A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987)

Angels are usually a tiresome element in movies. I loathe the stickiness of the way they're conceived in movies like It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946), and even actors of the caliber of Cary Grant and Denzel Washington can't do much with playing them in films like The Bishop's Wife (Henry Koster, 1947) and its remake, The Preacher's Wife (Penny Marshall, 1996). Maybe it's because I subscribe to Rilke's dictum, Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich -- every angel is terrible. Only a filmmaker of genius like Wim Wenders can transcend the essential cheesiness of their presence in a plot -- a cheesiness that lingers in the American remake of Wings of Desire, City of Angels (Brad Silberberg, 1988). The idea that there are angels watching over our lives, reading our thoughts, but unseen except by other angels and sometimes by children, is not a very original one. But what distinguishes the working out of this idea by Wenders and scenarists Peter Handke and Richard Reitlinger is the empathetic approach to them as beings who have been around since Creation, watching the course of humankind and unable to alter it, and occasionally so moved by what they see that they choose to give up immortality and become human. And that these angels have a specific territory to cover, in this case the city of Berlin, a nexus of human cruelty and human suffering. Even so, the concept could easily slip into banality without the blend of humor and melancholy that Wenders brings to it, without performers of the caliber of Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander as the angels Damiel and Cassiel, and without the poetic cinematography of Henri Alekan. It was also an inspired choice to cast Peter Falk as himself, an actor shooting a movie set in the Nazi era who is often stopped on the Berlin streets by people who know him as Columbo, the detective he played on television. It's also a witty touch to have Falk turn out to be an ex-angel, able to sense but not see the presence of Damiel and Cassiel. In many ways, however, the real star of the film is the city of Berlin itself -- although Wenders was prevented from shooting in the eastern sector of the city, he uses the Wall as a kind of correlative to the division between angels and humans. Almost everything works in the film, including the shifts from monochrome (the angels' point of view) to color (the humans'), the shabby little bankrupt circus whose star (Solveig Dommartin) Damiel literally falls for, and the score by Jürgen Knieper. I'm not hip enough to appreciate Nick Cave's songs, but their melancholy eccentricity is an essential part of the texture of the film.

No comments: