions, but the
character development does not give you more than a superficial idea of who
these characters are, and what they represent. The few emotions evoked by this
movie are disingenuous and forced upon the viewer by the soundtrack and the
maudlin acting of Cage. There is no redemptive quality in this film as Seth is
left alone, after giving up his immortality to be with Ryan and sharing a couple
of days with her before she dies in a 'tragic' accident.
OF DESIRE we have one of the most profoundly emotional and spiritual cinematic
experiences a filmgoer will ever have. It not only stuns the viewer with its
visual content, but the film sinks deep within the recesses of the psyche and
spiritual self and strikes angelic chords that will resonate long after the
credits end. It takes the essence of life, distills it, and allows the viewer to
absorb and comprehend what makes us human and divine. The film is a
life-affirming spiritual journey from darkness into light, and stands out as a
spiritual gem of the director's ouevre. Wenders’ love letter to the city of
Berlin, it shines brightly with hope, love, and a deep seeded joy for life.
Justly acclaimed as one of the greatest foreign or art films, it is actually one
of the most moving and beautiful films ever put on film, period.
Marion (Dommartin) is one of many performers in the Circus Alekan. The name of
the circus is of course a nod to the film’s cinematographer, Henri Alekan.
Dommartin was Wenders' lover for some time and made her debut in WINGS OF
DESIRE, learning the acrobatics in a mere eight weeks. She had worked on the
editing to TOKYO-GA and later acted in and co-wrote UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD
with him. Sadly, she died from a heart attack in 2007 at the age of 45. Wenders
is a co-member on the advisory board of the World Cinema Foundation, founded by
Martin Scorsese, which is dedicated to finding and reconstructing world cinema
films that have been long neglected. Nick Cave can also be seen in such films as
GHOSTS ... OF THE CIVIL DEAD (1989), JOHNNY SUEDE (1991), and THE ASSASSINATION
OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007). Aside from writing various film
scores, he also wrote the THE PROPOSITION (2005) and a rejected sequel to
GLADIATOR (2000). Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander are close friends in real-life, as
they are in the film. This was the final film for Curt Bois in an eighty year
career that went as far back as silent films.
AVAILABILITY：The film is widely available on DVD and Bluray. Both the UK and US (Criterion Collection) releases feature a commentary with Wenders and Falk, deleted scenes, a documentary (different) and a booklet. The latter release has slightly better picture quality and more interviews and TV show excerpts.
'The St. James
Film Directors Encyclopedia', edited by Andrew Sarris, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
'2x Handke' by Peter Handke, Collier Books, 1989. ('About the Author'
'Wim Wenders Discusses Painful HAMMETT with Coppola, Friendship with Nicholas Ray' by Edward Davies, The Playlist site, 22nd October 2011.
'Wim Wenders: On Film (Essays and Conversations)', by Wim Wenders,
Faber and Faber, 2001.
'Wim Wenders': Wikipedia entry.
'Wings of Desire': liner notes from Criterion DVD release.
'Wings of Desire': Wikipedia entry.
Brent Wills Bechtel resides in Phoenix, Arizona. A movie obsessive and aspiring amateur filmmaker, he studied Film and Cinematography at Scottsdale Community College.
Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. Paul writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. An aspiring novelist, short story writer, screenwriter and filmmaker, he has until now mainly wrote for pleasure and on various blogs and so far unpublished projects. He is originally from the UK.