Yeah, I know. There is no rhyme or reason to this blog. Just like there is no rhyme or reason to me. But this film was such a stunning masterpiece, that I must write about it. I have written one review before on the film Desert Hearts, so it is time to do another.
Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire may have knocked E.T. out of first place on my Top 5 Favourite Films Of All Time. Don’t ask me what my other favourites are… because they change constantly. Ingmar Bergman’s Franny & Alexander might be one of them….
But E.T. always remained #1… until now.
I don’t even know where to start. From start to finish, I weeped and marveled and scribbled notes in my journal… which only happens for very special films. The last one that inspired such feverish note-taking was Desert Hearts.
Some of you may know or have gathered that I am very spiritual. Not religious… not in the least. But I do believe in angels (and other entities). Yeah… I do. Go ahead and judge. I talk to them constantly… aloud and in my head. So when I started to watch this film, I was astounded to see my own reality reflected back to me.
In this film, angels, Seraphim specifically, walk unseen among human adults; children can sense and see them though. Big surprise there. We become acquainted with two in particular, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander). They patiently and lovingly listen in on the thoughts of the humans around them in 1980s Berlin – the city as much a character in the film as the angels, and just as in need of hope as the humans, seen somnambulating in their solitary bubbles of worry, separation and loneliness in the first half of the film.
The angels bear witness to Spirit’s (God’s) creation; they even take notes and share their findings with one another. Little things, the mundane, the very things we take for granted, are amazing phenomena to these guardian angels. They can see humans experiencing life, but they can never feel what humans feel. They can never truly KNOW what it is to be human.
Quite literally and figuratively, the angelic experience is black and white, giving the first half of the film an almost timeless feel. Their perspective is objective and void of sensuality. And the human experience is in colour, which makes the actual time period of the film much more obvious. One colour that really made a profound impression on me was red, the colour of passion, desire, sex. I loved the scene in which Marion (Solveig Dommartin) is at a club, watching Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds perform, and she is wearing that dress… proof that there is indeed a God. More on her later.
They do not interfere in the lives of the humans. They cannot make them do things and they cannot stop them from doing things. They listen. They witness. They love and offer flickers of hope that you can see when the internal monologue of the particular humans they are silently consoling becomes tinged with hope… seemingly out of nowhere. Sometimes they fail to console, and their hearts break every time that happens. They scream their despair and loss when a human loses all hope and takes their own life. I had to take a break to cry inconsolably after that particular scene.
I took lots of cry breaks.
The film takes a turn when Damiel becomes acquainted with the beautiful Marion, a French blonde aerialist in a traveling circus. He becomes intrigued by her particular internal chatter, her worries of falling to her death on the night of a full moon, her existential despair. We see our first glimpse of colour around this time, and start to get a sense of Damiel’s desire to experience human existence. And preferably one with Marion, with whom he falls head over heels in love. She is not only a paragon of the beauty of God’s creation, but she is deep, thoughtful, melancholy… and a little… weird (you have to see her dance). She is perfect imperfection incarnate, and I am aware of just how Velveeta that sounds. Damiel is a goner, and begins preparations for “taking the plunge”, which is basically commiting angel suicide and becoming human… in order to truly live… only to eventually die a mortal death. Jesus, the complexity is jarring.
As much as I enjoyed the connection seen and unseen between Damiel and Marion, I think my most favourite character in the film is Peter Falks (from the 80s show Columbo… I won’t even pretend that I know the show at all) playing himself. He appears to be an actor filming on location in Berlin, and is often seen off-set at a curry wurst stall smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, and exclaiming, “I can’t see you, but I know you’re here” to whichever angel happens to be spying on him. I knew immediately that Falks wasn’t an ordinary human, but a former angel who never lost his “sight”. He delights in his very human nicotine and caffeine vices, and is in awe of the completely overlooked fact that you can warm your cold hands when you rub them together. His unmistakably American accent stands out amongst the primarily German and French dialogue, which intentionally or not, may offer a little comic relief through this heavy film. He is simply adorable, and he made me smile in between fits of sobbing. He serves as a reminder that we as humans in these finite encasements we call bodies, need to spend more time living outside of time, in the moment, in our senses, which are one of the many gifts bestowed upon those brave enough to incarnate in this dense and difficult world. This life is transient, like a travelling circus: one minite it’s here, the next it’s gone.
That. And I might have to start watching Columbo….
Now I want to talk about Berlin as a character.
This film is spacious, full of vacancies inviting you to meditate and reflect on your own human condition, just like the city of Berlin. There is a silence despite all the chatter.
I have had the supreme privilege of traveling abroad, and one of my all-time favourite places is Berlin.
I remember lots of dogs and Turkish bakeries. U-bahn stations and Checkpoint Charlie. Remnants of the Wall and the street art. I remember Unter den Linden, and the book fair at Bebelplatz, where Nazis once burned books. I remember the feeling of unremembering. I remember all the vacant spaces and parking lots. Our guide on a free walking tour mentioned it, and I never forgot it. Berlin is full of them… standing as vestiges of multiple legacies of death, destruction and erasure most would rather forget. The city is one big forgetting. The film captures this so well. But it also captures Berlin’s palimpsest-like ability to erase and write over these voids with new life, namely the arts. This is evident in the growing music scene in the city (the club featuring Nick Cave appears twice) and Marion’s return to aerialism after the circus falls apart and she and Damiel come together to play rather than toil.
Berlin is broken in two, it is fractured, and desolate though densely populated. Its inhabitants are the same. The split between East and West attests to just how separate everyone thinks they are from one another. But when we see our two main protagonists come into a sacred union of the soul, when we see these two seemingly separate entities play together in the purest and most innocent love, two sides of a lonely little coin, we realize that we are never alone, never truly separated. Lonesome — whole within each self, as Marion describes it — but not lonely. Not alone.
“I was inside her, and she all around me.” Damiel, former angel.
P.S. If this vaguely reminds you of City of Angels starring Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan, that’s because CoA is a re-make of WoD. But it is basically a watered-down, reductive nod in the general direction of its far superiour muse.
A monologue like the following could never be found in a Hollywood movie:
Marion to Damiel, when they finally meet in the flesh:
“Now it’s serious. At last it’s becoming serious. So I’ve grown older. Was I the only one who wasn’t serious? Is it our times that are not serious? I was never lonely neither when I was alone, nor with others. But I would have liked to be alone at last. Loneliness means I’m finally whole. Now I can say it as tonight, I’m at last alone. I must put an end to coincidence. The new moon of decision. I don’t know if there’s destiny but there’s a decision. Decide! We are now the times. Not only the whole town – the whole world is taking part in our decision. We two are now more than us two. We incarnate something. We’re representing the people now. And the whole place is full of those who are dreaming the same dream. We are deciding everyone’s game. I am ready. Now it’s your turn. You hold the game in your hand. Now or never. You need me. You will need me. There’s no greater story than ours, that of man and woman. It will be a story of giants… invisible… transposable… a story of new ancestors. Look. My eyes. They are the picture of necessity, of the future of everyone in the place. Last night I dreamt of a stranger… of my man. Only with him could I be alone, open up to him, wholly open, wholly for him. Welcome him wholly into me. Surround him with the labyrinth of shared happiness. I know… it’s you.”
Anyone else need a tissue?