Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Great Movies: "Wings of Desire"

Wings of Desire
(Der Himmel Uber Berlin)

Wim Wenders, 1986

Previous Contact: Did I watch this one in its original release? I think maybe I did. I think it seemed pretty far out to this small-town boy, but also that I felt kind of proud about being able to more or less like it. Then I took a class in avant garde German cinema, after which it seemed pretty mainstream.

- - - -

Wings of Desire is an emotionally detatched German art film shot mostly in black and white, with a bare minimum of narrative and lots of long scenes of people slowly walking around streets and libraries. Its climax is footage of a circus trapeze act. And if that doesn't sell you on it, it culminates in a long, painfully pretentious speech delivered from one character to another in the hushed stillness of a rock club bar. Oh, and it's about angels who want to be human so that they can experience passion.

The strange thing is that, from all of these ingrediants for truly first-class suckage, Wenders crafts a movie that is quite beautiful and surprisingly engrossing. Stunning photography helps; everyone and everything is shot magnificently. Once you figure out the daily rounds of the angels, who wander around listening to human thoughts, you also get the benefit of wish fulfillment; for the length of the movie, you get to read minds. Who hasn't ever wanted to do that? And such narrative as there is isn't too challenging, boiling down to boy-makes-sacrifice-to-get-girl.

A generous infusion of pop culture elements help the movie along, too. Peter Falk, the TV detective "Columbo," plays himself in a major supporting role. A period movie is being filmed, so we see stuntmen practicing their moves while extras dressed as Nazi officers chat genially with extras dressed as holocaust victims. Some quirky rock acts, including a Nick Cave who looks all of twenty, have extended screen time. The murals of the Berlin Wall -- still standing and very formidable when the movie was released -- are often in the background, and occasionally in the foreground. These all make the movie a little more immediately accessible; they aren't what makes it a Great Movie, but they might help keep you around long enough to notice that it's a great movie.

Plot: Well, take your pick. 1) The experience of being human is investigated, the differences between childhood and adulthood are explored and challenged, and an argument is sustained for the importance of conscious living-in-the-world. Or, 2) an angel decides to be human so he can do things like drink coffee and kiss a pretty girl.

Visuals: Mostly black and white, with cameras floating around and above Berlin like, well, angels. Lots of scenes in a library, which I've heard is significant for some reason. Occasional bursts of brilliant color, representing the human rather than the angelic viewpoint.

Dialog: There is relatively little spoken dialog; most of the voices you hear represent people's interior monologues. This raises the question of whether people think in language -- personally, I have my doubts -- but you'd have to use language in the movie in any event, and the film does a reasonable job of approximately representing the daily concerns of real people.

Prognosis: Recommended for any serious movie watcher, or anyone who wants to challenge the breadth of their movie appreciation. Approach it thoughtfully -- don't come to it seeking entirely passive entertainment, and don't talk your date out of watching Jackie Chan so you can watch this instead. Meet it halfway, have some patience, and you're likely to feel rewarded.

The L&TM5K Advent Calendar
December 8

Workshop, circle or follower of Hieronymus Bosch, Adoration of the Magi. ± 1474 or later. Oil on panel, 71.1 × 56.5 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Christine M. said...

I think you have to approach WoD as a visual poem. It starts with a poem, sort of setting the tone. And your right, you have to be in a meditative mood to enjoy it.

For me, the best part of the movie is Bruno Ganz, who is so full of wonder and love as Damiel, the angel who wants to become human. He's an awesome actor -- he can play Damiel, then play Hitler in Downfall, and then play a depressed Icelandic waiter in Bread and Tulips (my favorite romantic comedy).

I agree that Marion's speech at the end is cringeworthy. But Nick Cave makes up for it (go Nick!).

WoD has been my favorite movie for a long time because it's so rich and layered that I get something new from it every time I watch it. Kinda like a good poem!

The Calico Cat said...

Crap, crap, crap = I was so sure that today was Wednesday...

Nichim said...

I have seen today's advent calendar treat in real life and enjoyed it very much! Wow, art!

sister jen said...

I think "emotionally detached German art film" is a tautology.

Do you still have your textbook from that class? Please say yes.

Rebel said...

I won't be watching this one any time soon, but I want to assure you that I absolutely think in language, full sentences, complete dialogues - usually with the voice of someone I know providing the counterpoint. And I often have fully developed arguments in my head... naturally with the accompanying facial expressions to freak out the people around me in real life.

Hmmm.... that's probably more than I needed to reveal online.

Michael5000 said...

La Gringa: Visual poem. Yep. Also, whatever happened to Crime and the City Solution?

Calico: I'm glad you're all fired up!

Nichim: Art is the schizz.

Sister Jen: Textbook? It was more one of those setups where you signed in at the beginning of the class, a graduate student made a few remarks about the film in which he conveyed both his own boredom and his certainty that what you were about to see would be completely wasted on a numbskull like you, and then you signed out at the end to confirm you hadn't ducked out after the opening credits. No textbook.

Reb: So, how long have you been hearing these argumentative voices in your head?

sister jen said...

Hmmm.. . so what did you actually get a grade for? Just, like, signing in and signing out? Cause if that's how, I've been assigning WAY too much work to my students . . . ALL of them, not just the film students! An especially cruel blow as I sit facing the millions of words I have to read this festive finals week . . .

Christine M. said...

allmusic.com has an entry for Crime, etc. I have the soundtrack, too. It was one of the first cds I ever bought.