Volume 3, Number 49
This Week's Reviews: Tape.
This Week's Omissions: Ocean's 11, Sidewalks of New York.
Repertory Reviews: Every Man for Himself and God Against All, M, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Metropolis, Wings of Desire.
(Dir: Richard Linklater, Starring Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Uma Thurman)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Richard Linklaters two films before this year happened to be his worst, the idiotic Hollywood production The Newton Boys and the overly verbose but ultimately vacant subUrbia. Now in 2001, he has attempted to resurrect the formidable and understandable fan base that came from Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise. Tape, like last months Waking Life, is a Linklater film that succeeds at a level equal to the earlier works (and, like these new films, there is a variation between his tour-de-force production [Dazed and Waking] and his fine but passable production [Sunrise and Tape]).
Tape is not meant as any great allegory or philosophical thesis like Waking Life, nor does it contain the same amount of visual ingenuity that marked Waking Life. However, Tape does have something that might gain the attention of some of those unacquainted with Linklater -- it is actually a narrative story. A narrative filmed in real-time and on digital video -- the normal artificiality of cinema is lost some, though there is always the belief that without artifice comes pretense.
The movie follows one hour and twenty-five minutes in a Lansing, Michigan, motel room. In this room is Vince (Hawke), a 28-year-old slacker who seems to spend every minute of his life keeping up a fit schedule. At first glance, you get the impression that this Oakland volunteer-fire-fighter-come-drug-dealer has no intentions, but that is only a façade, he has really calculated everything to go a certain way, even if it means that he has a bohemian look for the rest of his life.
Vince has come to Lansing to see his boyhood friend John (Leonard), who has come to town to unveil his first film at the Lansing Film Festival. They were extremely close during high school, but the days since graduation have not been kind to their relationship. In school, they were still constantly bickering in what was effectively a penis-size argument, and now, with John going up the totem pole and Vince going down, they really have nothing to converse over.
Except for Amy (Thurman), the girl they both dated in high school. Vince was first and failed to have sex with her, John then came in right before graduation and achieved what Vince could not. For 10 years Vince has struggled with this defeat and has come to a hypothesis: the only way John could have done that was to have raped Amy. Now that he has John stuck in this little motel room, Vince has his mind set on getting John to admit to the crime.
For a director who showed so much in the last film, the directorial touches of Richard Linklater seem almost nonexistent. Like so many other films based upon a stage play (Stephen Belber adapted from his own work), the direction feels like a mere way to convey the actions without a live production. Tape is a film almost completely dependent on the abilities of the writing and the acting. Luckily for the audience, both are quite fine.
Belbers screenplay has the depth of a fine novel, even if it allows its moral center to become a little too unwieldy at times. The dialogue is something that David Mamet might write sans the chutzpah (which is interesting considering the similarities between this and Mamets Oleanna) and the characterizations are seamless. The pivotal question at the center of the film -- who decides what is true about the past, or, better yet, is the past ever completely finished with -- stands as a testament to why this was a story that needed to be brought to the screen, flaws and all.
Ethan Hawke gives a great touch of slacker intelligentsia
and Robert Sean Leonard grounds the film enough to balance the work beside Hawke. The real
creator of magic, though, enters in the third act. Uma Thurman, with all her shy but
knowing glances gives the film an edge that is almost dulled down by the drugs that fill
Vinces body. Her actions in the final moments of the film really create the
precipice of the films success. Without her the film might have seemed like nothing
more than men behaving badly with a Rashomon edge. With Thurmans Amy,
though, the movie becomes a work comparable to the similar male (un)bonding of In the
Company of Men.
Repertory Reviews: Since there are so few films to review this week, I decided to add a collection of reviews for some foreign films, all German to be exact. I regularly recieve requests for a review of Wings of Desire, so include that one, along with Every Man for Himself and God Against All, M, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Metropolis.
|Every Man for Himself and God Against All
(Dir: Werner Herzog, Starring Bruno S., Walter Ladengast, Brigitte Mira, Gloria Doer, Alfred Edel, Enno Patalas, Elis Pilgrim, and Willy Semmelrogge)
BY: DAVID PERRY
[NOTE: Since this is more an analysis than a review of Every Man for Himself and God Against All, major plot points including the end are given away. It is recommended that only be read after watching the film.]
enigma \i-nig-ma\ n : something obscure or
hard to understand
--The Merriam-Webster Dictionary
One of the many titles given to Every Man for Himself and God Against All was The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, a perfect word use that epitomizes the Kaspar Hauser history. Werner Herzog's film is easily his most accessible, but also his most disarmingly closed. The director, whose films almost always lack any sort of closure, films the story of Kaspar Hauser like a stable filmmaker, a far cry from the normal style Herzog seems comfortable with. Perhaps he did this because he was hoping to ground himself; perhaps because he wanted to make something like many of the more accessible filmmakers around the world in 1974; perhaps because he, like the subordinate characters in the film, is so surprised at the absurdity of Kaspar Hauser that he cannot intone his own absurdness.
In 1828, an odd young man was found standing beside a Nuremberg street with a letter in hand. Kaspar Hauser, as the Nuremberg inhabitants would latter learn, had spent his entire life (believed to be 16 or 17 years upon his arrival in 1828) in a dark little chamber without any human contact besides a dark-cloaked man who would bring him bread and water. Hauser would spend the next five years with the people of Nuremberg, where he became just as much an exploitable oddity of humanity as a man-child to impart their beliefs and knowledge on. Hauser, all the while, would attempt to take in everything people tried to give him.
Werner Herzog attacks the character of Kaspar Hauser like a director watching a child grow up. The "wild child" persona, which François Truffaut had captured remarkably five years earlier with L' Enfant Sauvage, seems like a character automated into a filmic understanding like that of a toddler, but Herzog, much unlike Truffaut, almost feels the need to be as exploitive of the "child" as those he uses to react. Herzog, though toning down his irrationality in Every Man for Himself and God Against All, seems willing to bring himself down to the same level as his characters.
No scene better acknowledges this relationship between Herzog and his eccentrics than a carnival scene in Every Man for Himself and God Against All. Here he uses a showman to introduce the oddities found in the 19th Century "freak show" tent. The showman is meticulous in the introduction of each person, his so-called three mysteries of human kind, and even indulges in a prologue of "freaks" (Herzog, in almost every film, chooses to have a textual prologue with little emphasis on the story but instead on the style; for this film, he writes: "Don't you hear that horrible screaming all around you -- that screaming men call silence?"). But the true artistic paradox for Herzog and the showman are the subjects, the freaks. He introduces a midget king (possibly referencing Even Midgets Started Small), a music playing native (possibly referencing Aguirre: The Wrath of God) and Kaspar Hauser. The general audience looks on in deadly silence as they view the showman's/Herzog's peculiar subjects. The scene closes with a shot of a monkey and a horse -- foreshadowing the carnival setting in Woyzeck where Herzog uses a monkey and a horse.
The choice of Bruno S. to play Kaspar Hauser serves as one of the finest non-professional casting choices in film history. Bruno S. was really a schizophrenic who had received beating at the hands of his parents. Like his cinematic counterpart, Bruno was considered to be stuck in the mind of a child. People on the sets of his two films with Herzog (Every Man... and Stroszek) have reported that he would need several hours of screaming to himself before he could begin shooting a scene. It is not hard to imagine that Bruno S. was tapping into his own primitive behavior in playing Kaspar Hauser.
The way Werner Herzog and Bruno S. capture the
culturalization or, for lack of a better word, socialization of Kaspar Hauser is probably
the most encouraging aspect to the film. Watching Hauser transgress from a dim product of
child mistreatment to an acceptable member of German society is probably one of the few
somewhat happy stories in a Herzog film. But, though it is no surprise to any Herzog fan,
he does allow the cynic to come out and give the story further detriment to what was
already a downbeat finale. As Kaspar Hauser begins to die of a second assassination
attempt on him, the wild child comes back out. The words that the people of Nuremberg have
taught him are lost as he bleeds not only blood but also his newfound socialization. The
Kaspar Hauser who had grunted to those around him upon arrival, now must grunt and groan
for his dying moments. And, with that, never tells who killed him. With this, Herzog has
given further question to the Kaspar Hauser story and further presses Hauser's place as an
(Dir: Fritz Lang, Starring Peter Lorre, Gustaf Gründgens, Otto Wernicke, Franz Stein, Theodor Loos, Friedrich Gnaß, Fritz Odemar, Theo Lingen, Leonard Steckel, Edgar Pauly, Günter Neumann, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut, and Georg John)
BY: DAVID PERRY
To play his elder director in 1963's Contempt, Jean-Luc Godard chose Fritz Lang, a long time idol of his. The German born director was 73 and had finally come to retiring as a director after 47 features. There is a great line that occurs when Lang meets Brigitte Bardot's Camille: she remarks that her favorite film of his was Rancho Notorious and he matter-of-factly replies, "I prefer M." Revisiting that 1931 film, it becomes easier to see why Lang would make that assertion -- from both the standpoint of style and storytelling, M really is his best work.
Rarely can a film take the credit for starting an entire subgenre, but M can take credit for ushering in serial killer films, the crime investigation genre, and the ever-so-loved film noir. M goes through so many narrative structure changes that it is easy to see how it can become the fodder for future generations of filmmakers.
Lang was a true father of horror films, and it is of no surprise that famed directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell have referred to a love for his German works -- and, it should be pointed out, that Hitchcock and Powell each had their own serial killer films with Psycho and Peeping Tom, respectively.
M came in at the heels of German Expressionism and, with sound films growing beyond comprehension, Lang was faced with a chance to meld styles and genres and create his own vision. The auteur theory was invented to refer to the works of Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Jean Renoir, but there is no doubt that the term could be used equally as well in relation to the works of Fritz Lang.
M, like most of his films, has the director's hand in nearly every creative touch -- this is especially true in Lang's later films, when he would actually film a close-up of his hand instead of the hands of his actors. And, like Metropolis' engagement with various cinematic toys, M works rather heavily with camera angles and chiaroscuro lighting that were rarities at the time. The directors extensive use of high and low angles, as well as overhead shots, has been the spark behind a long rumored tension between Lang and Orson Welles, who always took the credit for introducing extreme high and low angles into modern cinema.
When Lang frames his figures, he frames then in deep, dark blacks. Often, with dark backgrounds and dark clothing, the only thing that is visible in the entire frame is the character's face, which is sometimes even obscured by shadows. No shot shows this quite as well as the film's most recognizable shot, when Peter Lorre's Hans Beckert (based upon real life Dusseldorf serial killer Peter Kurten) checks his back in a mirror only to find the letter "M" chalked on his shoulder. The camera captures all blacks with only four whites: a lit building in the background, Beckert's face, its reflection, and the chalk white letter. Conversely, Lang chooses to open the film with a lily-white construction -- the first time the celluloid is sullied through a dark image is when Beckert's shadow walks into the frame and covers a bright white "Wanted" poster.
As previously stated, M was one of the earliest experiments with sound, especially in Germany. Lang was new to the medium with sound, but he made the most out of his new faculties. He even got to give a sound to his foreboding killer -- few audience members will hear Grieg's "Peer Gynt Suite" the same way after seeing M.
One particular revolution in sound is the way Lang creates the fear and anguish that comes with the disappearance of a child. Within the first 15 minutes of the film, one small girl is already dead, and the audience is left to painfully listen to the mother calling for her daughter as Lang cuts farther away from her apartment closing on a shot of the girl's balloon figure caught in power lines, far from her home with the faint sound of her mother echoing across the area.
He also gets to tighten the film with his sound, creating a demonstrative narration to his police scenes -- as they tell of their work to find the killer, Lang imposes images of the investigation on the audience. Those watching are not simply left to take the police commissioner for his words, the actual efforts are shown on the screen.
This style that Lang utilizes was nothing new, but it made for a more intriguing representation of the crime genre. With Dadaism came an expressionism that emphasized deliberate irrationality and the negation of tradition. Lang uses these ideals for all he could, especially in his climactic mob justice mock trial. He taps the idea that "art is a rehearsal for the unpleasant surprises," as social critic Morse Peckham described Dadaism.
Lang takes on the mob scene unlike any other in the film,
with long coverage shots that look over characters and actually delve into their emotions
without really asking them anything. The scene, injected with pathos and humor, feels
Dadaist in the way it seems non-staged, uncontrolled, and definitely irrational. The
uncouth characterizations found in the film seem well suited to the Dadaist implications
of irrationality -- these characters seem as irrational as their police and gangster
clichés call for. And Fritz Lang, with all his perfectionism at bay, stands as the most
irrational figure on the set.
|The Marriage of Maria Braun
(Dir: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Starring Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Löwitsch, Ivan Desny, Gisela Uhlen, Elisabeth Trissenaar, Gottfried John, Hark Bohm, George Byrd, Claus Holm, Günter Lamprecht, Anton Schiersner, and Isolde Barth)
BY: DAVID PERRY
[NOTE: Since this is more an analysis than a review of The Marriage of Maria Braun, major plot points including the end are given away. It is recommended that only be read after watching the film.]
Rainer Werner Fassbinder was the political activist of 1970's German society. In his handful of films, he always continued a disposition towards pushing his political feelings. The ideological side to cinema is rarely considered, though its place as propaganda is well known in history. Fassbinder was the Riefenstahl of the antifascist regime; he was, as even he put it, "a romantic anarchist." And he used his medium, the film medium, to pass out his ideological flyers and pamphlets.
One of his most politically active films -- not to mention most artistically viable -- was The Marriage of Maria Braun, his attempt to identify with his parents' generation in the years after World War II. Anton Kaes in his book From Hitler to Heimat: The Return of History as Film, delved into the question of Fassbinder's intentions unlike many film theorists. Kaes notes the way Fassbinder's generation, the one born directly after the fall of Hitler's Nazi regime, was without a way to completely understand the decisions their parents made. Having never experienced the years of Hitler and the Third Reich, Fassbinder and his contemporaries -- including Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog -- had to question their parents, those of the "Auschwitz generation," for the crimes to humanity that they supported. There was no question how Fassbinder felt about his parents' mistakes -- Fassbinder, unlike Wenders and Herzog, chose to impart his feelings onto the theatre screen.
Perhaps the most stunning reactionary moment in Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun is his attempt to convey his feelings on rearmament through sound and visuals. The first time a new German army is brought up is in a radio address by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in a dismissive sense -- Fassbinder, at this point, shows the German people inattentive to their leader's promise, they are more interested in getting something to eat then in noticing political decisions. Then, later in the film, Adenauer's voice again comes to the aural forefront as he begins to call for the rearmament of the German army -- once again, Fassbinder's feelings on the historical moment is told by his subjects: Maria Braun vomits.
The character of Maria Braun is an unusual choice for the times, though not for Fassbinder. She is a strong female character, willing to do anything to get exactly what she wants. However, there is never a question of her femininity in Fassbinder's film -- Maria Braun is not some femme fatale or shrinking violet in the reconstructing German society. It is not hard to believe that Rainer Werner Fassbinder had actually seen women like Mrs. Braun in his young life during that time. She is, above all things, a romantic hoping for the best. She strives to keep her family, her future, and her lifestyle. She fuels her aspirations through a knowing sexuality, but never really strays from her husband. Most people, when referring to the character, refer to Joan Crawford, but the closest person in the Hollywood elite would be Bette Davis, especially in All About Eve. One particular Maria Braun line comes to mind, and it even has that Joseph L. Mankiewicz zing to it: "I am the master of deception -- a capital tool by day, and by night an agent of the proletarian masses. The Mata Hari of the economic miracle."
Fassbinder often admitted that he preferred having women as his protagonists -- they were just more interesting. Fassbinder, who was openly gay, created a paradox out of his cinematic feminine mystique. Each lead actress in his BRD-Trilogie (in English, the FRG Trilogy or Federal Republic of Germany Trilogy), whom he places in the post-WWII German society, has a strength and a weakness to teeter on. The title characters of Lola and Veronika Voss, like Maria Braun, struggle with their lives after the Reich -- and Fassbinder, probably the cinematic equivalent of the Marquis de Sade in sadistic art, almost joyously presents their failure to succeed in living those lives.
The Marriage of Maria Braun came to Fassbinder after he joined many other German directors to film Germany in Autumn. That film, probably the most politically explosive film in intent since Medium Cool, was an experiment in showing how different people reacted to the 1977-78 RAF kidnappings and executions. Fassbinder was very critical of these terrorists, but was still willing to equate them to people currently in the news. For him, as he shows in a later film The Third Generation and as Anton Kaes puts it, "there is little ideological difference between the leftist terrorists and the rightist state."
Fassbinder, so happy with the final creation he and ten other German directors (including Volker Schlöndorff and Peter Schubert) made with Germany in Autumn, wanted to do another team production. His idea was a film on the "Auschwitz generation" called The Marriage of Our Parents. This idea would later become The Marriage of Maria Braun, and the time period would be tackled again with Lola and Veronika Voss. These films, documenting what is essentially his parents' generation, was so intriguing that Ingmar Bergman would later attempt to do the same. With Fanny and Alexander, The Best Intentions, Sunday's Children, and Private Confessions, Bergman made his own Fassbinder creations by looking objectively at his parents and grandparents. Especially in Private Confessions -- where Bergman documents his mother's extramarital affair -- Bergman taps the Fassbinder realism. Neither directors were known as neorealists -- their careers came long after the film style's breakthrough -- but they seem to be on the same spectrum of it. They were the romantic neorealists, those who were willing to rationalize the irrational. The main difference, though, was in Fassbinder's extreme political intents behind the creative process.
Perhaps the single most politically remarkable idea found in The Marriage of Maria Braun is a framing of the horrors found within the film. Fassbinder starts the film with an explosion and a picture of chancellor-turned- dictator Adolf Hitler and closes with another explosion and the images of West German chancellors Konrad Adenauer, Ludwig Erhard, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, and Helmut Schmidt all in black and white negatives. These images convey the idea that the rightwing leaders of the Federal Republic are no more better than their 1933-45 predecessor -- through their military and economic mistakes under the name of Christian Democracy, these chancellors were the political banes of Fassbinder's ideology (the only chancellor whom Fassbinder agreed with, Willy Brandt, is notably excluded from the closing images). Because of this, their faces are forever etched in cinema as mere cyclical followers of the Hitler tradition.
Fassbinder's Maria Braun is a fictional creation, but her counteraction with life seems all too realistic. That is possibly thanks to Fassbinder's decision to keep history constantly in the background of his story. While the subjects are going on with their attempts at existence, the history of the Federal Republic unfolds constantly. The presence of American forces in Berlin, the questionable jail term for Maria's husband from governmental disputes, and the Adenauer speeches keep a historical chronology to the postwar life of Maria Braun.
The digression of Fassbinder's protagonist is possibly the most impressive non-political aspect to the film. Maria changes from a caring wife to a deceptive vice over the course of the movie. In the end, she explodes in a dash of German glory -- Fassbinder chooses to use the West German win at the 1954 world soccer championship finals. As the camera shows Maria Braun's dead body, the radio announcer excitedly shouts, "Germany is master of the world." As Fassbinder plays this to his character's deaths, a sense of irony seeps in -- the reconstructed Germany is the "weltmeister," but the film's main subject is, well, dead.
This narrative decision seems all too intriguing now,
many years after Fassbinder's own death by suicide. What comes to mind in his demise is
that which is similarly reminiscent in the social digression of both Captain Willard in Apocalypse
Now and Maria Braun -- all three of these characters, real and fictional alike, have
stepped into the heart of darkness. Nietzsche probably put it best: "He who fights
with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze too long
into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."
(Dir: Fritz Lang, Starring Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Fritz Rasp, Theodor Loos, and Heinrich George)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Over the course of 74 years, Fritz Lang's Metropolis has proven to be one of the most influential films ever made. Its features have been found in films like Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, Alex Proyas' Dark City, and Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, just to name a few science fiction entries. And yet it never seems to age; despite some poorly chosen soundtrack accompaniment and some poor video transfers, Metropolis seems as important today as it ever has. Fritz Lang's perfect melding of cinematic art and innovation with undertones of sexual and political philosophy has made his film one of the cornerstones of the silent era, and, perhaps, of the entire history of cinema.
Caught between expressionism and the Neue Sachlichkeit, Fritz Lang was awaiting a new film to convey his cinematic ideals onto the screen. Lang visited New York in 1924 and his yearning to create the metropolitan wonderland (or, in other views, nightmare) from Thea con Harbou's novel meant using cinematic devices unknown to most directors at that time, German expressionists and American dramatists alike.
With his strong financial backing and Germany's belief in him as a filmmaker, Fritz Lang was able to involve some toys of the trade (as Orson Welles called the set of Citizen Kane, Lang's Metropolis set was "the biggest electric train set any boy ever had). His expert -- and often perfectionist -- mode of production created visuals that left people aghast then, yet still stand as something of note today despite innovations in computer gererated imagery. He used the Schüfftan process and super-imposed images, though it is the stop-motion photography that brings the most acclaim. His small models with the stop-motion photography lead to a view of the city unlike anything imaginable; with by-planes and skyscrapers, bridges and traffic, Lang's wonderland looks real even if the actual camera subjects were mere miniatures.
Fritz Lang's first impressions of New York were enough to make him devoted to a film of this vision. As his boat began to hit harbor, Lang is quoted as saying "I saw a street lit as if in full daylight by neon lights and topping them oversized luminous advertisements moving, turning, flashing on and off, spiraling -- something which was completely new and nearly fairy tale-like for a European in those days." His vision of New York made for some intriguing ideas for a movie; the decision to use his NY-inspired setting as a jumping point for a story of class struggles, something many socialist countries -- like their capitalist counterparts -- were fighting at that time, meant for a highly Germanic feel to the proceedings even if the visual association was that of America. The underworld workers, stepping in line seem mere kicks from goose-stepping in the same fashion of Prussian ancestors, and the upper-class sitting above have a certain attraction reminiscent of pre-revolution Frenchmen more than a century earlier.
While the fascist undertones are not necessarily part of the creative process Lang involved -- unlike the ideas that Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels imagined had been in Lang's mind -- the streamlined techniques are present. His resolve to make everything seem so iconoclastic is a perfect way to balance the idealist message the film tries to convey. Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert once wrote: "Some of the ideas in Metropolis seem echoed in Leni Riefenstahl's pro-Hitler Triumph of the Will -- where, of course, they have lost their irony."
Columbia University professor Andreas Huyssen tackled another side of Metropolis in a 1988 essay called "The Vamp and the Machine." Huyssen, in his struggle with the long unnoticed tones of Lang's film, notes that there is a great deal of sexual symbolism found in the movie. "The fears and perceptual anxieties emanating from ever more powerful machines," Huyssen writes, "are recast and reconstructed in terms of the male fear of female sexuality, reflecting, in Freudian account, the male's castration anxiety."
Huyssen has tapped onto a facet in Metropolis rarely looked at, especially by male social critics, and allowed a new view to be found in Lang's work. The way the film uses its "vamp" machine to balance its "virgin" human reflects the male fears of any open sexuality in women. When Maria is a human, she is chaste and loving; when she is a machine, she is devious and destructive. She stands as two different threats -- in flesh she threatens the system, in metal she threatens civilization.
And yet, Lang does not retract his creation --
unsurprisingly the robotic creation of a male scientist -- but instead uses it. By
employing the male fear of a strong female -- especially one so frank in her sexual
attraction -- Lang creates a secondary fear not seen at first glance; he, like the robot,
uses a seductive dance to get the audience to turn their heads in anticipation. And then,
in cinematic fashion that has carried on for decades, Lang allows for an exorcism of the
demon for a return to a real and unquestionably virtuous moral.
|Wings of Desire
(Dir: Wim Wenders, Starring Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk, Curt Bois, Nams Martin Stier, Elmar Wilms, Sigurd Rachman, Beatrice Manowski, and Lajos Kovács)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire is possibly one of the single most intriguing looks at the film medium. It is an artistic form free of the pretenses of reality -- what happens in a movie never has to be grounded: it's that beloved suspension of disbelief that filmmakers use constantly. People go to see movies for the catharsis, whether to be intrigued, enlightened, or entertained. Movies are made so that those in the audience can live lives vicariously through their cinematic counterparts. The character Fatty in Edward Yang's Yi Yi (A One and a Two...) remarks that movies are relevant because they allow people to live "two times as much life" through what they experience through films. He couldn't be more correct.
Wings of Desire is just as much about "taking it all in" (as Pauline Kael effectively titled one of her film criticism books) as any movie showing people sitting in a theatre watching a movie. For Wenders' film, however, the watchers are not the people in a crowded theatre, they are ethereal beings. The angels of Wings of Desire have spent centuries watching people (much more than two-times as much life in the Yang dictum) -- they have viewed the human experience from a distance, not one of length but of existence. The two angels who walk the streets of Berlin in the film have come to know the events in human life without every actually coming into contact with these events themselves. They are the ultimate vicarious viewers.
And Berlin is definitely the city to wander if in need of emotions to feel. In 1987, when the film was released, Berlin was still divided into two halves by the Berlin Wall and the constant memory of World War II had failed to be flushed out of Berliners' minds. In one of the film's most meaningful scenes, the angels, Damiel (Ganz) and Cassiel (Sander), come to a film set to watch and listen to the cast and crew. There's the Holocaust survivor wondering if anyone else on the set had seen the horrors he was privy to, the elderly German lady remembering the destruction of a war torn Berlin (Wenders then uses the old cinematic trick of stock footage to show a bombed home with a woman taking care of sheets from the broken wall in her home), and the small child willing to gloss over history with completely innocuous revisions of Hitler and a double.
Robert Koller and Peter Becken in an essay called "Wings of Desire: Between Heaven and Earth" criticize this scene as Wenders "searching for ways that will give the past significance, but in the process runs the danger of reducing the significance to the status of the special effects and set design." But that is not he probable interest of Wenders and screenwriter Peter Handke: their set is a continued realization of the film's central conceit, of the relation between life and film. The easy notation is that the scene is set at a film set and therefore is at the beginning of the relationship, but there is far more below the surface. These characters, their setting, and the emotions caught within are all part of the idea of people's lives (i.e. history, or the history of Berlin in this case) living through film with a slight sense of artifice.
In this scene, Wenders invokes the old-style Hollywood cinematography (through shots of people from low angles and smoking -- almost to the point of a film noir feeling), the Robert Altman sound design (with conflicting sounds moving across the board and keeping the audience at bay), and the point of a film's reliance of replication (as seen in the ability of one character to continue taking hats from a costuming box seemingly without a bottom). All these reflect the artificiality of cinema, but meanwhile Wenders and Handke continue with their references to history: the noir shots are of people in Nazi uniforms, the sounds are of people remembering the war, and the repetition continues onto a set of people in a bleak sleeping quarters. The scene is followed with another reminder, this time of the generation free from all this -- Wenders and cinematographer Henri Alekan move the camera to the innocent faces of small Berlin children. A paradox is created -- not only are these children who have not completely learnt of their country's past, but also a reminder of Wim Wenders' (born 1945) and Peter Handke's (born 1942) generation who had to grow up in political and social turmoil because of their parents' indiscretions.
Outside of the two angels, Wenders and Handke turn to two drifters who seem to be the crux of the film's philosophical side. The first, and most recognizable, is actor Peter Falk playing himself. He seems to be the only adult able to feel the presence of these angels in Berlin (he is visiting to make a Columbo-like movie, hence the film set) and the breaking point to turn Damiel towards "taking the plunge" and becoming a mortal. At one point, he muses, "If I didn't have it, I'd miss it." Life, existence, mortality -- Falk does not simplify the statement to a meaning but instead lets it sit in a trench of ambiguity. Later he tells Damiel of the simple but wonderful parts of the human existence: drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, rubbing cold hands. If he were an angel (Kolker and Becken seem to believe that he might have once been an angel), Peter Falk would feel slighted of the lives he can watch but cannot experience.
The other supporting observer is an old wanderer, fittingly named Homer. He walks the streets taking in the way Berlin has changed since the war and relaxing in the library. The apropos name comes to light with his continuous references to telling stories -- he, like the Latin poet Homer (and the reporter in Fellini's And the Ship Sails On), wants to tell his stories to all. At one point, he even call on the Muse and turns to the dactyl hexameter that mark the writings of Latin poets: "Nenne mir Muse, den armen unsterblichein sanger der." Perhaps the most saddening aspect of the film, though, is the fact that he never really gets to tell the story to anyone outside of the angels and they are only privy to the tales because they can hear his thoughts.
Wim Wenders ends the film dedicating it to three other filmmakers with the title "Dedicated to all former angels, especially Yasujiro, François, and Andrej." In this title, Wenders takes the time to salute three of his favorite filmmakers, two of whom stray from the central purposes of most of Wenders films. A more predictable trio would have been Alain Resnais, Federico Fellini, and Andrzej Wadja, all of whom used the same relationships between history and cinema. François Truffaut and Andrej Trakovsky had both recently died when Wenders began making Wings of Desire, so his emotions were probably particularly turned to those lost "saints of cinema" and their inclusion does not feel as weird as they would have otherwise.
However, the addition of Yasujiro Ozu makes all the sense in the world. Ozu's masterpiece, Tokyo Story, could be considered the Japanese equivalent of Wings of Desire, though it uses Ozu's more distanced and cold style. Each of the movies examine the way life goes on after their respective nations lost World War II, but how things never really return to what had been in the antebellum German and Japanese lifestyle. Tokyo Story, which emphasizes the familial relationship to history more than the relationship of the observer in Wenders' film, and Wings of Desire, which is far more cinematic and stylized than the simple detachment of Ozu's film, relate the post-war Axis Powers' reconstruction to a point almost relative to the neo-realism Vittorio De Sica had pushed directly after the war with films like The Bicycle Thief.
Wings of Desire has become a classic of romance
in the years since its release, but any astute viewer can easily see that it is about so
much more than the nearly impossible relationship between an angel and a mortal (a fact
that Wings of Desire's remake, City of Angels, failed to grasp). The
movie is in part about displacement and the desire for emotional connections, it is about
the forgotten and remembered history, it is about the unification of a divided Germany and
of a divided race, and, probably above all, Wings of Desire is about the
universality of cinema and its ability to allow people to live multiple lives (from
multiple cultures) at the movies.