WINGS OF DESIRE (Wim Wenders, 1987)

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 and filmmakers.

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 perspective.

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.

Shot in beautiful black and white sepia that jumps to colour to represent the POV of the human characters (very A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, 1946) by Henri Alekan, the famed cinematographer used the same hand-made filter from his grandmother’s stocking as he did for Jean Cocteau's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946). This one of a kind filter, combined with exquisite camera movements, gives the viewer a unique look at the world as seen by the angels who drift amongst humans, guiding and comforting us. The use of black and white depicts the angel’s inability to see gradations of the colored world of mortals. The colored world lures some angels to cast themselves out of the Heavenly Host and experience the sensations of living, despite the pain and desperation (which are equally desired by the angels along with the joy and pleasure) experienced by mortals.

The 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 there?
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,
Didn't exist 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, Fran├žois 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.''

The continuing 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.

Wenders continues to follow his very unique creative path, working on what topics interest him (commercial or uncommercial), which collaborators inspire him, and wherever he can find finance. He makes feature films, documentaries, music videos, and is currently interested in the possibilities of 3D - his dance documenatary PINA (2011) was shot using the format. His biggest success since WINGS has been his documentary on Cuban musicians, BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (1999). Interestingly, his least well-received films have been the feature films he has shot in English, THE MILLION DOLLAR HOTEL (2001, a collaboration with U2 singer Bono) being particularly badly reviewed and little-seen.

In WINGS 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.


NB. 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.

SOURCES:
'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' section.)
'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.

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