Friday, November 5, 2010

Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) (1987)
GERMANY --- fantasy

Dir: Wim Wenders

What do we know of angels? Studies say most of the human population, no matter what their religion believe in some form of angelic beings. The Hebrew Bible has numerous appearances of angels, but with the exclusion of Death, only names three of them: Lucifer (aka Satan), Michael, and Gabriel. They are speckled throughout the Bible. Whether tasked with guarding the Garden of Eden, the rescue of Lot from Sodom & Gomorrah, or visiting Mary to inform her she will give birth to the messiah. The mysterious beings have obviously been a part of most ( if not all ) cultural societies, and all we can do is question the parts they play in the scheme of our lives.

The German director Wim Wenders takes a visionary notion of how angels might operate if our eyes were open to their plane of existence. In the film "Der Himmel über Berlin (aka Wings of Desire)", he attempts to humanize these beings going even further than most older fare such as "It's A Wonderful Life" or "Death Takes A Holiday". We see a couple of angels observe, report, and discuss the daily activities of humanity in West Berlin. Our story focuses on two angels. One is named Damiel (played by Bruno Ganz) who follows along humanity with an expression of curiosity, sadness, and longing. The other angel is Cassiel, who is more stern, serious, and exacting. In an early scene, the two meet in a bmw dealership and discuss their observances of the day. It is a scene filled with light banter of the idiosyncrasies of mankind, something that Kevin Smith will kind of repeat in his film "Dogma".

As the two float among the city streets of Cold War era Berlin, we see an almost documentary style collection of people accompanied by their random voice-over track thoughts. Children are the only ones our angels are visible to. All is so routine to Damiel, as he longs to forsake his spirit form, and spend time to be corporeal. This is even further supported by his falling in love with Marion (played by the late Solveig Dommartin), a lithe female trapeze artist working at a circus.

While Damiel seems enamored with the joy and love of people and children, Cassiel seems more involved in those darker aspects of humankind. In particular, a geriatric gentleman by the name of Homer, who waxes poetic about the old Berlin. Though this character isn't a curmudgeon. Nor is the other older character, played by Peter Falk as himself. In the universe of this film, he is also an ex-angel named Compañero. Throughout the film we see Damiel slowly become seduced by Marion the trapeze artist and the colorful energy of humanity. Cassiel, however, sees the remorseful introspective poet Homer and the nightmarish horrors of humanity. Wenders often throws in the occassional documentary footage to ground us in this reality. The second half of the film follows Damiel and his journey in the flesh as he seeks his lovely flying trapeze artist.

"Wings of Desire" does indeed seem a microcosm of time passing before us. Converging on the middle ground of what was a divided wall separating East from West, color and black-and-white, love and death, etc. Overall, it retains a childlike perspective, but is most certainly of its time, as the graffiti-adorned Berlin wall would fall just two years after the release of this film.

As far as angels goes, as a Christian, my personal belief is that most angels have very specific instructions. There must be a militaristic hierarchy of some order, and the orders come only from the Lord. This movie curiously has an absentee God. I also believe at some point angels had or have a free will. Depending on your view of context of time, Revelation 12:4 states that Lucifer took a third of the angels with him when he was cast out of heaven. So if these beings were under some form of involuntary slave-control of the Lord, why or how could Lucifer himself defy God and how could the others follow? The answer is free will.

So it would seem "Wings of Desire" is not completely off the beaten track. Whether we like it or not the film takes a romantic look at what would otherwise be deemed horrific. Damiel is essentially a fallen angel, and we've seen films take a darker approach at that idea; "The Prophecy" being one. Wim Wenders' fantasy, of course, is far better than the Hollywood remake "City of Angels". The film's black-and-white cinematography is top notch, in the hands of Henri Alekan, who also shot Jean Cocteau's "La Belle et la Bête". It is directed with a finely tuned eye for composition and form. Taking advantage of Berlin's unique artistic aesthetic and creating poignant shots for visual consumption. In an early scene, you can see Damiel standing in front of plants, but in the shot it looks like his wings. All in all, one of the better films exploring what angels must think of humanity, even though it has the forced romantic trope.