Sunday, January 8, 2012

Das ist Immer Nach So

Film: Der Himmel Uber Berlin (Wings of Desire)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Religiously, as I have said once or twice before in the context of this blog, I consider myself an agnostic who, at the very least, has essentially decided that Humanity’s attempts at connecting with the infinite are misguided at best. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I still find particular expressions of religious thought and belief to be very moving and powerful. This is essentially what I expected with my first Wim Wenders film, Der Himmel Uber Berlin (Wings of Desire). What I got was a lot more.

This is a film of staggering power and truly moving beauty. Having said that, it would surprise me not at all if many people find this film difficult or almost unwatchable. I think it requires a particular mindset to truly become immersed in what this film is. The story is most unusual both in what it is and how it is told.

A pair of angels named Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) are charged with wandering Berlin and preserve and remember what they see. In essence, they are a sort of impartial recording of the people in and passing through Berlin, not judging or punishing or rewarding, but merely observing. We learn as the film continues that the pair have been here since before there was a Berlin, when it was nothing but grassland. They have been here through the city’s founding, through wars and progress, always observing.

This, observing and listening to the thoughts of the masses of Berlin, makes up a great deal of the film. A few things become evident as we follow the angels—Damiel primarily but not exclusively. We learn that the angels are frequently moved to moments of exultation, for instance. It becomes evident that children are able to see the angels. And the angels evidently have their favorites. Cassiel, for instance, seems to spend a lot of time following an old poet named Homer (Curt Bois), comforting him when he can. Damiel soon becomes enamored of a French trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin). Additionally, Peter Falk as himself is in Berlin to work on a film. Damiel spends a great deal of time on the film set observing, and perhaps remembering, since the film concerns World War II.

It’s interesting that Falk, while credited as “Der Filmstar” is really playing himself; he makes mention of his time spent as Columbo, for instance. And so, in a sort of meta moment, it’s not really Peter Falk as himself, but Peter Falk playing Peter Falk, and the difference is all the difference. The distinction is important, because within the context of the film, we discover critically important information about Falk.

The vast majority of the film is shot in gorgeous black-and-white, which represents the point of view of the angels. In the rare moments in which neither Damiel nor Cassiel are present, the film is in color. The distinction is important. Why do the angels see in black-and-white? Because the angels are unable to experience the world, and this is where the real dramatic tension of the film comes from. The angels do not truly understand what it means to experience…anything. They do not truly want or fear or suffer or experience joy. This is true except that there is truly one desire—the desire to experience.

It manifests itself primarily in Damiel, who wants to feel and touch and eat and have pain and know what hot and cold really mean. It becomes an obsession for him when he meets the trapeze artist, and slowly, over the course of the film, the desire becomes something that is inevitable for him. It takes us the first two acts of the film to get there, but eventually, Damiel decides to truly exist and experience the world. And more than this, he intends to find his trapeze artist and cure both her loneliness and his own.

I said it at the start of this, but I will say it again—this is a film of surpassing beauty. It very easily could have become a film of darkness and depression, a film of terrible unspoken desire. Instead, it is a film that revels in existence, a film that expresses nothing so much as the pure joy of being. It is uplifting, and not merely in an emotional sense, but in a spiritual one. It is a movie that, with the right mindset going in, can fill its audience with the pure joy of a weekend morning spent overlong in bed, of a hot bath after a long day, of that first long pull of caffeine before a long day starts. It is films like this that make me come back to magical realism as a genre, because it is films like this one that sometimes make me believe in anything beyond the world we live in. If such spirituality can exist in film, then perhaps there truly is a human spirit after all.

Needless to say, I loved this film. I don’t know if you do or will, but I heartily recommend you give it a try.

Why to watch Der Himmel Uber Berlin: Because even the least spiritual of us is still a spiritual being.
Why not to watch: You don't believe the previous sentence.


  1. I'll have to see this, if for no other reason than to wash out the bad taste left in my mouth after watching the Nicholas Cage/Meg Ryan quasi-remake "City of Angels." (Reviewed here.)

  2. Yeah, I think you do. This one is pretty. It's slow--don't get me wrong. There are times that feel like you can make a sandwich between events. But it's a film to let wash over you.

  3. Great post! I absolutely love this film. There is just so much astonishing beauty in it that I find it hard describe the profound affect this has on me, and like you, I am not a religious person at all, so that makes this an even more special and remarkable work of art.

  4. The only other film I can compare it to in its effect on me is The Passion of Joan of Arc. Both are almost entirely spiritual experiences.

    And yes, the effect is difficult to describe. I don't think I can do it justice.

  5. Steve, i totally agree on this one. I'm also not a religious person, but this is beautiful, spiritually moving film. I'd hesitated to see it for a while since it sounded slow, but I was mesmerized the whole time.

  6. Surprisingly, I suppose, I didn't mind the slowness. This is a film that made its pace work for it. Rather than being boring, it was, as you say, mesmerizing. It was very much like being lost in a large painting and not realizing just how long you sat and looked at it.

  7. One of my favorites. I agree it requires a certain patience, I've seen this film many times and it took me a while to fully come around to declaring it as one of my favorites.

    It's a beautiful film and I love the empathy and yearning it exudes, especially in that magnificent scene in the library which absolutely enthralls me every time as I see the angels wordlessly shuffle and look on at the library patrons.

  8. The one thing I am continually brought back to is the overall beauty of this film. Regardless of the story or the context or anything else, this film is stunningly beautiful to watch happen.

    That library scene is, I think, the point when I realized that I was watching something truly special. It's a stunner.

  9. I liked this film a lot and I liked reading your review of it. I'm not a religious person either, but I found your discussions of the spiritual impact to be interesting. Even though these were angels, I still didn't really connect any of the story to God. I simply saw them as their own beings.

    By the way, I completely agree on how great The Passion of Joan of Arc is. I consider it the best silent film I have seen, out of the 40-50 I have watched.

    I reviewed Wings of Desire as part of my "Movies where people pretend to play themselves" category. You can read it here, if you are interested.

  10. I'll check it out.

    The Peter Falk role is the one that is the most interesting to me in the film because he really is more playing himself than appearing as himself. I love his presence here and I especially love the cadence of his voice.

    I also love the observation that the angels are merely their own beings rather than specifically an expression of one religion or another. I'm going to adopt that interpretation and quite possibly claim it as my own.

  11. Feel free. Just drop me a paper bag filled with twenties now and then and I'll keep quiet.

    I agree with Falk playing a role that is Peter Falk. That was my focus for the category I mentioned. Being John Malkovich, for instance, gave us a John Malkovich who was best friends with Charlie Sheen. Hamlet 2 gave us an Elizabeth Shue who was tired of the Hollywood runaround and who had become a nurse in order to do something positive for others. The Harold and Kumar movies gave us a Neil Patrick Harris who was a coke sniffing, hooker branding, ladies man.

  12. Right right. I've generally had a warm fuzzy for Peter Falk, so I really enjoyed the film version of him here. In many ways, it feels consistent with what I'd like the real Peter Falk to have been like.