Wednesday, September 4, 2019
New Classics Watch: Wings of Desire (1987)
Format: Criterion Channel
Originally, I'd put this film on as I've pondered doing my own episode of "What is Love?" for the PodCast, but - like others who took on the task - I am also faced with the dilemma of a stable relationship of many years. I like movies that include or which are about people finding each other in this mixed up world, but it's almost like a High School movie to me - I have been there. I have done that. I am now elsewhere.
Wings of Desire (1987) is part of a movement of film that we called "Art House" back in the day, and which I am afraid is fading out. A film like this, today, would get festival accolades, play about twenty theaters in the US for a couple of weeks and then vanish, popping up on Netflix with zero fanfare and a description which did the casual browser a disservice.
The film is very much about the discovery of love, told in a scope that spans from the diversity of human experience to the singular, common experience of what two people can mean to one another (even if one of our people is, not, technically, a person), and the magnitude and wonder of love.
We open in Berlin, people going about their business, but we hear snippets of their thoughts, drifting from one to the next. Wishes, regrets, concerns, anxieties, hopes... and walking among them, listening and observing, expressionless figures, dressed as people in overcoats, but unseen except by young children.
Wenders story follows its own structure, eschewing explanation or rules. Despite the fact these *are* angels, there's no real discussion of deities, devils or an afterlife. Instead, the figures observe, watch, listen and report. They intervene only indirectly, by providing comfort, it seems, to the mournful or injured, if that person is able to accept the help. We observe dozens upon dozens of people, each with their own story, problems, and all that life has brought them, good and bad, with issues immediate and global. They remember, too. The film cuts between images of 1980's Berlin and the final days of WWII, juxtaposing thoughts with realities. All while a fantasy story is being filmed about WWII, starring Peter Falk (who plays himself in this movie).
At least 75% of the film is black and white, echoing the distance of the angels (and there are many) who can observe but never truly share the experience of their charges, who don't know what it is to taste something, to feel cold, to have mortality hanging over them. And in describing the trick, I'm robbing it of it's essence. Director Wim Wenders understands both the visual language of the frame and power of words - combining and juxtaposing them here for sequences I find oddly moving.
There's a version of faith here, but not one set for a Hallmark store, and maybe all the more believable for it's reflection in our reality. Wenders angels draw focus to the divinity of thought and mind in people - the spark which makes us what we are, our reason, our capacity to learn, to express and to share ideas as well as understand those of others is treated with a religious reverence. There is no sequence in a church, but there is one in a public library.
Our focal angel, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), has stumbled upon something new. A smalltime circus with an aerialist who isn't quite an expert (Solveig Dommartin), and a French ex-pat who has no roots anymore, and learns the circus will be closing for the year.
The second half of the film is Damiel's conclusion he must love her (though not in so many words) and his decision to shed his immortality, omniscience and outsider status - to learn what it is to engage in the world and to be with this woman.
There is no shortage of speaking in this movie - from the constant switching of monologues to the conversations between Damiel and his his pal, Cassiel (Otto Sander), but there's no American film-like explanation of what Damiel is doing and why - no moral shared, but monologues on the nature of stories.
But if you asked me what I thought this showed as an ideal of romance in cinema, I would say that this movie builds the case for how one sees someone they might love, what differences this person may have, what gesture or thoughts or curve of the neck might draw them. But it also has no subtle message about the difference between the observer and note taker versus the person engaging and beholding and indulging and appreciating the minutia of life - and that desire can drive you to step into a new life, shedding your armor for vulnerability.
When it does happen - despite the fact it happens millions of times every day - it's a singular story, and the greatest story. It can define you and redefine what you were into what you can be. It will not remove pain, it will ensure it. It won't immortalize you, it will make you count the days. But it's the story that matters.
And while I've focused here on the change in state for the angel, the aerialist, herself, finds something new in Damiel, a realization of something she didn't know she was missing, perhaps. The lifestyle of wandering and not caring and uncertainty and no attachments can change, now that she's found someone she'd miss.
But I'm doing it a disservice and over simplifying, I think.
As a product of its time, the movie takes place just before the fall of the Wall, it features a performance by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, and isn't afraid of long takes and speeches. Imagine.
I don't know if Wings of Desire is a movie for everyone. I sort of think it is - but you have to settle in and find patience with Wenders and what he's doing. Let the scale and scope of the story and characters wander in from the edge of the frame, wander out and return. Appreciate what they do with color, but also with light and shadow. It's a hell of a film, and I'm sorry I took so long between viewings.