All this week and through Christmas, we’re presenting holiday programs at 7pm, and the one for this evening is something special for the centennial year of Benjamin Britten.
Rejoice in Wings of Desire
“On one level, the angels are pure-hearted documentarians,” Michael Atkinson writes in a new Criterion essay about Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, available now in DVD and Blu-ray editions.
Let’s rejoice. Criterion creates pristine DVDs of great movies, and Wings of Desire deserves to be treasured. I’m always amazed by how many people love the movie, though, but don’t see how the film connects German history. Here’s a typical review (which I happen to agree with):
The language itself lives in tension. The angels speak poetically, and the people’s thought monologues are ponderous, if not poetic (with both sets of lines written by German playwright Peter Handke). But then Peter Falk, playing himself, improvises his lines and brings a plainspoken levity to the film. He also brings a sense of peacefulness and a steady, reassuring presence. He exemplifies the balance being sought — simple but profound, a spirit fully enjoying the flesh with both childlike exuberance and adult responsibility.
Wings of Desire is a masterful work that’s part tone poem, part philosophical treatise and part love story — not a dramatic tale of love writ large, but an exploration of the tiny things that can make life worth loving. This story of angels is really an examination of what it means to be human — in the most profound sense but via the smallest, most trivial details. As it turns out, there’s a lot more than the devil in those details.
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Yes, but it’s even more than that. It’s a movie about space, location, and the people that can inhabit both, or neither. When the protagonist, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), first sees in color, and first gets to taste, touch, and feel life, he’s next to a big wall. Hmmm? Berlin? Wall? Get it?
This review gets the whole picture:
One of many consequences of such wars hangs over Wings of Desire like a silent character: the Berlin Wall, that divides East and West into another duality – the political duality. The German name for the film, Der Himmel Uber Berlin, which means “Heaven over Berlin”, emphasizes the importance of the setting in this great city perhaps better than does the American title. This is the Berlin two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, rendered gloomy from decades of neglect. The divided city symbolizes the division between thought and action. Wenders underscores the parallels between Marion’s psychological duality and the duality of Berlin of 1987 with this double entendre verse, “Here I am a foreigner, yet it’s all so familiar. Anyway, I can’t get lost. You always end up at the wall.”
I can’t find the right clip on YouTube, so I’ll have to rely on my memory. Another space element: when one of the angels reaches out for the suicidal jumper. What’s in the background? (I think it was a BMW or Mercedes logo.) There’s a deep connection with the film and Germany’s troubled history. After the West became a democracy, several businesses, formally run by the Nazi government, prospered despite bleak economic conditions, led by Nazi leaders. The car industry flourished, with former Nazis running it unimpeded. Meanwhile, the “economic miracle” didn’t touch everyone. It helped mostly the well-to-do.
Despite calls for a clean sweep, some of the ghosts of Hitler were still around. Fassbinder addressed these paradoxes in his works, as did Wenders in this one.
It’s a film that attempts to do a lot – a lot! – and succeeds brilliantly (with the possible exception of the final soliloquy by the French lady, addressed to the camera, which puts a bit too fine a point on things). I think I need to watch this again soon.