Damiel : “It’s great to live by the spirit, to testify day by day for eternity, only what’s spiritual in people’s minds. But sometimes I’m fed up with my spiritual existence. Instead of forever hovering above I’d like to feel a weight grow in me to end the infinity and to tie me to earth.”
Recently, terrific director Edgar Wright was asked by Empire Magazine to list his favorite cinema experiences. I found the notion fascinating. “Seeing a movie on the big screen, beautifully projected and with booming sound, is an incredible feeling,” he says, “but it’s only half of the cinema experience. The other half is the audience itself – the crowd all gathered to get sucked into someone else’s story, ready to burst into raucous laughter, jump out of their seats, or have the rug pulled out from under them in a glorious shared moment. Ask anyone what their greatest ever cinema moment is, and the movie itself always has a part to play – but it’s the feeling of the crowd that inevitably tips it over into something truly special.”
Based on that standard, Win Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” (1987) has to rank on top of my list. I was fresh out of college and going to graduate school in NYC – and I went to see it on its first showing. There were a couple of reasons why it was imperative for me to see a film — including this one — that early in its run. I’ve always disliked reviews and people spoiling things for me, so seeing it as soon as possible spares me from that. I like to form my own opinion so the sooner the better. Secondly, when movies were actually in film – the earlier the print the more glorious it would look when projected – no scratches – less distortions. I loved 35mm projections – and on that first day – they shimmered brightly. Seeing “Wings of Desire” on the big screen was one of the most memorable viewings in my life. I remember being in awe – inspired – and being surrounded with an audience that was stunned – not fully comprehending what was unfolding in front of them, but stirred. They even clapped when it ended. When we left the arthouse and were outdoors, it was so moving to see several moviegoers looking up – to the sky.
“Wings of Desire” (the original German title is “The Sky Above Berlin”) is pure cinema. It’s art. It’s a poem. I was so happy that a film like this struck such a chord with moviegoers upon its release – and it remains in critics’ lists as one of the best movies from the 80s. It was even remade into a wan Hollywood film starring Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage called “City of Angels” (1998).
I swooned over it even more on a recent visit. Its themes about the progression of life and how we persist despite vicissitudes sinks in more. The need to be fully present in our everyday moments and recognize our blessings as well as our failures is so timeless. And the film’s beckoning towards preserving the past – of documenting what took place and the importance of libraries and the silver screen in their ability to do that! It leaves us with the simple fact that love is what makes us humans. How could I not love “Wings of Desire”?! The angel Damiel enquires rhetorically: “Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there? When did time begin, and where does space end? Isn’t life under the sun just a dream? Isn’t what I see, hear, and smell just the mirage of a world before the world?”
Angels are watching over the divided city of Berlin. They can listen to the citizens below – and we get snippets of their thoughts – their longings. We see and hear how the angels experience the German capital. It’s in black and white because angels cannot process color. When we as spectators get glimpses of color, it is from the human points of view. Everyday folks cannot see the angels – kids can, as well as certain more perceptive individuals.
The first half of the film unfolds like a meditation — getting used to being angels – and seeing a view of Berlin like we will never get. There’s no traditional plot to guide us – the camera does that job swooping in and out and following random characters including an elderly victim of the Holocaust walking around the leveled sections of town. Until Damiel (played by the late great Bruno Ganz) falls in love with a trapeze artist and decides to come down to earth to be with her. There’s also Peter Falk – playing himself – who’s making a movie about the war and is able to feel the angels. “I can’t see you but I know you’re here,” he says.
Legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan – whose credits include Jean Cocteau’s 1946 masterpiece “Beauty and the Beast” and “Roman Holiday” – was 78 years old when he photographed this work with such distinctive verve. Notice the brief appearance of the angel wings at the beginning. That is a camera trick – the same technique he’d used forty years earlier in “Beauty and the Beast.” The effect was difficult because it involved a system of mirrors placed before the camera in such a way that the angel-actor and a double, dressed the same way and standing in another part of the studio, could each be reflected in a mirror. The double wore wings but not the angel-actor. And by means of lighting, the wings were illuminated or disappeared in the darkness. There are more stunning visuals like that one throughout.
Marion : “Longing. Longing for a wave of love to swell up in me. That’s what makes me so clumsy: the lack of pleasure. A desire to love. The desire to love!”
Available to stream on HBO Max, The Criterion Channel, Kanopy and DIRECTV. Available to rent on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, iTunes and YouTube.
Written and Directed by Wim Wenders
Starring Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander, Curt Bois and Peter Falk
Wim Wenders on the Idea Behind “Wings of Desire”
“The idea strictly came from wandering around Berlin and feeling inspired to make a film that would tell the story of a city that had seen hell, and that was now a very unique place on Earth, an island city divided by a wall. A film that would show as many aspects of this city as possible, and that would also go diagonally through its history. I was looking for characters through whom I could tell the city, because I didn’t want to make a documentary film. Fiction is the best way to preserve places, I feel. I thought of firefighters and mailmen and God knows what sort of people, and I finally ended up with the only idea left that would allow me to explore the city in almost infinite ways: with the help of some guardian angels. And one of them would fall in love with a woman and decide to become a mortal. The angel idea was really suggested by the city itself, so to speak, as it has those angel figures everywhere, and by my nightly reading of Rilke poems. As I was trying to find my German language back, Rilke seemed the best teacher. And his poetry is inhabited by lots of angels.” (filmmakermagazine.com)
Wim Wenders on the Cinematography of “Wings of Desire”
“As we very often had to “translate” the angels’ point of view, so to speak, we were extremely keen on moving the camera as much as possible. In the absence of Steadicam equipment we worked a lot on tracks, with dollies, cranes, jib-arms etc. But we also built ourselves devices so we could move through the air from one house to the next, for instance, and we shot the opening sequence on a helicopter, which was highly difficult in West Berlin at the time, as there were no private companies flying, just the Allies with their respective army pilots. We ended up shooting with a British pilot in an army helicopter without a proper camera mount. Today, you would do these things with gyroscopes and such. Blocking has always been my department. Henri kept out of it completely, and I did it with his operator, Agnès Godard. I have done shot lists for complicated sets, but usually I decide on location in the morning how we design the shots. I prefer to see the actors rehearse it, before I commit to any blocking. Camera moves weren’t the real challenge, though, for finding the angels’ points of view. It dawned on me early on that our camera had to do a more complex job. I told it to Henri. “Those angels have a very loving look at us humans. We have to find a way to teach our camera to look more lovingly.” Henri just stared at me as if I was out of my mind. “How do we do that?” Well, I didn’t know of course. But I figured we had to invest more care and love ourselves into every shot that represented what the angels saw. And that’s it, in the end. A camera can reflect on what you invest into its act of seeing. That sounds pretty lofty, I guess. But it does rub off, I tell you, if you try to imagine how angels would look at us. After all, they were some sort of metaphor for me for the better persons we carry inside ourselves, or for the children we somehow preserved in ourselves.” (filmmakermagazine.com)
About Cinematographer Henri Alekan
Of Bulgarian origin, Alekan was born in Montmartre, near Auguste Renoir’s atelier. At 16, Henri and his younger brother, Pierre, became travelling puppeteers. “Behind the puppet facade, there was a small hole through which you could look at the public without being seen,” Henri recalled. “There, I could express myself without shyness.” Soon the timid Alekan became third assistant cameraman at Billancourt studio. After a spell in the military, he returned to Billancourt in 1931 to find the studio transformed by sound technology. The camera had to frame in such a way as to avoid the microphone boom above the actors’ heads and the boom shadow. “In the early days of sound, there were terrible problems,” Alekan remembered. “In general, cinematographers were on very bad terms with sound technicians. They were enemies.” In the late 1930s, as camera operator to Eugen Shüfftan, he worked on two Marcel Carné films, “Quai des Brumes” and “Drle de Drame.” Shüfftan, the cameraman on Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” became Alekan’s mentor. “I profited greatly from the magnificent lessons in lighting created by an artist. He would say, ‘Look here, I’m not doing naturalist lighting. I’m doing lighting as I feel it. Emotional lighting.'” Alekan’s views were similar. “We should break the banality of naturalism. We get naturalism in our everyday lives. Artists are made to invent something else.” Alekan’s career was interrupted by the German occupation of France during the second world war. After escaping from a prisoner-of-war camp in 1940, he and his brother formed a resistance group called July 14, based in southern France. The group helped people on the run from the Germans by providing shelter and false papers. Alekan also secretly filmed German beach fortifications. After the war, he received several medals for this work, and the Legion of Honour. Despite his dismissal of naturalism, and his espousal of the creative use of lighting and shadows – as delineated in his 1979 book, “Des Lumières et des Ombres” (“Of Lights And Shadows”) – Alekan’s first success as director of photography was René Clément’s grittily realistic “La Bataille du Rail” (“Battle Of The Railway,” 1946). Using almost no lighting, he filmed railway workers re-enacting their courageous exploits as résistants during the occupation.
In the same year, in vast contrast, he filmed “Beauty And The Beast.” Cocteau said that he discouraged Alekan, and the brilliant art director Christian Berard, from virtuosity in order to show unreality in realistic terms. But thankfully, virtuosity is everywhere evident in the magical scenes in the Beast’s castle. Cocteau asked Alekan to note how Gustave Doré had illustrated fairy tales, and also told him to look at the way Vermeer and 17th-century painters used lighting. “It was the first time in my life that a director talked to me about painting,” Alekan remarked. One of his favourite films was the British-made “Anna Karenina” (1948), directed by Julien Duvivier, and starring Vivien Leigh. This is full of lighting nuance, every tone from black to white is masterfully rendered, as in the final scene when Tolstoy’s heroine throws herself under a train. The exterior station was shot at dusk, with clouds of steam billowing from the locomotives. Rain falls incessantly in the superbly photographed “Une Si Jolie Petite Plage” (“Riptide,” 1949), Yves Allégret’s doom-laden romance with Gérard Philipe. As atmospheric were two further Carné films, “La Marie du Port” (1950), starring Jean Gabin, and filmed in the port of Cherbourg, and “Juliette,” or “The Key Of Dreams” (1951), a return to the world of fantasy. In 1953, Alekan was called in to replace Franz Planer, who had had a violent argument with director William Wyler after two weeks of shooting Roman Holiday, with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, on location in Rome. Alekan’s approach to this romantic comedy was upbeat and undramatic, high-key lighting. “A comedy doesn’t require lighting effects. You have to keep it simple,” he explained. He was rather left behind by the French New Wave directors, most of whom wanted to break away from the confines of sound stages, film speedily in the streets, and use simple flat lighting, known as lumière anglaise (English lighting). “In the past, I would often walk around the set before the shoot,” Alekan said. “If you hurry the cinematographer, you don’t leave him time to dream.” Later, however, a new generation of filmgoers sought out Alekan after he had shot a series of conventional Hollywood colour movies in the 1960s and 1970s, including “Topkapi” (1964) and “Mayerling” (1968). In 1981, Raul Ruiz and Wim Wenders both asked him to shoot films, “The Territory” and “The State Of Things” respectively, the latter being about a film crew stranded in Portugal, among them Sam Fuller as a cameraman. The…angel-eye’s view of Berlin, “Wings Of Desire” (1987), came from the masterful, mostly black and white, photography of Alekan. As a tribute, the circus in the film is called the Cirque Alekan, obviously a place of wondrous light and shadows. He shot his last films for the Israeli director Amos Gitai, notably “Golem, The Spirit Of Exile” (1992), in which his colour images, often built from multiple exposures, created a dark poetry, the sort of cinematography for which he was justly celebrated. He was married to Nadia Starcevic, a script supervisor and assistant director. (theguardian.com)
About Writer and Director Wim Wenders
Wim Wenders (b. 1945) is a film director, writer, and photographer. He is a professor of film at The European Graduate School / EGS and Professor für Narrativen Film at the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg. Wenders is considered one of the most important figures to have emerged from the “New German Cinema” in the 1970s and was a founding member of the German film distribution company “Filmverlag der Autoren”. In 1977, he established his own production company in Berlin, “Road Movies,” which has produced many of his films, as well as numerous films by Ken Loach. Wenders received the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or in 1984 for his movie “Paris, Texas,” the Golden Lion at the 1982 Venice Film Festival for “The State of Things,” and won best director at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival for “Wings of Desire.” He has also been nominated three times for the Academy Awards for his films “Buena Vista Social Club” (2000), “Pina” (2012), and, most recently, “The Salt of the Earth” (2015). Born in Düsseldorf, Wenders grew up in Düsseldorf, Koblenz and the surrounding areas. His early studies followed in the footsteps of his father with Wenders spending a year studying medicine in Freiburg (1963-1964), followed by a year studying philosophy (1964-1965). However, in 1966, he dropped out of university and moved to Paris to become a painter. In Paris, he worked as an engraver and has often described this period as the loneliest time of his life. As a result, he started to spend more and more time at Henri Langlois’s Cinémathèque and became enchanted by film, watching more than five films per day. After this experience, he returned to Germany and attended the University of Television and Film in Munich from 1967 to 1970, where he also began working as a film critic for Süddeutsche Zeitung and Filmkritik. Wenders’s directorial debut was also his thesis film, “Summer in the City,” produced in 1970. This film also marks the start of a long and fruitful collaboration with his frequent cinematographer Robby Müller. His second film, “The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty” (1972), marked the beginning of another important collaboration––that with the Austrian writer Peter Handke. “The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty” was Wender’s adaptation of Handke’s critically acclaimed novel. Handke also wrote the script for Wenders’s movie “The Wrong Move” (1975) and co-wrote with Wenders the script for “Wings of Desire” (1987). Wenders sees the primary theme of this period in his career as “the Americanization of Germany.”
In 1978, Francis Ford Coppola hired Wenders to make a noir film, Hammett,loosely based on the life of Dashiell Hammett, before he became a writer. Unfortunately, their collaboration was not successful and, in the end, only thirty percent of the material Wenders shot remained in the final version of the film. One of their main disputes on set was over the choice of the main actor––Wenders wanted Sam Shepard, but he was not allowed to cast him. In part, addressing issues that arose during the making of Hammett, Wenders produced the short film “Reverse Angle” (1982), which reflects upon “filmmaking in Europe and America.” When the shooting of Hammett was suspended, Wenders returned to Europe and made “The State of Things” (1982). This was a very personal and self-reflexive film in which Wenders again addressed some of the difficulties that he encountered during the making of Hammett. “The State of Things” tells the story about a German art film director, Friedrich Munro, and his film crew who are left stranded in Portugal after they lost the financial backing for the completion of their film. This film is also partially based on the problems that Raúl Ruiz had during the making of “The Territory” (1981), which Wenders had helped him to complete, and was thus also an inspiration for “The State of Things.” Friedrich Munro reappears in “Lisbon Story” (1994), which is considered as a partial sequel to “The State of Things.” In 1984, Wenders completed one of his most successful films, “Paris, Texas.” The movie is based on a screenplay written by Sam Shepard and marks the end of the director’s so-called “American phase.” Following the success of his film, Wenders embarked on a prolonged period of travel and filming around the world, including Germany, Japan, Australia, Cuba and Israel. He first returned to Germany and made “Wings of Desire” (1987), which was another huge international success, and for which he received the award for best director at the Cannes Film Festival. After he completed “Wings of Desire,” Wenders went to Japan were he made the highly acclaimed documentary “Tokyo-Ga” (1985) about the legendary Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. Wenders’s foray into documentary filmmaking has been highly successful with some of his most important works during this period focusing on music. “Buena Vista Social Club” (1999) follows Ry Cooder and the music of Cuba and “The Soul of a Man” explores American blues music and the careers of Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson, and J.B. Lenoir.
Currently, Wim Wenders’s work explores 3D as a new language of filmmaking. The films “If Buildings Could Talk” (2010), “Pina” (2011), and “Every Thing Will Be Fine” (2015) approach this question from different perspectives. “If Buildings Could Talk,” Wenders’s short film about The Berlin Philharmonic, within the six-part omnibus “Cathedrals of Culture” (2014), uses 3D technology to offer a unique experience of architectural space, while “Pina” (2011), about dance choreographer Pina Bausch and her company, attempts to present movement, dance, and physicality in a new and visceral way. According to Wenders, 3D technology possesses hidden revolutionary potential that still remains unexplored. He insists that the language of 3D makes everything more visible, more emphatic––including the acting––as in “Every Thing Will Be Fine” (2015), the slightest show of emotion is perceived as “overacting,” and as such, this technique demands a new approach from the actor. According to Wenders, the 3D camera fundamentally questions and alters the profession of an actor, and therefore creates a completely new mindset both for the making and perception of films. He is also a well-known photographer; his beautiful images of desolate landscapes engage themes of memory, time, and movement. After decades of photographing abandoned spaces and lonely roads throughout the world, Wenders produced the series of photographs, “Pictures From the Surface of the Earth and Places,” “Strange and Quiet,” which have been exhibited in numerous museums and art institutions. Wenders is president of the European Film Academy, and an honorary professor at the University for Television and Film in Munich. He became a member of the Academy of Arts, Berlin in 1984, and holds four honorary doctorates from the Sorbonne, Paris (1989); the Theological Faculty of Fribourg University, Switzerland (1995); the University of Louvain, Belgium (2005); and the Architectural Faculty of the University of Catania, Italy (2010). Presently, Wim Wenders and his wife, photographer Donata Wenders, live in Berlin. In the fall of 2012, they established the Wim Wenders Foundation situated in Düsseldorf. By acquiring the rights to all of his films, including those currently held by third parties, its primary aim is to make Wim Wenders’s oeuvre permanently accessible to the public at large. As well, the foundation provides a stipend, the Wim Wenders Bursary, for young filmmakers and artists “whose vision is to tell stories with new aesthetic and technical means and to enrich and renew our visual language.” (egs.edu)