Saturday, September 15, 2012

Film # 86: Der Himmel uber Berlin

Title for us English-speaking Types: Wings of Desire

Director: Wim Wenders

Initial Release Country: Germany

Times Previously Seen: once (about 12 years ago)

Rapid-Fire Summary:

In 1987 Berlin, Germany, angels are watching the citizens of the city. With quiet and stoic curiosity, dozens of angels (distinguishable to us by their trench coats and short ponytails) watch living humans, though the angels are completely invisible to people they observe. The angels are even able to listen in on these people’s innermost thoughts, be they benevolent, deeply philosophical, petty, or any other range of quality.

One particular angel, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), becomes intrigued with the notion of actually living as a human. Growing tired of merely chronicling life along with his immortal angelic brethren, Damiel becomes more and more curious about feeling emotions as a human does.

The angel Damiel, looking down on Berlin from on high.

Damiel focuses his desires on Marion, a female acrobat in a small-scale local circus. Marion is a pretty young French woman whose thoughts run towards the very deep and introspective loneliness that Damiel seems to understand. After observing Marion on and off for a few days, Damiel renounces his immortality and enters the vibrant world of human existence.

After a day or so of wandering Berlin, getting his bearings, and receiving a little help from a fellow former angel – the actor we know as Peter Falk – Damiel seeks out Marion. He finds her at a Nick Cave concert in the city. The two meet, exchange some epigrammatic words, and spend the night in each others’ arms.

Damiel and Marion are together the next day, with Damiel assisting Marion in her acrobatics routine. He ponders just how much fuller his life has become since becoming human and finding the woman who appears to be his soul mate.

Though she cannot see him in his angel form, Damiel watches and listens to Marion with growing interest and attraction.

My Take on the Film:

This movie had me totally enthralled. For about 30 to 45 minutes.

It’s not that I found Wings of Desire a complete bore, or that it totally ran out of steam at the 45-minute mark. There are actually some excellent moments in the latter half of the film. In total, though, some aspects of the movie got to be a bit tedious by the end.

The premise of the movie is certainly an interesting one. Watching immortal angels peer into the thoughts of humans at various moments in their lives is compelling. Especially since some of those moments reveal not only thought-provoking observations, but also the silly, cheap, and illogical things that pop into people’s heads. It’s often fun to simply sit back and see what the next person on the screen is going to “think”. I do have to say, though, that the people’s thoughts were generally of the much more positive and amusing type. The director clearly did not want to get into anything overly vicious or nasty. This may have been because Berlin at the time was still dealing with the Wall and the decades-long cultural fallout of World War II. Perhaps the specter of the Wall was enough torment to present in the film.

The primary tale of Damiel is also a time-honored and engaging one. The emotionless immortal pining for mortality is certainly the stuff of romance. Actor Bruno Ganz is excellent at playing the desiring angel, wanting to embrace human emotion, and doing so with a very genuine blend of fear and excitement. His meetings with Peter Falk have a very organic warmth to them that are arguably the movie’s greatest assets.

Peter Falk plays a version of himself as a former angel-turned-human. His conversations to and with Damiel are some of the most touching and amusing scenes in the movie.

Despite the interesting premise, meditative themes, and some solid acting, the movie dragged to me and somewhat disappointed towards the end. Virtually all of the first two-thirds of the film are in black-and-white, to convey the bland perspective of the angels. This makes perfect sense, and it actually works very well for a while. As the film open with long, panning shots over Berlin, along its streets, and inside some of its more striking buildings, it is easy for the viewer to adopt the calm, thoughtful mood required. After about 45 minutes, though, I found myself a bit weary of the constant “deep thoughts” moments that ran virtually non-stop through the picture. It almost became a repetitive drone at times.

Again, one thing that rescued it from being a total drone was the presence of Peter Falk. As a fallen angel himself, he adds a welcome amount of dry humor and fraternal affection that lets you know that the movie still has a pulse.

Maybe the biggest disappointment is the character Marion and Damiel’s ultimate meeting with her. Through her thoughts, we see that Marion is a deeply introspective woman who seems to find pleasure in rather simple things, such as performing in a low-rent circus. However, she does yearn for a larger stage and to find a companion with whom she can be her “whole self”. This is all understandable and admirable, but it is all expressed through thoughts that come across like philosophical treatises. And it really never changes. Even when Damiel finds her and they begin to interact, there isn’t the slightest amount of visible human passion. Marion instead regurgitates some of her thoughts in a bland monotone. Now, I’m no romantic and I don’t need melodrama (I hate it, in fact), but this final scene was like watching two Terminators trying to express their feelings for one another. It was rather a letdown to me.

When it shifts to the human perspective, the film becomes one of color. This is what makes this eventual meeting between Damiel and Marion all the more disappointing - I found virtually no human passion in this scene. 

I do have to say that, even though I have a lukewarm overall opinion of this movie, Wings of Desire has clearly been an influential film. The entire notion of “seeing” into people thoughts in such a panoramic way has been aped countless times since the movie came out in 1987. One example is the R.E.M. “Everybody Hurts” video from the early 1990s, but there are plenty of others. The movie also ties together many extremely heavy and touchingly lighter elements of humanity in a novel way. All the same, I don’t feel any urge to watch the film again, or even watch the sequel movie, Faraway, So Close! (1993).

That’s a wrap. 86 shows down, 19 to go.

Coming Soon: Nayakan (1987):

 Supposedly, this is the India/Bollywood version of “The Godfather”. Or at least, is an epic gangster movie. I have no idea what to expect here, which is sometimes a very good – or very bad – thing.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.