WHY I HADN'T SEEN IT
For whatever reason, the name Wim Wenders hadn't really entered my radar until quite recently, so all I knew about this film was that it was the film that was remade into City of Angels. I never saw that one either, due to the fact that a) NIC CAGE!, b) mawkishness alert.
WHY I SAW IT NOW
If you may recall from my New Year's Post, one of my goals this year is to develop a more holistic understanding of German culture after World War II, which seems to have subsumed its identity entirely, and in my opinion, unfairly. But I have a closet Germanophile friend who read that post and has made it his mission to point me to relevant pieces of literature and film to try to answer that question, for which I am much obliged. We started last week with The Edukators, which I would have written about but I was not then, nor am I now, in the mood for being unkind. But I am eternally grateful for him sitting us down to watch Wings of Desire.
The movie is bound by the story of angels walking the Earth to observe humanity, or perhaps less to observe than to absorb the essence of what makes them human. But in the way of such films, the angels are gifted with omnipotence but yearn to experience humanity itself. Bruno Ganz's Damiel, a kindly onlooker for the first half of the film, slowly becomes consumed by a lonely trapeze artist (Solveig Donmartin), and he follows her through rehearsal, through performance, and through her life.
I'd be lying if I didn't admit that in the first half of the movie, nothing happens, to the point that we were all falling asleep. The thoughts that our friendly angels overhears are all poetic, often mundane, but never exhilarating. Brief entertainment is provided by Peter Falk playing himself, whose role becomes unexpectedly and amazingly important (though I won't spoil it here).
Then, like flipping a switch, the movie changes. Damiel has followed the trapeze artist into a goth club, where a bunch of Berlin hipsters bob their heads to Crime in the City, a spinoff band from Nick Cave's The Birthday Party. All of a sudden we viewers are no longer constrained to a disaffected higher plane; we join Damiel in his yearning to be there. Just to be there and feel what everyone else is feeling.
Unexpectedly, the film reminded me of one of my favorite graphic novels, Neil Gaiman's Death: High Cost of Living. It's a universally beloved spinoff from the Sandman series, where he personified Death as a continually perky goth girl with endless compassion and unerring faith in humanity. She maintains that compassion by coming to Earth and becoming mortal for one day in every 100 years, and always finds kinship with the most downtrodden. (Aside, just talking about this makes me want to run and read the whole series again...) There's something in the tone that matched Wings of Desire; it oozes love for humanity despite all its warts.
Throughout the film, even through the slower bits, Winders gives us absolutely stunning imagery, from Daniel's brief sojourn on the top of a statue to loving shots of the circus and of that most mundane of places - the public library. Every decision Wenders makes radiates love, love of film, love of humanity, and love of life itself.
Oddly enough, while Tom vaguely knew of the existence of City of Angels, he knew almost nothing about it. Once I started to convey what I knew of it, he let out an anguished cry of "WHY DO THE AMERICANS RUIN EVERYTHING!!!" But nothing I could say held a candle to actually watching the trailer for it. Once the laughter passed, the first thing he said, then, was, "How odd. Just a 90 second trailer and they mentioned God."
All four of us present just nodded our heads in amazement, like, "Wow, go Wenders, way to make a movie about angels that actually has almost no religious subtext whatsoever!" Well I did a little research, and Wenders was apparently inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke's Angels, modeled on the concept of Islamic angels, intangible beings characterized by their lack of free will.
WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT
-Nick Cave. Speaks for itself.
-Berlin-porn. Seriously, it's astonishing how different Berlin looks now from the Berlin of the movie, and Wenders adds another layer of context by comparing 1987 Berlin to what existed before the war. And if you've had the pleasure of visiting Berlin since the Wall came down, you can have a fun time in the slower bits identifying what stands now in the open spaces of the film.
-First movie I've seen with Wim Wenders, but assuredly not the last. I've wanted to see Paris,Texas for ages, and also Until the End of the World, even though that one's regarded as a little bit of a disaster.