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Wings of Desire

(Hummel über Berlin, Wim Wenders, West Germany/France, 1987)


 


Introduction (December 2018): Wim Wenders’ trajectory as a filmmaker – and, in particular, Wings of Desire – has accompanied me since my earliest years as a critic. I have referred to this major film of his often, and usually in passing, in the midst of some other, broader argument, either about his career as a whole or a larger cultural context. The film has stuck to me, and keeps overcoming my announced resistances to it – because, really, I love it. The closest I have (so far) got to synthesising my evolving, scattered thoughts on Wenders and the stark changes in his filmography appeared as “Dinosaurs, Babies and the Sound of Music” in the first issue (titled “Histories”) of LOLA in August 2011 (revised from a text of 2009). But sometimes it’s probably better to simply arrange the fragments, appearing over time, that constellate around a certain film, director or topic – rather than trying to iron them out into a singular thesis. Recently seeing – and being overwhelmed by – the digitally restored/enhanced version of Wings of Desire on the big screen of ACMI in Melbourne convinced me that it is not only the “crucial crossroads” (as I once referred to it) in Wenders’ career, but also something of a miracle in its material coherence and cohesiveness, on the levels of both image and sound design – and that even its most sentimental and wilfully “childlike” gestures and moments fully work and integrate themselves as Wenders intended them to. Here is a collage of three episodes (dating from the late 1980s and early ‘90s) from my lifelong engagement with Wings of Desire and Wenders.

 


1. (Sydney Film Festival review, 1987)

Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire is clearly two different films placed end to end – each of which requires its own careful commentary. The one I like better is in black-and-white and is about two angels (Bruno Ganz as Damiel, Otto Sander as Cassiel). The second one, shorter and in colour, is a celebration of “life itself”. The philosophical principles of neither film are ones I personally particularly share; but there’s no doubting that, in every respect, Wings of Desire is, all up, a beautiful and remarkable movie, and Wenders’ most elaborate concept-metaphor to date.

 

The first Wings of Desire is a long commentary on modern melancholia. Like for the characters in all Wenders’ films, the angels’ subject-position is one of profound solitude: selves who can observe and even understand the travails of others, but neither touch nor intervene in their lives (a theme granted an extraordinary representation here in the suicide scene). Wenders gives full poetic realisation to another, connected concern of his: the grasping of cinema itself as a type of melancholia-machine. For these angels are cinema; they see all, hear all, note down all, but never enter the scene of the Real, whether personal or historical reality. This movie is a cinephile’s nightmare. But then, it is also a dream …

 

We can say quite precisely that Wenders’ cinema represents a particular apolitical cultural sensibility of our time. Withdrawing from any social space of other-relations (community, family, collectivity), he appreciates only the flickerings of a lonely, twilight subjectivity. But alienation – the goalie’s fear of penalty – is no longer the keynote in Wings of Desire. Perfectly in step with the desperate investment of the 1980s in lyrical subjectivity, Wenders shrinks the world down to its smallest movements and gestures, and then blows it up onto the big screen. It’s a wonderful world, indeed. And we can see how the melancholic, solitary subject (i.e., the cinephile) is thereby saved: he becomes, himself or herself, a kind of screen, barely a surface, through which effects and affects pass, fleetingly. In Wings of Desire, Wenders joins this projected subjectivity to the sad love streams of John Cassavetes (here represented by the marvellous Peter Falk).

 

And, furthermore, Wenders claims his film as a gesture in the service of peace, an optimistic film malgré tout: because (you know how this goes from his earlier films) narrative is identity is inexorable movement is violence is death is war, Wings of Desire traces all that is not solid or linear or visible. An old storyteller (a figure sourced from an essay by Walter Benjamin?) played by Curt Bois opens up hidden passageways in time and space … Berlin is re-invented, and it is full of grace. A child’s world, a child’s (pre-symbolic, or is it post-symbolic?) vision.

 

Around the moment that Crime and the City Solution’s Simon Bonney gesticulates his way through an immaculately draggy rendition of “Six Bells Chime” and Marion (Solveig Dommartin) sashays to it in the club-head crowd, Wings of Desire is perfectly balanced – overflowingly happy and sad all at once. Then the metaphoric premise changes radically with the arrival of its second film. Being an angel becomes the pretext (or ideological alibi, not all that different in this regard from Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life [1946]) for singing the praises of being human. Pain (Bruno Ganz’s blood) is beautiful, the cold is beautiful, you and I are beautiful …

 

And now the definition of optimism changes, too: from the solitary self that flickers, we pass over (as in the home movies of Paris, Texas [1984]) into the unbearably romantic drama of the Holy Twosome, the perfect heterosexual couple. Wenders seems to really believe in it; some of us try to, as well. But at least he lets on that the whole thing is a fairy tale. And he tries as much as he can to tie the two films together (by progressively rewriting, as the film moves forward, an extraordinary text on childhood by Peter Handke), and to make them interrogate each other (by returning, at the very end, to another sad round of the other angel Cassiel’s black-and-white film).

 

Wenders is not entirely in control of such awesome forces and contradictions – who on earth could be? I’m just glad to have been handed such a gift, as well as such a minefield.

 


2. (From a 1991 survey of Wenders’ career)

For me, Wenders’ best films have an astonishing materiality. The light, the sounds, the saggy flesh of the actors, the extraordinary compositions framed by WW and his faithful cinematographers Robbie Mueller or Henri Alekan: rarely are these formal elements granted such prominence or eloquence.

 

These things hit you because Wenders lets them hit you; his fiction films don’t have the same timing as mainstream movies. They are slow, lingering, concentrating on odd or excessive things. Above all, they refuse a certain kind of narrative.

 

It’s amazing to see, in retrospect, that already in his very first feature, the quasi-experimental Summer in the City (1970), Wenders had included an archetypal reflection on the evils of narrative. The super-alienated central character (Hanns Zischler, later co-star of Kings of the Road [1976]) begins to retell the story of a novel, in which a man wasting forever in prison starts, each night, to narrate the story of his life. The details of the prisoner’s account inexorably gather together with ritual force; they take on a direction, a forward movement, a foreseeable or foreshadowed destiny … Zischler then avows that he could not even finish the book, because it was obviously going to end in death. He immediately changes the subject.

 

Narrative is death: this is the equation that worries and drives experimental feature filmmkers including Wenders, Chantal Akerman and Jean-Luc Godard right from the 1960s through to (at least) the end of the ‘80s. Wenders gives the theme its purest expression in The State of Things (1982): the moment that the hero (Patrick Bauchau as Friedrich) sets foot in big bad old Hollywood, looking for money to complete his film and tie up his story, he’s a dead man – mysteriously gunned down in the street (Hollywood is a shady place!).

 

Before this sorry conclusion, there has certainly been some kind of story in The State of Things: recognisable characters, settings of a particular world, and so on. But, as in the entire first part of Wenders’ career spanning the shorts of the late ‘60s to the features of the early ‘80s, this is a story under no particular pressure to go anywhere. Instead, incidents and fragments are more-or-less left alone to proliferate and resonate with each other, finding their own rhythm and tone in the loose overall ensemble.

 

The same thing happens in the first, black-and-white half of Wings of Desire: the angels fly around, gathering scattered testimonies of all the world’s (or, at least, Berlin’s) sad half-lives. (Wenders, in the open-ended, semi-improvised production schedule of this film, in fact lingered way too much in imagining and creating scenes for this part of the film – thus generating narrative material that had to be deleted or postponed, and then taken up again in the sequel, Faraway, So Close! [1993].) Such films as Wenders makes in this mode (Alice in the Cities [1974] remains the very best of them) might seem, at first glance, rather minimalist, thin on the ground: in fact, they possess a rich, minutely intricate, mosaic, crystalline form and texture – something that, personally, I never tire of re-experiencing.

 

If there’s something grandiose in Wenders, I suspect it’s his tendency to project his own drifting, apolitical lifestyle onto everybody else – to take his own, very particular malaise for the malaise of, first, Germany, and eventually the entire globe. (Derek Jarman offers a close point of comparison, especially in his The Last of England [1987].) Wenders is no intellectual, and his penchant for sweeping, global generalisations about the death of cinema and society, the rebirth of art and Man’s soul – statements that spot his features, saturate his essay films and veritably fill his anthologies of collected writing – are a little short of profound. And Wenders’ love of the half-life has its unpleasant, insensitive, awfully masculine side, too, as is all too clear in his document of the dying Nicholas Ray in Lightning Over Water (1980).

 

I probably like even less the Wenders who, in a conservative turn, wants more and more to “return home” – the Wenders who places the boy-child back into the arms of Mummy (Nastassja Kinski) at the end of Paris, Texas so that the male hero (Harry Dean Stanton) can wander off back into the desert to pursue his eternal, male angst; the Wenders who bets all on the sublime, saving grace of heterosexual love at the close of Wings of Desire. But that’s my rational (or rationalised) response: I cannot deny to you that, in my heart, I find the romantic resolution of Wings of Desire as inspiring and stirring as it is impossible and mad. The very images that convey all this – Dommartin’s extreme close-up gaze right into the camera, Ganz leaning close to her silently at the bar, followed by the leap ahead to him helping her do her acrobatic/angelic turn in the circus – teeter right on the edge of collapsing into pure cliché, of not working at all – but, somehow, they do hold together and do pull off their fragile, wonderful work.

 

And maybe my personal response is just one sign that, in the so-called New Age, Wenders has really come into his own. His newly grandiose tales of rebirth, of the passage out of half-life and into full-life, obviously trike very deep chords in many people (myself included). With a naïveté and bravery that is truly disarming, Wenders goes for broke in his cosmically-scaled Until the End of the World (1991). With, it must be said, some dire results.

 

Does this matter? When Wings of Desire premiered at the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals, I and most of my critic friends scoffed (or feigned to scoff) at its lordly, humanist lament over the Berlin Wall as the marker of Germany’s “divided heart and soul”. However, as we’d now have to admit, Wenders was onto something. After all, that Wall did come tumbling down.

 


3. (Theatrical release review, 1988)

There is a cinema of twilight, a cinema of half-lives, half-lived. This cinema belongs to the person wide-eyed at the window, keyhole or movie screen – the stranger in Paradise. Outwardly passive, the stranger, in fact, watches and listens and thinks furiously; and he or she yearns. There is no beyond to which death might release the stranger; the vision of earthly, earthy life, just over there, is all the Heaven one could ever desire.

 

There are two angels (Bruno Ganz as Damiel and Otto Sander as Cassiel) in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, but for them, also, there is no Heaven in the conventional, movie-fiction sense. Don’t ask from where they are meant to have come (fallen angels?); they are stock figures quickly sketched for the sake of a parable, and a fable. The parable is existential: it concerns the difference between half-life and full life, reflection and action, twilight and sunrise. The fable is romantic, defining full life as the mutual transfiguration of two souls through their experience of an ecstatic and spiritual love.

 

Wenders is a brave man to have presented us with such sentiments so unapologetically and unashamedly – whilst knowing, surely, the responses he would get from materialists, nihilists, and just plan sceptics. The suspicion that sometimes accompanies Wenders’ public image is understandable: he’s a little too elusive, opaque and changeable from one film (or career phase) to the next. But as to the charge (who can forget Jean-Pierre Gorin’s vomitous disdain as expressed on the Melbourne Film Festival stage?) that Wings of Desire is a slick, calculated, opportunistically neo-romantic film on the wings of the latest cultural fashion – how could I ever agree to that, in my heart? For repeated viewings only confirm and deepen the first, awestruck impression: that this is a rich, profound and wonderful film. Sincere, too.

 

The film seems undeniably personal in its intensity. Yet Wenders’ symbolic autobiography here (the story of a love affair) is open and universal; Damiel stands for all those distanced, quietly passionate strangers for whom Paradise one day becomes available, as he swaps his ethereal wings for mortal flesh, blood and sensuality. Some critics (including myself on first viewing – see above) have chosen to take the first half of the film – its black-and-white twilight section, as it were – as radically distinct in tone, philosophy and achievement from the second half, following Damiel’s search for his one, true love, Marion (Solveig Dommartin, Wenders’ partner at the time of making this and Until the End of the World). The argument runs that while the first part plunders a gritty, authentic melancholia tied to the collective, material miseries of the real world, the second part launches (unconvincingly, for some) into a Utopian, unrealisable dream of sublime heterosexual union between all-too-beautiful, exquisitely special people – a dream, too, of innocence re-found, and reality left behind, shut out of view.

 

This case has some weight; but I don’t accept that the two sections of Wings of Desire cleave apart so distinctly or easily. First, let’s accept the fact (it’s hard to watch, let alone appreciate, the film without accepting it as an a priori) that this is a profoundly romantic work, which indeed drinks deep of German Romanticism at its purest. As Raymond Durgnat said of Wenders at the time of Paris, Texas: “Finally, perhaps, he is a Romantic as ancient as [Werner] Herzog. His modern themes […] mask the poetic angst of the Egoistic Sublime”. (1) This means that, while the film touches on issues such as workaday poverty and suicide (the sight of the latter releasing a literal cry of poetic angst from Cassiel), it is really centred on the movement of a Sublime Ego (belonging to Damiel, Wenders, or the spectator) from a non-physical (half-alive) state to a physical one – engaged, at last, in the world. But movement is too weak a word for this crossover; it involves a veritable transfiguration, a lifting up, a fusion with and transformation through an Other. That’s the romance of the film in a nutshell; Wenders expects us to either take it or leave it, and I respect this determination.

 

Yet I also suspect that there is already a soul of sublimity already burning in the first part of the film long before Love arrives for its central characters. It is certainly already burning within Marion, this soul perfectly contained and preserved (since she is already both angel and human, fragile and magical – and wrapped, it would seem, in a shroud of chastity); yet it is also, more dispersed, within the sublime fragments of everyday life that are depicted. Here again, Wenders’ romanticism draws a strict line: only outside the dark, domestic home can sublimity spark into life, in all these satellite spaces of displaced, mobile life: library, nightclub, ruin, makeshift film set, circus … virtual spaces one and all, temporary, transitory, but teeming with possibility. Here, the Sublime Ego acquiesces in the experience of its own perpetual loss or dissolution – a fragile cascading of impressions and suggestions. Twilight brings its own voluptuous Utopia, however tinged with sadness. As Bifo likes to say: there is a historical period of post-war boredom that is rather pleasurable (even if still stuck), in its Antonioni-esque way … (2)

 

Wenders wants a higher love; and, appropriately, he transfigures his film beyond its initial twilight state. But traces and echoes call us back (in an almost deconstructive spirit) to the terms of a comparison: traces of the multiple stories and parallel worlds that the film, at any moment, could have followed up (Alain Philippon spoke, in a manner reminiscent of Raúl Ruiz, of these “dozens of micro-fictions which have no less importance”); (3) and a reminder, via the figure of Cassiel, of what resists transformation and stays wilfully in the twilight. Wings of Desire is not like Paul Schrader’s Mishima (1985), opposing action to reflection and then longing, impossibly, to itself become a real, violent, ascendant gesture; Wenders knows that his film remains a film, and is therefore a reflection – an allegory, a metaphor. This has much to do with its level of formal achievement.

 

For two-and-a-half hours, Wings of Desire redeems the whole sorry institution of commercial arthouse cinema – at the very moment when this growing market seems set to sift and devour the entire space of independent/marginal production. From one (oblique) angle, it’s an instance of the particular form known today as the essay-film. It has no characters, really, to speak of, very little psychological motivation; only figures who allow a minimum number of tiny plot moves to be very leisurely played out. (As a fairy tale entirely without tension, it joins, in its year of release, with Alan Rudolph’s far less marketable spiritual odyssey/oddity, Made in Heaven [1987].)

 

It begins with the writing of words, with ideas, thoughts and concepts; and it maintains this level of abstraction via a system of point-of-view narration that is completely ungrounded and floating (because angelic). Whose thoughts, images, colours, shadings, sensations are these? What these bifocal angels collect – since the have the power to see and hear all, including inner speech – belongs, at one metaphoric remove, to the cinematic apparatus itself as mystic writing-pad; and then to the spectator, caught in the act of his or her own special half-life at the movies.

 

Wings of Desire is full of improvisation, randomness and a wilful heterogeneity; innocently, simply, the film uses it device of the “recording angel” to cue surprisingly experimental passages employing pixilation, superimposition and other devices of abstraction across a quite breathtaking play of rhythmic registers and tonal switch-ups. What marks Wenders’ greatness as a director is the manner in which, in the middle of this sometimes seemingly uncontrollable diversity of elements, he finds powerful nodal points at which to articulate image and sound transitions – such as the incredible moment when Cassiel puts his hand to his ear and hence cuts the sound mix from cacophony to tranquillity. “Dreamlike” will hardly do as an adequate description of how the film moves through and poetically interrelates its heterogeneous materials: archival newsreel (in startlingly rich and vivid colour), different performance modes from Ganz to Peter Falk via a surging sea of extras (“extra humans”, as the latter muses), pillow shots (in the form of cityscapes without people or events), deep dissolves, and Peter Handke’s concrete poetry more recited (as detached voice-over) than naturalised as either monologue or dialogue.

 

It is clear that, in Wings of Desire, Wenders approaches, more closely than before, a particularly potent cinema-dream – the dream of a film that could speak directly and feelingly to each of its spectators, cutting through all the cultural codes and mediations. Falk (via the cinema of John Cassavetes) is on hand to incarnate this extraordinary, even hopeless reverie of the love stream, strong and clear, between screen and viewer.  Yet Wenders ultimately belongs in another tradition; that of Chris Marker, for example, who began his immortal Sunless (1983) by alternating autobiographical archive images with black leader, so that “if you don’t see the happiness, at least you’ll see the black”. Or Peter Handke himself, who titled a 1975 novel, both hopefully and ironically, A Moment of True Feeling. (4) Is Wings of Desire a moment of true feeling? The film touches us; yet the place from which it speaks is still somewhere, knowingly, in the shadows – with Cassiel and an ancient storyteller remaining, in the closing images, Strangers in Paradise.

MORE Wenders: The Blues, The Brothers Skladanowsky, Buena Vista Social Club, The End of Violence, Hammett, Land of Plenty, The Million Dollar Hotel


NOTES


1. Raymond Durgnat, Studio International (December 1985). back

 

2. See, for example, Franco “Bifo” Berardi, “Will It Happen Again? Boredom, Anxiety and the Peak of Human Evolution”, Crisis and Critique, Vol. 5 No. 2 (March 2018). back

 

3. Alain Philippon, “Retour amont”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 400 (October 1987); Wenders was the special editor of this fantastic anniversary issue (on the occasion of Wings of Desire’s release), which invited filmmakers to bear witness to their impossible dream-projects. Philippon’s text is reprinted in his essential, posthumous anthology, Le blanc des origines (Crisnée: Éditions Yellow Now, 2002), pp. 100-106. back

 

4. Peter Handke (trans. Ralph Manheim), A Moment of True Feeling: A Novel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977). back

 

© Adrian Martin June 1987 / August 1991 / April 1988


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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