I had a completely different post planned and half-written, but last night I went to a screening of Wings of Desire as part of the Naked Aye collective’s October programme, and it hit my inner Pseud’s Corner faster than a speeding, er, angel.
When I first saw this film, I was an undergraduate at Cambridge. After a couple of beers one night, the chaplain- an all-round cool guy and host of the best parties in College- randomly announced he had a really good film on VHS and would we like to watch it. (Remember video tapes, kids?) So it was that he booked a room with a poky 14″ TV and we sat, transfixed, by a strange sepia-tinged tale of two angels and a trapeze artist. Fast-forward fourteen years, and I was in an old Edinburgh office block that’s been converted into an arts space, watching the DVD on a poky projector screen. The medium may have changed, but my love for Wim Wenders’ masterpiece hasn’t dimmed one bit.
At its heart are the angels, Damiel and Cassiel. When they’re not wandering the streets of Cold War 80s Berlin offering comfort to troubled souls, they watch the world go by from the gilded statue on the Victory Column. It’s the very fact that they’re doomed to observe from the outside that drives Damiel to trade his angel form just for the chance to stain his hands with newspaper ink or spend a day at the barber. An encounter with lonely acrobat Marion at the circus provides the impetus, and so the scene is set.
Honestly, the film is beautiful. Its most famous scenes, with the angels sitting on the Victoria statue, are just fantastic, but the long sweeping shots in and out of ordinary people’s lives gives a great sense of how voyeuristic the angels’ lives are. It’s a gently life-affirming film, from the pleasure Damiel derives from the most mundane act like drinking coffee, to Peter Falk’s wonderful turn as an actor filming a Nazi movie, aware of the angel’s presence and offering a hand of friendship as a fellow immortal who gave it all up just to be an active participant. (And yes, there’s a joking nod to Columbo in there. It’s fab.) Woven into the main plot is a character known as Homer, who obviously makes my inner Classicist rejoice. He picks up the storytelling theme running through the film with a heartbreaking monologue about how humans never want to write epics about peace, only war. That it’s interspersed with footage from WWII and set in the context of a city divided by the Berlin Wall makes it all the more effective.
Marion’s appearance begins to literally colour the narrative, as the film shifts out of sepia into the full-colour world of the humans. She practises her trapeze act wearing angel wings (‘chicken feathers’, as she puts it), but she can only aspire to something higher. She’s resigned to living alone in her caravan when the circus rolls out of town. Damiel, in a way, meets her in the middle, aspiring downwards to the human life, and eventually getting together with her in a scene dense with improvised philosophical dialogue. I’m not sure I’m qualified to analyse such heavy matters as whether evil truly exists or if we’ve lost the innocence of childhood because of the burden of mortality, but I’m sure someone else will.
Cassiel is the most interesting character for me. He seems to sympathise with Damiel but remains an angel, observing but not enthusing about the circus show or the rather marvellous goth gig performed by none other than Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Then he meets a young man about to commit suicide on top of a high building. His thoughts are running away with him. People are shouting at him to get down. He puts on a Walkman to block everything out, but it doesn’t work. It’s a reminder that the angels aren’t the only ones troubled constantly by the worries, hopes and fears of others. Cassiel tries to work his magic on the man, but it’s too late. The man drops to his death. Cassiel has failed. Hearing others’ thoughts is now a burden, not a gift. While Damiel enjoys his earthly pleasures, all Cassiel can do, an outsider once more sitting on the Victory Column, is clamp his hands to his ears to block out the chatter.
Frankly, if you want one film still that sums up my brain at its worst- as it’s the start of OCD Awareness Week– it’s this one.
At last night’s showing, the audience were invited to respond to the film in whatever way they felt, which could have gone either way. Actually, it worked well. Two girls performed a dance piece, accompanied by an accordionist. One of my friends read out the poem from the film. An old gentleman punk got up, danced to the microphone and improvised a poem in English and Spanish about autumn then sang a French song. But it was the unexpected last contribution that struck a nerve. A friend of the organiser, out-dressing everyone in a gorgeous evening dress, got up nervously and explained that the film being set at the turning of autumn to winter reminded her of her father, who died 18 years ago in autumn. She said she thought the film was about loneliness and isolation, and she’s right. As the seasons turn, Damiel finds his Marion and Cassiel must remain aloof, tormented by immortality, at least until the film’s sequel, Faraway So Close. I haven’t seen that yet, but U2’s soundtrack contribution, with Wim Wenders directing the video, seems like a nice way to end. I promise the next post will be 50% less pretentious, honest…